How I Create Curriculum

Some former students appeared in my Twitter followers last week. One reached out with a very complimentary direct message in which he described how he attributed my course to his success and the success of several friends. For context, they we my students in a range of “computer” course while they were in high school. It was a small school; they were my students several times as middle school and high school students. He is now a researcher in biomechanics, he also identified a computer scientist, and a data analyst in his gradating class.

He reached out a day for two later with the question, “How did you come up with your curriculum?” It was a serious question, and he suggested he and his classmates had a much different experience in computer courses in high school. I gave him a brief answer, but that led me to think more deeply about how I created the curriculum at the time, and I think there are some generalizations I can make that have driven my curriculum planning since I started in education in the early-1980’s. (I decided to become a teacher near the end of my sophomore year in high school during the 1980-1981.)

1) Interesting, relevant, important problems must focus curriculum. Curriculum should be grounded in the problems and activities of the real-world. Students are observers and participants in the world beyond school. They identify with some in that world, and they identify with a future role in that world. When students see they are studying problems they believe are important, they pay more attention. When students see they are demonstrating their learning in deliverable that resemble those created outside of school, they take them more seriously.

2) Skills and knowledge that are necessary for those problems are learned by students. In computer courses, we used sophisticated software Typically, my course included multimedia production (slide shows to video to animations), coding (Scratch to Alice to html to simple Mathematica), data analysis (spreadsheets), database design (Base), among other topics. This often found me doing “show-and-tell” to get students familiar and to show them how to use software. My lessons were brief, and often ended when students were no longer paying attention as they started exploring on their own.

3) Play proceeds production. I encouraged my students to explore and play before we started creating projects that were for real. Once students had developed some familiarity with the software, I wanted them to use, then I introduced the design or production challenge.

4) Sources are around us, not in textbooks. When I was teaching this group of students, I was also a working IT professional (I taught part-time, and I managed the IT in the school part time—sometimes they were both full time jobs!) and studying technology (as a PhD student). If I could see a direction connection to software I introduced and projects I assigned and what I was doing outside of classrooms, then I used them with students.

For my students (or at least the one who reached out to me recently, this seems to have been a meaningful approach. When I compare it to some of the “best practices” we hear about so much, I notice that learning outcomes as traditionally used were rare in my courses. My students produced deliverables. They were polished (or abandoned) and we shared them in class, although most students knew what others were doing anyways as they paid attention to what others had learned that I had not taught them (and I often asked, “how did you do that?” too). Statements of what we were doing were useless most days anyways, as once I introduced projects and software, students were working independently and often collaboratively in things they planned.

My curriculum was grounded in variety. Students who needed direction could get it. Those who wanted to create could. They all knew that neither approach would last too long. My “follow along with me” lessons would be replaced with project work after a short time, and projects work would be replaced with direct instruction after a short time as well.

During my career, I also taught science and math. I did follow similar approaches when I taught those subjects as well. Curriculum grounded in real problems taught through a variety of strategies. That is the approach to teaching that works for me, and that seems to have worked for my students.