Curriculum design or “It’s not HOW we communicate, but WHAT we communicate.”

My nerdy equation for curriculum design.

Over the last year or so, I’ve given a handful of talks to music educators about how I design curriculum. It is a process that I enjoy and feel that I’m fairly good at.

Without going into an hour-long explanation, let me start by saying that my entry into curriculum design was motivated by what I saw as a deficiency in quality curricular ideas that implemented technology. Too often, it seems like teachers spend more time focusing on software or hardware than on the musical concepts that those devices can help illuminate. In an early blog post, I said this was like “putting the (laptop) cart before the course.” Regardless of what technology you have access to, decisions regarding what is taught should come first – the rest comes later.

So, when developing lesson ideas, I use a three step process. I’ve spent entire clinics and class periods discussing these ideas, but I’m going to try my best to keep it short. You’ll have to read below the break to find out!

1. What values do I hold?

Considerations include:

  • What types of experiences do I want my students to have?
  • What is the best method for the student to present their information (webpage, podcast, paper, song)?
  • How can my students share their new knowledge with others?

2. What “stuff” do I have?

This is a crucial step. As I mentioned above, we cannot let our curricular design be clouded by new gadgets. Now, does that mean that we shouldn’t use new and awesome tools? Absolutely not! However, we have to understand what value these tools have in our larger educational goals.

We must remember that practically everything is a technology – from a computer, to a pencil, to the written alphabet! In fact, some educators have been concerned about every new writing technology dating back to the ballpoint pen. Even a new system of assessing and organizing students is a technology. The key here is to identify the tools that will make teaching what we want to teach easier and then continually refine the process.

Lastly, lots of educators make the mistake of looking outward for technology that they would love to have. They say, ‘If only I had xyz technology, then I would do awesome things!” This is the wrong approach. Sure, you can plan for the future, but often times, less is more. Enjoy the limitations of what you have, create awesome lessons that your kids excel at, and then the funding will come to you.

3. What BIG questions would I like to answer?

I’ve always found that focusing on large real world questions is the best way to capture both student and teacher interest. Through asking big questions, you can decide on what experiences and materials would help answer your question.

Notice that these questions are directed inwards, towards pedagogical considerations of the teacher. Usually, after I would ponder these questions, I would present one big question for my students to answer at the end of the unit. I found it to be useful in focusing everybody’s attention.

Some examples of big questions that I’ve worked to answer with my students:

  • How do I get my students to accept a wide variety of musical styles? (Result: Music as Identity)
  • How do I capitalize on our modern “Beatlemania”? (Result: Meet The Beatles)
  • How do I encourage curiosity about about our community in my classroom? (Result: Soundwalks)
  • How do I connect my students with the big ideas contained within NASA’s Golden Record? (Result: The Golden Record)

If you want some more sketches of my approach to curricular design, check out THIS post that I put up after my presentation at the 2011 Illinois Music Educators Conference.

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