Friday, December 12, 2008

Curriculum Design 101

Many people feel that curriculum design is very complicated. It is true for people who don’t really know what curriculum is. Ralph Tyler tried to simplify the logic of curriculum design with his infamous Tylerian Rationale. Even in Tylerian Rationale, curriculum design is not getting easier. Elliot Eisner tried to explain what curriculum is all about through philosophical and practical explanations; however, the understanding of curriculum is still not getting easier. In light of the complicated nature of curriculum design, in this short article I’m trying to provide the two critical keys of curriculum design, which if we know not about the two keys, we will never design any good curriculum. Remember that the task of curriculum design is still a difficult endeavor. This is an effort on my part to provide a clearer path for the journey of curriculum design.

The first step of curriculum design is to determine the two keys: 1) the Foundation, and 2) the Direction. A curriculum designer must make a hard decision on determining what foundation to build and what direction to aim. The foundation is the ultimate starting point for any curriculum design. The direction directs where we are going, what we want to achieve with the curriculum. In other words, the foundation is the philosophy or theology adopted as the basis for the curriculum. The direction is the vision, the purpose, the goals, of what the curriculum is for.

To illustrate I will draw your attention to sports. On the one hand the direction may determine the foundation. On the other hand the foundation will determine the direction. One young athlete loves to play both basketball and tennis. He wants to be a professional, but he has to choose one to truly become a professional in either. Now, for each choice there is a consequence that follows. If he chooses to be a professional basketball player, then he needs to build a strong foundation to play in the pro basketball league. He needs to train his body in such a way that fits the basketball game requirements. Moreover, his mind is to be disciplined carefully to think as a pro basketball player. Without the strong body and mind foundation as a pro basketball player, he may never play in a professional league. This is when direction determines foundation.

However, that young athlete may not choose to become a basketball player because his natural body foundation is not suitable for the pro basketball league. Instead, his body built works better in the pro tennis game. His mind might also understand better the game of tennis than the basketball game, because he is more of a single player rather than a team player. In other words, based on his body and mind foundation he will be more successful as a pro tennis player than a basketball player. It is more reasonable then for him to choose the tennis pro direction. Here is an illustration where foundation determines direction.

In the same way curriculum design depends on the foundation and the direction. A curriculum designer needs to find out exactly what the vision is and at the same time understand the foundation of the education enterprise. The hardest part here is making the decision on which direction to take and what foundation to be adopted. It is extremely difficult because the foundation has something to do with the faith, belief system, worldview, life philosophy, and the direction deals with what Confucius would label as “the mandate from heaven.” Of course one can downgrade this ideal and just view the foundation as merely a bunch of data and categories that form a default system. One can also view the direction merely as a pragmatic purpose to gain something less noble, such as profit. One’s skills to create a curriculum does not require them to embrace the ideals, however, one cannot really create a good and meaningful curriculum without embracing the ideals. But that’s a discussion for a different article. My argument in this article is simply that to design a curriculum one must know the direction and understand the foundation. If you follow this step, you are at the beginning of your journey to design a curriculum.

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