Tag Archives: curriculum materials

Pondering Teachers as Curriculum Designers

A few weeks ago I posed the following question:

Is it the job of teachers to design their own curriculum?

I only had one taker, @Mr_Kunkel. Here’s what he had to say:

If there was just one really good curriculum I would say sure. There isn’t. The problem with mass marketed curriculum is that it never meets the diverse needs of all classrooms. I have never found a textbook that was great. They all try too hard to do too much.

I think the power of what we do here on the interwebs, the MTBoS, is that we crowd source the curriculum. We are all capable of coming up with some good lessons. I think the curriculum of the future will be a good indexing of all these lessons that teachers are creating. Some how it would be great to combine them and track them by CCSS. Some people are trying that using their virtual filing cabinets. Actually, a really good virtual filling cabinet would be my ideal curriculum. Forget the books.

I knew I wanted to revisit this topic, but every day I kept putting it off, mostly because I’m still not entirely sure what my own answer is to the question.

While I kept pondering, some of the folks I follow on Twitter serendipitously took up this topic a few days ago. Here’s what they had to say:




And then today I came across (and participated in) this conversation that hit on the issue from a slightly different angle:




It’s nice to see others struggle with some of the same things I do with regards to this issue.

It seems clear that curriculum materials are wanted and needed, whether they are written by publishers or other educators. Many consider them a valuable resource. As @crstn85 points out, “a good book has logical order/units.” Someone has laid the groundwork for the teachers. They’re not starting completely from scratch.

We then get into the gray area of the “implemented curriculum” as @mpershan puts it. What is changing from the written curriculum as the teachers prepare their lesson plans and teach the lesson to their students?

From what I’ve read, the teachers I follow on Twitter couldn’t fathom using curriculum materials as they are written. I don’t disagree with them, but I am curious how many teachers do put full faith in their curriculum materials and use them verbatim. I also wonder if any districts require this.

I’m reminded of Response to Intervention. One of its key tenets is fidelity of instruction. If you have fidelity then it means teachers are “consistently and accurately applying a research-based curriculum.” One implication of this is that teachers need to avoid contamination or pollution, meaning they don’t pull together materials from a variety of instructional resources. In order for RtI to succeed, teachers need to get with the program and stick with the program.

I’d like to add a second question that is of particular interest to me, how much effort is it taking for teachers, individually and collectively, to adapt the materials they are using? As I wrote in the second Twitter discussion, I feel that numerous wheels are being reinvented in numerous classrooms across the country. I felt this within my own school district. No need to even think about the rest of the state or country.

For example, I taught 4th grade in Texas. This is one of the two years that students learn Texas history. The other year is 7th grade. This is important to note because most of the instructional and resource materials available outside of our state-adopted textbook were often written for 7th graders, not 4th graders.

The teachers across my district all had the same social studies standards, and yet each 4th grade team in each school was reinventing the wheel on a weekly basis designing lessons to teach those standards. When I would talk to these teachers at trainings, I would hear about the different types of lessons going on in different schools. It frustrated me because it felt really inefficient that we were planning in such isolation.

My last district had 33 schools. It seems ludicrous to think that the 4th grade teams across the district were creating 33 campus-specific lesson plans for teaching the exact same social studies standards. And I can assure you that these lesson plans were across the spectrum in terms of quality.

Now extend this idea to the entire state of Texas. We have roughly 4,000 elementary schools in this state. Assuming that all of the teachers on a given 4th grade team plan together, which I can guarantee you they don’t, that means there are potentially 4,000 or more different lesson plans being written each week to teach the exact same social studies standards.

Let’s say it takes 1 hour to plan a week’s worth of social studies lessons. That means 4,000 man hours are being spent each week to cover the same standards. A school year’s worth (36 weeks) of lesson plans at one school may be 36 hours of work, but with everyone reinventing the wheel at their own campus, this jumps to 144,000 man hours. That’s a huge jump!

