I’ve been reading Garr Reynolds’s book Presentation Zen (and am a fan of his blog, too). I picked it up because I wanted to improve my presentation and design skills, but in the process I’m seeing some parallels with curriculum design.

We’re all familiar with the “Death by PowerPoint” scenario:

Some of the characteristics typical of bad PowerPoint presentations:

  • Slides crammed with content
  • Meaningless clip art, animations, and effects
  • A superfluous presenter
  • Poor design based on stock templates

PowerPoint, used poorly, can cripple a powerful message. In fact, the use of PowerPoint as a communication tool may even be partly to blame for the disaster that destroyed the Space Shuttle Columbia.

Lazy curriculum design can result in similar problems:

  • Course outlines crammed with more material than can reasonably be addressed in a year
  • Meaningless activities and ancillary materials added to make dry content more “fun” or engaging
  • “Teacher-proof” scripted lesson plans, and textbooks containing all the instruction and explanation
  • Poor design based on what all the other publishers/districts have done before

The cure is the same for curriculum as it is for PowerPoint presentations.

SIMPLIFY

Every year we add new content to the curriculum and rarely remove anything. With the abundance of information readily available to us in so many places, we need to strip curriculum design of most of the details and focus on the core ideas, what Wiggins and McTighe call Enduring Understandings.

As students explore the depths of these understandings and wrestle with the essential questions we ask them, they will naturally seek out the other content they need. Teachers can also bring in other resources as necessary to supply information students can’t find or don’t look for on their own.

CONSTRUCT MEANING

Everything built into a curriculum must connect meaningfully to leading students towards understanding the core ideas we want them to develop.

Smothering a dry, overcooked, under-seasoned meatloaf with ketchup doesn’t improve the meatloaf at all. It just makes it easier to choke down.

Creating a better main dish may be a lot more work, but how much greater is the meal, and how much easier is it to come back for seconds? If our curricula connect with our kids in a deep and meaningful way, we won’t have to slap on the cute games and meaningless decorations to make them want to engage with it.

FOCUS ON INTERACTION

So much curriculum today is designed in a way that the delivery almost doesn’t matter. It makes no difference which teacher presents it. In some cases, the teacher isn’t even necessary, with a thorough textbook, pre-fab self-correcting worksheets, and computerized activities. Actually, in most cases the class isn’t necessary either.

The real learning should not be housed in the curriculum, but in the interactions that take place between students and teacher. Discussion, problem solving, collaboration, disagreement, persuasion, and consensus challenge students to manipulate ideas.

Language skills aren’t learned in a vacuum. Real communication about real ideas and real problems is what will build students’ skills in reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

DESIGN

Curriculum designers—and I argued recently that all teachers should consider themselves in this category—need to understand principles of good design. Design is not just the ketchup on the meatloaf. Design starts with fundamental choices about the ingredients and their proportions. We need to consider universal principles of design, such as unity, balance, harmony, contrast, patterns, proportion, functionality, scale, and even white space.

We will not find simplified, focused, meaningful, thoughtful curriculum by shopping the education trade shows. We will not get a curriculum which is a guide for both facilitating interactions among students and providing a launching point for a teacher to create a rich atmosphere for learning by picking something out of the publisher catalog. We can only get it when we learn how to create it ourselves so that we can take what is given to us and tear it apart, rethink it, redesign it, and make it work for us instead of allowing it to drive us.