Friday, March 8, 2013

Curriculum Design with the End in Mind

As a person who enjoys reading, I'm heartened to see that interesting material about Education isn't limited to video's (e.g. TED talks). I was particularly impressed with this article from Grant Wiggins: "Everything you know about curriculum may be wrong. Really.". Thanks and a tip of the hat to Srdjan Verbić for sharing a link to that article on the Google+ STEM Community.

Wiggins points out that a curriculum is often conceived as an organized ordered progression from basics to advanced knowledge, but points out that to become a great soccer player, you don't plan to sit in long lectures about the rules and strategies of soccer. He asserts, quite convincingly, that the end goal of education today isn't to instill knowledge (heck, you can always Google up more facts on a topic than you're ever going to be able to remember anyhow), but to teach the students how to get things done in a field - to do things.

Once upon a time, it may have been the case that the world was sufficiently static that it might have made sense for a school curriculum to provide you with lectures on the basics, and work up to lectures on advanced topics, but in today's world, everything is changing so rapidly, that mastering the art of sitting through such a sequence of lectures and answering test questions at the end to demonstrate your knowledge of the lecture content is arguably akin to trying to use a classroom as the sole instrument to develop a soccer team.

I think he makes an excellent point. I'd like to believe that the interactivity of MOOC's is a shift toward a "how to get things done" approach vs. classroom lectures. One problem I see though is that if there is no clear progression from basics to advanced knowledge, how do you help a student progress from simple things to complicated things? Software development, for example, is a field where clearly there's a knack to being able to write software, but there is also a lot of background knowledge, (e.g. data structures, fundamental algorithms, development methodologies) that a teacher can't just assume the student will already know or can Google up as they need it. Seems to me that the shift isn't so much away from having to master increasingly complex stuff as it is a shift away from testing the ability to regurgitate explanations and instead to demonstrate application of the increasingly complex stuff. Udacity.com's CS101 final exam, for example, is open-book and you can revise your answers as much as you like, so if it initially doesn't pass one of their test cases, you can fix it. At least on the test I took in Summer, 2012, the problems weren't simply cloned variations of problems we'd done in class. I think that's a Good final exam in a programming course. I believe Prof. Evans and the Udacity staff should be proud of what they put together for that Introduction to Computer Science and Python Programming course.

The Good Eats television show is another example. It is a show that teaches cooking. The bulk of the run time in the show is filled with lectures and demonstrations about cooking, but you are encouraged to try things out yourself. The lectures aren't focused so much on recipes as on explanations as to why the recipe calls for what it calls for. What role does the ingredient or technique play in the recipe. I'm not much of a cook, but I find the show interesting, more so than other cooking shows where an attractive cook just demonstrates preparation of a dish. I'd like to believe that the lessons from Alton Brown on Good Eats have improved my skills in the kitchen. I did apply what he taught to prepare a turkey and the result was good. It helps that the recipes are available on the web, so you don't need to worry about the details as you watch the show.

Not clear how a less project-oriented field, say "History", maps to this "learn to do it" approach to education. Maybe it's just a bad attitude on my part, but it seems to me that History is an example of a subject where indeed the end objective is to be able to sit though long lectures and then be able to regurgitate facts at the end. If the objective is to draw broad lessons from history and write compelling, well-supported essays in support of change, I'm not sure how big a field the study of history would turn out to be.

Particularly, if you are in some other field than me (software engineer), I'd sure like to hear how you think a bias toward "learn to do" vs. "learn the facts" would change your curriculum. Do feel free to add comments to this blog post. Or add a link here to your own blog post if you have something more to say than fits comfortably into the relatively little slots provided for making comments.