I know I’m making some assumptions here, and my numbers are not precise, but that doesn’t change the fact that when a lot of people duplicate effort like this, it adds up. My motto as a teacher, which I was able to live up to with varying degrees of success, was work smarter, not harder. This redundant time spent lesson planning sounds very much like the latter.

One idea that comes to mind to save time is to do what @j_lanier recommends: put together a crack team of great teachers together, give them time to write, and you will get great instructional materials. Districts have done this. Even the state of Texas has done this. And it has failed.

The state of Texas failed pretty spectacularly in fact. Several years ago, districts across the state started adopting a program called CSCOPE. The idea was to give teachers sets of exemplar lessons for teaching all of their content. However, it was also meant to become a bank of lessons. I’m not sure of the logistics, but the idea was that as other wonderful lessons were written, they could be added to the CSCOPE library. Teachers could then pick and choose which great lesson to use in their classroom.

Unfortunately, this aspect of the program never materialized. There was no choice, just the one set of lessons. Teachers were handed their CSCOPE curriculum, and they were told to teach it the way it was written. These were well written lessons, so why change them? This backfired big time, and in 2013 CSCOPE was eliminated.

So the state level may not be the best place to create and distribute quality lessons. Maybe it should be done district by district? Making 1,000 sets of lesson plans sounds like a lot (this is about how many school districts there are in Texas), but it’s significantly better than the 4,000 sets I was describing earlier. The benefit here is that districts can tailor the lessons a bit more to the needs of their population of students.

At this point I can really only speak to my experience, but I have seen this backfire as well. As I said, my last school district only had 33 elementary schools, a far, far cry from 4,000. The district provided scope and sequences and lesson plans for all subjects, and yet teachers were still resistant to using them. The instructional materials still felt like they were coming from “on high” and didn’t reflect the realities within our own classrooms, even though the people who wrote the materials were skilled teachers from our own district.

So I guess we’re back to the idea of writing lessons plans school by school and teacher by teacher. And then what it comes down to is the amount of time each teacher has to gather materials (textbooks, workbooks, lesson plans found on blogs, etc.), review those materials, and craft lesson plans that meet the needs of their students. And we all know how much free time teachers have to do this.

And it’s not just about time actually. It’s also about how resourceful the teacher is in locating quality materials and how strong the teacher is at making important pedagogical decisions when picking and choosing and tying it all together. This definitely leads to variability in the quality of the resulting lessons. Which leads us back to wondering if teachers really should be curriculum designers.

And maybe there just isn’t a right answer to this question. I feel like I’ve talked in circles and I’m no closer to having a clear idea of what I think the answer is. If you’ve made it this far in my post, thank you for following me down the rabbit hole. The great thing about having this blog is that I can revisit topics again. This is clearly a topic that demands more attention, and maybe next time I’ll be one or two steps closer to an answer.


End of an Era

My digital curriculum job is dead. Long live my digital curriculum job.

As of January 7…or maybe later this week…or maybe retroactively January 1, I will no longer work for Time To Know. It’s the end of an era.

Time To Know has joined forces with McGraw-Hill Education, and as part of that relationship, I am becoming a McGraw-Hill employee. In case you didn’t know, Time To Know is a digital curriculum company based out of Tel Aviv, Israel. Most of the employees are located in Israel, and they will continue working for Time To Know. Those of us working in the United States, however, were offered to McGraw-Hill. Sort of like a dowry. Thankfully they accepted us.

In the end, I think it’s to my benefit to work for a company based out of the US, not to mention a corporation like McGraw-Hill which is able to offer employee benefits a start up like Time To Know could not afford. But before I get all chummy with my new corporate overlords, I’d like to reflect back on the past three and a half years I worked at Time To Know. It’s been an incredible experience (for the most part), and I can only hope that my time spent at McGraw-Hill will be just as rewarding.

