Does Curriculum Always Need Intentional Design?

Yesterday in my first post on the new Blog, I explained in detail one of my favourite curriculum design frameworks – Understanding by Design. The underlying message in my post was that teaching for deep understanding, and transfer of skills and knowledge, requires thoughtful curriculum design that begins with the end in mind.  Intentional curriculum design works backward by asking the question: “What big ideas and enduring understandings do we want students to develop that they will remember 40 years from now?”

At the risk of contradicting myself, I would now like to offer an alternative perspective.  It is what we might call Learning Without Design.  Today’s post is inspired by a session I attended this afternoon at one of our schools.

In our school district we support teachers’ action research, through what we call “Collegial Conference” projects.  School teams are invited each year to submit proposals for funding that will allow them to pursue collaborative, inquiry-based projects focused on the improvement of their instructional practice.  In order to qualify for the funding, school teams must identify the instructional or assessment practices they wish to research, and demonstrate how the project will enable a collaborative, site-based approach to professional development among staff members.  The team must also commit to a debriefing session, during which they reflect on their collegial conference project and share their research results with school and district administrators.  Hence my invitation to the session today, which was an opportunity for a team of teachers to debrief a collegial conference project at one of our large, dual-track schools.

The staff member ‘lead’ on the project provided the audience with the highlights of this collegial conference project focused on the use of iPad technology to enhance classroom teaching and learning.   The presentation included photos and testimonials from the group of teachers who had participated in the project.  These teachers teach a variety of grade levels and in two distinct programs (English and French Immersion).

It was apparent that this project had had a positive and lasting impact on these teachers, all of whom spoke of how the iPads had enhanced their ability to engage students in their learning, differentiate instruction for a wide variety of learning abilities and styles, and begin to shift to a more paperless style of teaching (e.g. using blogs to publish student writing).

They had certainly thought through the necessary components of the project: required technology (iPads purchased by the Parent Advisory Council), a mentor/lead teacher (an intermediate teacher who is very tech savvy), and a process for collaborative planning, teaching and reflection (release time so teachers could work in pairs and groups).   It was also apparent that they had spent a great deal of time carefully planning classroom experiences designed to empower learning with iPad technology.

But did the teachers plan the sequence of learning that unfolded for themselves? What these educators spoke of with great passion was the opportunity the project had provided for them to learn and grow as professionals within a safe, collaborative, and emergent learning environment.  They talked about how the iPad technology was new for most of them, how they had simply leapt in with both feet and learned as much as they could, asking for guidance and mentorship from the lead teacher when they needed it.  They talked about stopping often during the project to ask themselves, “Where are we going with this?”  Most of all, they talked about the value of collaboration, discovering together with their colleagues new ways to engage learners and enhance their teaching practices.

This was clearly a group of educators who had become a highly engaged community of practitioners.  They learned about, through and from their action research in a manner that was unplanned, unrehearsed and unpredictable.  No design required.  Just a spirit of inquiry, trust and collegiality.

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