Tag Archives: digital curriculum

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.