Top 5 Reasons I Enjoyed Working at Time To Know

1. Discourse

One of the reasons I loved this job immediately is because I got to argue with people about teaching and learning. In my years as a public school teacher, I found that most of my co-teachers did not like it when I challenged their ideas. Not that I went out of my way to say they sucked or anything. I just naturally enjoy talking out lesson ideas and figuring out how to improve them. That means if I disagree with something and think that it’s not going to be best for the students, then I will stand up and say so. Yeah, that didn’t go over so well usually.

The Original US Team

No grudges. No matter how intense the meeting, we always came out as friends.

But at Time To Know? They encouraged it! I remember numerous heated meetings when I first started working with my team. The best part is that we knew that we weren’t arguing because we were mad at each other, but because we wanted to design the best instruction we could for the teachers and students. The culture at Time To Know encouraged passion and collaboration in a way I never experienced as a teacher.

I’ll be honest, you needed a thick skin to survive on my team. The first time I had to present a lesson I wrote, I was defensive, I was flushed, and my pulse was going a mile a minute. It didn’t help that the review meetings were nicknamed “shredding” because it was often the case that they would offer so much feedback that your lesson felt shredded to ribbons and you were left with a lot of rewrites. Those meetings, tough as they were at times, taught me a great deal about the power of collaboration. You can accomplish amazing things if you can get people in a room who believe in the same mission, speak their minds, and honestly listen to each other.

2. Travel

As a public school teacher, I was lucky if I got to travel to Dallas or Houston for a conference. At Time To Know I’ve traveled to Dallas and San Antonio, but I’ve also traveled to Israel, New York City, Ohio, and North Carolina. At this point I’m a bit tired of travel for work, but boy was it a great run while it lasted. Traveling to Israel is probably the highlight of my years at Time To Know. If I’m counting correctly, I’ve traveled there 5 times and I had a blast each time. Of course I was there for work, but I fit in plenty of sightseeing to make it worth it.

Jerusalem- The Old City

To be honest, I didn’t know much about Israel before I took this job, and it was never on my radar as a place I’d ever like to visit, but I have to say, if you ever have the chance to go, you should definitely take it. It’s surreal to drive down the highway and see every other exit is a place from the Bible. The country is just sopping wet with history. I’ve been to the Sea of Galilee, Nazareth, Megiddo (the site of Armageddon!), and Jerusalem, to name a few places. The great thing is that it isn’t a large country so you can see a lot in a few days.

Floatin' along

Floating at the Dead Sea while on a work trip. One of the coolest things I’ve ever done!

Be sure to go to the Dead Sea. It’s unbelievable. No matter how hard you try, you just cannot sink. Your body wants to float and it will fight you. Even trying to tread water, you’ll feel your feet being pulled out from under you and up to the surface of the water. There’s something magical about it that captured a feeling I haven’t had since I was a kid.

The Bianca - the most amazing pizza I have ever tasted

The Bianca – the most amazing pizza I have ever tasted

And of course eat plenty of delicious food. It’s one of my favorite reasons to travel after all, and Israel is one of my favorite places to eat.

3. The La-Las


The La Las

In my office in Austin, there were at one time 6 of us on the math team and 4 amazing ladies on the Language Arts team, nicknamed the La-Las. I can’t imagine what this job would have been like without them. Whereas the math team was usually quiet and deep in thought, the La-Las could usually be heard laughing and telling stories. I’ve never met four people who enjoy working with each other as much as they do. Their specialty was bringing the whole office together for good food and good company. They organized birthday lunches, taco salad potlucks, Thanksgiving feasts, and white elephant gift exchanges. And they made great traveling companions. We’d meet up every evening in the hotel lounge to decompress and laugh together.

4. My Team


The Math Team – Pure Awesome

We tried coming up with a nickname like the La-Las. We were the Mathinators or something. It didn’t stick. And it was kind of dumb. We just weren’t as cool as the La-Las.


Every time we released a lesson, we placed it on the Go-Go Wall. (Our office building was next door to a strip club, and their business office used to be in our office space. Super classy!)

What we lacked in clever names, we more than made up for in pure awesome.  Over the past three years the team I led produced nearly 100 digital math lessons. And when I say lesson, I mean an hour or more of content that involves a wide variety of interactions in the classroom from whole class discussion to individual exploration. I’m proud of the work we did. We were able to meet increasingly tight deadlines without sacrificing quality.

5. The Product

I know this should probably be number one on my list of things to remember about this job, but honestly all of my other experiences trump this. As much as I love our product, I’ve always been a bit sad that I’m making lessons I don’t get to teach myself. I know several thousand students have encountered lessons I’ve designed, which is just baffling to think about, but I can’t help but selfishly think, “I want to be the one teaching those kids with our curriculum!”

I guess that speaks well of our curriculum that it’s something I want to use myself. Nowadays there are so many digital products vying for students’, teachers’, and schools’ attention. Many are criticized for isolating students by plugging them into individualized programs. There’s also a fear that technology products are trying to replace teachers. Check out Dan Meyer’s latest blog post for an example from a charter school. What I love about our curriculum is that it has always been designed to keep the teacher as an important figure in the class. We aim to augment with technology, not take away or diminish.

And that’s all I want to say about our curriculum because I don’t want anyone to think this is turning into a commercial. Suffice it to say, I’m proud of the lessons I’ve written, and I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of writing them.

Looking Ahead

T2K-MHE Team

Here’s to great success as McGraw-Hill and Time To Know join forces.

While my time as a curriculum developer at Time To Know is over, I embark on a new journey as a curriculum developer at McGraw-Hill…which is to say I’m basically doing the same job as before but my paycheck comes from someone else. I’m thankful that McGraw-Hill has faith in the work we’ve been doing, and they’re allowing us to continue without a lot of interference or unreasonable demands. If all goes well, I’ll continue to develop math lessons to be proud of, and it will be a good long while before I have to write another post like this one.

The Medium is the Message: (4) Affordances of Print Textbooks

In the previous post in this series, I analyzed a few of the constraints of print textbooks. Today I would like to look at some of the affordances. Remember, an affordance is a design feature that enables. In this case, what about a textbook enables a teacher to teach? Enables students to learn?

Affordances – Print Textbooks

  • The scope, sequence, and pacing are done for you. Before you ever got the book, someone made difficult decisions about what topics to include in the book and how many lessons to devote to each topic.
    • On the surface I know this rubs some teachers the wrong way. “How could someone else know better than me how to plan for my students?” My answer is someone with a lot more time than you to devote to planning the scope and sequence. One of my first posts talked about the differences in workload between being a teacher and being a curriculum designer.  Teachers can definitely be curriculum designers, quite effective ones in fact. But they are required to also do a lot of other things that make demands on their time. Teachers have to make many more decisions daily about how to use their time wisely and think about the trade offs that entails. A curriculum designer, on the other hand, needs to be good at curriculum design, and that’s about it. There are not many more facets to their job. As a teacher, it can give me peace of mind to know that one aspect of my job is already done. Now, as the expert of my particular class, I can and should make modifications to suit the needs of my class, but the textbook scope and sequence at least gives me a starting place.
    • This point might be even more important for novice teachers. They haven’t taught an entire year of anything yet. They might have ideas of how long to spend on various subjects, but they’ve never seen it in action. Having a plan from a textbook can help those teachers as they develop a sense of appropriate pacing. “Let’s see, I have spent 4 weeks on fractions. The textbook has 2 weeks’ worth of content. Maybe I should be moving on…”
  • Practice, practice, practice. For math textbooks in particular, print textbooks are basically just pages and pages of problem sets.
    • Again, going back to the demands on a teacher’s time, it can be quite a time saver to have so many problems already written. And you can do whatever you want with them. If you’re determined to skip the textbook and teach math concepts through exploration and discussion, go for it! But you might realize one day that your students just need some practice before taking a test or moving on to a new topic. Lucky for you, your textbooks are sitting there full of problems that your students can use to practice. While it might not be a central component of your instruction, don’t ignore its value as a resource.
  • Textbooks as a reference. Speaking of textbooks as a resource, they can be a valuable reference source for teachers and students.
    • While textbooks can be heavy, that doesn’t stop them from being portable. Students can take them home and use them as a reference as they are working on homework and don’t have access to their teacher. While the worked out examples at the front of a lesson can hinder teaching, they can enable students to figure out why they’re getting stuck in their work. Looking at an example, walking through the steps, and looking at any diagrams might help the student figure out where they are going wrong.
    • Textbooks also usually include glossaries, which I know helped me numerous times in high school when I needed to look up the meaning of various literary terms.
    • My math textbooks also included answers for the odd-numbered problems. Obviously the teacher avoided assigning us many odd-numbered problems, but assigning a few is helpful. If I solve those, check my work, and see that I’m right, then I feel more confident moving to the even-numbered problems. If I see that I’m not correct, I can keep going back to my work until I figure out what I was doing wrong. This requires some motivation on the part of the student, but the fact is that this feature does enable this interaction to happen.
  • Modeling questioning and differentiation techniques.
    • I mentioned in my last post in this series that textbooks are light on teaching. One thing they do provide, that I have to give credit for, is modeling questioning techniques. Throughout the teacher’s edition, there are questions the publisher suggests the teacher ask at many different points of the lesson. This does not mean the teacher can’t come up with questions on his/her own, but they are a resource that can help improve the discussion. Not all teachers are created equal. Some are great at fostering discussion with rich questions, and others honestly need help.
    • Textbooks also usually offer multiple resources for differentiation. It may take the form of differentiated practice activities. For a teacher strapped for time, it is awfully convenient to have three leveled worksheets for every lesson. The teacher’s edition also usually includes suggestions for small group activities that can be done with different ability groups. These activities tend to be hands-on and provide more pedagogical guidance than I’ve seen anywhere else in the textbook.
  • Textbooks are usually just one component.
    • If you’ve ever witnessed a textbook adoption going on at your school, you’ve likely seen the large display cases advertising one textbook. While the textbook might be the core of a publisher’s curriculum, they are by no means the only component. Textbook publishers tend to offer a multitude of additional workbooks and resources to accompany their books. I’ve met some teachers who ignore the textbook, but they rely heavily on specific supplemental components. These components may include additional practice workbooks, additional hands-on activities, songs on CD, games, differentiated instruction/practice, suggestions for working with English language learners, etc. All together, these resources provide teachers additional choices for how they work with their students.
  • Cost = $0
    • This isn’t entirely true. Someone is footing the bill for textbooks, but the important point is that it is not the teacher. (I’m speaking from my experiences teaching in Texas. Maybe this does not apply where you live.) It doesn’t mean you have to love them, but you can’t deny that you are getting a lot of materials for free. The system where the state pays for textbooks enables every teacher and every student to have instructional materials in their hands.

So there you have it, some of the constraints and affordances of print textbooks. If you have any more you’d like to share, feel free to do so in the comments. I’d love to hear what other people come up with. In the next post in this series, I will take a look at print materials that are not textbooks.

The Medium is the Message: (3) Constraints of print textbooks

I was going to do a post on print materials in general, but then I realized there are two types of print materials that I want to discuss separately. The first is print textbooks, which are ubiquitous in public education. The other is print curriculum that is not a textbook. If you’re not sure what I mean by that, bear with me. I’ll get to it in a post or two.

So, without further ado, let’s dive deeper into the design of print textbooks. What design choices were made intentionally or unintentionally that yield the stack of books you may or may not be using in your classroom?

I’ll start with the constraints. Remember, a constraint is something that hinders. What features of a textbook hinder the users? How do they hinder teaching? Hinder learning? Hinder understanding?

Constraints – Print Textbooks

  • Content is fixed at the time of printing.Once a print run is complete, there’s no going back. What is written in the book will always be written in the book (at least until a new edition is published).
    • The teacher cannot change or update any information in the book. If she finds an error or an extra example to share with her class, she cannot modify the book in any way. Sure, she can take the effort to add a sticky note inside her book, but is she responsible for doing that to every textbook in her class? What happens if sticky notes fall out of some books and not others? Fundamentally, the teacher has no control over the content in the book itself.
    • Even more troublesome, the students can’t make any changes either. Textbooks are knowledge students can hold in their hands, but they cannot change or challenge it in any way. This may yield the unintended consequence of altering a student’s perception of knowledge, where it comes from, and whether knowledge is something that can be created. The textbook for each subject is like a bible for that subject. It’s the students’ job to…what? Read it? Memorize it? It isn’t obvious from looking at a textbook that nearly every subject is in flux in some way. There are people out in the world studying new facets of every subject, expanding our knowledge, and even creating brand new subjects to study and learn more about.
  • Textbooks are heavy.Textbooks are printed on hundreds of sheets of paper per book and they usually have a hard cover to help them last for many years. As a result, they’re heavy!
    • They are portable in the abstract, but in reality textbooks are a pain to transport. They are much larger than paperback novels and much heavier. Carrying one around can be a nuisance. Carrying around a backpack full of textbooks is even worse. The unintended consequence of this is that some students may choose not to take them home for homework. Maybe it’s not cool to be seen weighted down by a full backpack. Or maybe you have an instrument case, gym bag, and backpack to lug around. You might start making some difficult decisions about what “must” come home with you because you don’t want to carry all of it. Or maybe you don’t go home right away, or you walk home, or you ride a bike. Carrying textbooks in any of those situations makes you feel like a pack mule, and on a bike it may even be dangerous.
  • Textbooks are light…on teaching.
    • Let’s consider a math textbook. If I open my textbook to teach a lesson, I get very little support with how I should actually be teaching the concept. Sure, there are a few worked out problems at the front of each lesson and those are followed by various problem sets. Great. But how do I teach the lesson? What should I be doing and saying with my students so that they build a strong understanding? The teacher manual may include a few questions you can ask your students about the worked out problems, but beyond that there is very little pedagogical guidance. The unintended consequence of this is that it reinforces a transmission model of education. Each lesson contains information that the teacher needs to transmit to the students. By reviewing the worked out problems together, probably in a lecture format, the students are supposed to learn the skill(s) they need in order to succeed on the problem sets. Does success on problem sets mean you know math?
    • Now let’s consider a science book. Many science books I’ve seen and used are dense repositories of information. They may make great reference material, but what they imply about teaching science is an entirely different matter. The science textbook I used in my last school started out each chapter with directions for a hands-on experiment. That sounds great, but all that taught my students was that experiments are already written; you just need to follow the directions. This leads directly into numerous science fair projects that are mislabeled as experiments. They usually turn out to be demonstrations – the end result was known before the student ever started working. Beyond the science “experiment” at the beginning of the chapter there are pages and pages of text and illustrations. What does this tell me as a teacher? My students have a lot of information to learn! What does this tell my student? Science = reading. Lots and lots of reading. Usually followed by reading comprehension questions.
  • Textbooks are not good at controlling information.
    • Imagine a textbook writer. She has the best of intentions. She wants to present a really meaty problem. She creates a diagram to accompany the problem just in case students need it. Unfortunately, she has little control over the presentation of the diagram. Most likely it will be printed mere centimeters from the problem. Rather than construct their own model or diagram, students will assume they need to use the one provided in the book, even if that wasn’t the writer’s intent. The same goes for worked out problems at the front of the lesson. The answer is usually right there on the page. Students are just going through the motions everyday to recreate the answers in the book.

That’s all I have on constraints for now. In the next post in this series I’m going to take a look at the affordances of print textbooks. After talking about how textbooks hinder teaching and learning, it may surprise you to find out there are actually features that enable the same.

The Medium is the Message: (2) Laying out my perspective

So what started as an interesting topic I’d like to entertain is quickly ballooning into something that will likely take me several blog posts to thoroughly explore. I’m okay with that. If you ever meet me in person you’ll learn that I can (and like to!) talk at length about education matters, so really this is no surprise to me.

Source: Amazon

I’ll be up front that I’m going to approach my analysis from a user-centered design perspective. If you are unfamiliar with user-centered design, I encourage you to check out the provided link for additional information. I also highly recommend the book The Design of Everyday Things by Donald Norman. It was one of the first books I read in grad school, and it had a tremendous impact on my thinking with regards to designing curriculum materials and instructional technologies. Here’s a quick summary of user-centered design from the Wikipedia article I linked to:

“The chief difference from other product design philosophies is that user-centered design tries to optimize the product around how users can, want, or need to use the product, rather than forcing the users to change their behavior to accommodate the product.”

Now, I’m not saying that any curriculum materials were designed according to this perspective, but they are definitely worth analyzing from this perspective. The end users – teachers – often have very strong opinions about the materials they use with their students. Throughout my posts you’ll hear me refer repeatedly to constraints and affordances. These are key ideas from Donald Norman’s book. I’m probably not using the terms exactly as Donald Norman did, so I’ll give my working definitions.

A constraint is something that hinders. For example, a constraint of a wooden pencil is that it has a finite supply of lead. Once you have exhausted the lead, you need a new pencil.

An affordance on the other hand is something that enables. For example, the casing of a mechanical pencil enables you to use the same pencil continuously because you can add lead any time you run out. (Granted this quickly raises the constraint that if you run out and have no supply of extra lead, then your mechanical pencil becomes just as useless as the wooden pencil.)

In addition to constraints and affordances, I also foresee myself talking about assumptions and unintended consequences. I’m writing this post before I’ve written any of the meat of this blog series, but I’m interested in both topics so I’m sure they will come up as appropriate. For example, what assumptions does a textbook publisher have about the teachers who will use its product? Or, what are the unintended consequences of introducing digital curriculum materials in a classroom?

And with that question, I’d like to close this post with a quote that sums up the work of curriculum designers:

“The best laid schemes of mice and men go often awry…”

Or if you have a more cynical view of the relationship between publishers and teachers:

“No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.”

The Medium is the Message: (1) Taking a closer look at curriculum materials

Earlier this week I read a post on Dan Meyer’s blog where he proposes a hypothesis that print curriculum materials interfere with students’ and teachers’ ability to abstract while doing math.

“It should go without saying that if the contexts in your textbook are predigested with those symbols, tables, line drawings, and coordinates, we’re already in trouble. The context has already been abstracted and we can only hope that every student already understood how to apply that abstraction.

My hypotheses here is that this predigestion is a fundamental condition of print-based curricula and very hard to counteract.”

This led to an interesting question in the comments from Bryan Meyer that really resonated with me as an instructional designer. I’m going to summarize a bit, but the question he puts forward is whether the problem is inherently one of print curriculum specifically or prepackaged curriculum in general (regardless of delivery method).

“I’m just not sure that the release of pieces of a lesson should be in print (or video, or otherwise). Possible trajectories that students might take with a question/task/problem can be hypothesized, but never predicted with certainty. For this reason, I don’t see how we could ever prepare a scripted curriculum in this sense….it should always unfold in response to students and their ways of thinking.”

I didn’t want to reply to this and overtake Dan’s comments. It’s his blog after all, and he’s looking for feedback related more to the hypotheses he’s making this week about the ladder of abstraction. Instead I decided it would be better to address this on my own blog where I have all the space I want to write about it. Rather than dump all my thoughts in one post, my plan is to address various curriculum modes individually – print and digital – followed by my thoughts on prepackaged curriculum compared with “home-made” lessons by teachers.

In case you’re wondering about my ability to address these topics, I have experience on both sides of the issue. I’ve been on the side of the “consumer” buying and using curriculum materials when I taught in public school for 8 years. And now for a little over three years, I’ve been on the side of the “producer” creating commercial curriculum materials. My perspective has definitely expanded considerably over the past 11 years, and I’m excited to have the opportunity to stop and reflect on such an interesting issue.