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Design of Curriculum & Instruction

I recommend first reading the summary` of this page.
A Process of Designing Effective Education
For a goal-directed designing of curriculum & instruction, we can:

define goals for the desired outcomes of education, for the ideas-and-skills we want students to learn,

design instruction with learning activities and teaching strategies that will provide opportunities for experience with these ideas & skills, and help students learn more from their experiences.


The basic process is a foundation for exploring educational design:

This page asks, “Is there a competition between ideas and skills? Can we improve both?”

• Possibilities for productive interactions between ideas and skills (enhanced by using Design Process) are examined in Designing an Ideas-and-Skills Curriculum.

• In the new K-12 Science Education Standards the ideas (Disciplinary Core Ideas, with Crosscutting Concepts) and skills (Scientific & Engineering Practices) form a coherent system of worthy goals;  using Design Process can help students achieve some of these goals.

• Because design-thinking is used for almost everything we do in life, instruction that includes a variety of design activities (and uses Design Process to promote transfers of learning) can let teachers build strong Educational Bridges from life to design (in a coordinated curriculum that spans a wide range of subjects), from design to science (because science is a special type of design), and back into life.


Also, how to teach Design Process in the context of design activities (to combine principles with experience), and trying to optimize the benefits of eclectic instruction.



Goals for Education — Motivation plus Ideas-and-Skills

In education we have affective goals (for motivation & attitudes`) and cognitive goals for ideas (what students know) and skills (what they can do);  ideas are often called conceptual knowledge, and skills are procedural knowledge, so a person's ideas-and-skills are the concepts-and-procedures they know and can use.

what students know
what students can do
procedures & process
conceptual knowledge
procedural knowledge


Ideas-and-Skills  (= Ideas + Skills + Ideas-with-Skills)

In "ideas-and-skills" the hyphens describe a worthy educational goal, and also productive interactions between ideas and skills.

Educational Goals:  We want students to learn a well-rounded package of ideas-and-skills that includes ideas, and skills, plus ideas-with-skills (i.e. ideas combined with skills in productive combinations, as in solving problems or answering questions).  Each of these goals for ideas-and-skills (for ideas, skills, ideas-with-skills) is worthy, but increasing our emphasis on skills ("what students can do") offers many benefits, especially in the long run.  We should "prepare students for flexible adaptation to new problems and settings" in a transfer of school knowledge into life with improved problem-solving abilities that include "learning new ideas-and-skills when necessary" so students will be able to "cope with a wide range of challenges."

Productive Interactions:  Ideas and Skills can interact in ways that are mutually supportive.  These productive interactions, and how their beneficial effects can be increased by using Design Process, are examined in An Ideas-and-Skills Curriculum.  An especially beneficial interaction occurs when we show students how to develop design-based cognitive-and-metacognitive Learning Strategies and motivate them to develop-and-use these strategies more often in their schoolwork and in life.


Ideas versus Skills?

Should we focus on ideas, or skills?

Of course, we want both.  Achieving all of our educational goals for ideas-and-skills (for ideas and skills, combined in ideas-with-skills) may be possible, and it should be our objective.  But the sub-section's title includes "versus" (with a question mark) because improving everything may not be possible, or practical.  If we are not able to maximize a mastery of both ideas and skills, we should aim for an optimal combination of ideas-and-skills.*

What is optimal?  There is no consensus, but many educators (including me) think the balance should shift toward more emphasis on skills, to help students improve what they can do with what they know.  With a move in this direction, our goal would be an improvement in skills-knowledge that outweighs (in our value system) any decrease in ideas-knowledge.


* Can "ideas-and-skills" define our goals? 

Should we move beyond just ideas-and-skills?  Can all of our goals be encompassed by ideas-and-skills, if these are more broadly defined?  We can think about a system of broader educational goals, to promote a wide range of desirable outcomes that are cognitive & affective & physical (nutrition, health & fitness, physical skills), plus education for multiple intelligences, and character, and more.  How much should we invest in each of these potential goals?  What are the most useful ways to think about our goals?  These questions, about aiming for an optimal combination of outcomes over "a wide range of desirable outcomes," are discussed in Educational Goals for Many Types of Knowledge along with ideas about potential meanings of ideas-and-skills.


Evaluations of Learning and Teaching

How should we evaluate?  For each educational goal (for ideas, skills, ideas-with-skills, and maybe more) we can ask “what evidence would show that a student has achieved this goal?” and “what kinds of assessments should we use to measure achievements?” and “what feedback (formative & summative) should we provide for students and teachers?”  These questions are an important part of Choosing Objectives and Defining Goals for an educational design project.

Are we asking the best questions, and evaluating the most useful achievements?  In an effort to improve education for skills, a major obstacle is the difficulty of measuring skills-knowledge — with satisfactory precision and accuracy, reliability and validity — in our assessments of learning (for students) and teaching (for teachers & schools).   Here is an oversimplified summary:  compared with the ease of measuring ideas-knowledge, it's much more difficult to get satisfactory measurements of skills-knowledge;  and this makes it much more difficult to persuade teachers & schools to place more emphasis on teaching skills-knowledge.


Eclectic Instruction

If our goals include "an optimal combination of ideas/skills/ideas-with-skills [and more*]" and if different types of instruction are useful for teaching various aspects of these goals, then we should try to combine different types of instruction in an eclectic blend that includes using design-inquiry and science-inquiry.



Support for Ideas-and-Skills Education

Many educators encourage a wider view of knowledge-and-learning, which provides support for education that will help students improve both ideas and skills, that adds more emphasis on skills-education to the current blending of ideas & skills that typically underemphasizes skills.  Here are three examples:


• Robert Marzano's New Taxonomy of Educational Objectives has three systems (Self-System, Metacognitive System, Cognitive System) and a Knowledge Domain that includes Information, Mental Procedures, and Physical Procedures.


• The goals in a Model of Problem Solving (developed by educational researchers for CRESST, the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing) are Motivation, Metacognition, Conceptual Knowledge, and Procedural Knowledge (domain-specific skills & general skills), plus (in their general Model of Learning) Collaboration and Communication.   These attitudes, abilities, and actions can interact in ways that are mutually supportive;  possibilities for productive interactions, including some that can be promoted by using Design Process, are examined in Designing an Ideas-and-Skills Curriculum to improve Learning and Problem Solving.   /   These two models by CRESST are described in reports about Problem Solving (by Harold O'Neil, John Schacter) and Learning (by Davina Klein, Harold O'Neilm, Eva Baker).


• The new Framework for K-12 Science Education (for Science Education Standards in 2012) includes Scientific and Engineering Practices as one of its Three Dimensions, and emphasizes the importance of combining ideas and skills in our designing of curriculum & instruction:

The framework seeks to illustrate how knowledge and practice must be intertwined in designing learning experiences in K-12 science education. .....  The framework emphasizes that learning about science and engineering involves integration of the knowledge of scientific explanations (i.e., content knowledge) and the practices needed to engage in scientific inquiry and engineering design. .....  We use the term “practices,” instead of a term such as “skills,” to stress that engaging in scientific inquiry requires coordination both of knowledge [ideas, conceptual knowledge] and skill [procedural knowledge] simultaneously [for ideas-with-skills]. (pages 11, 26, 56)
The close connections between Scientific Practices & Engineering Practices (in Science Process & Design Process) and their functional role in helping students learn ideas-and-skills, are examined more deeply in Design Process and K-12 Standards for Science Education.



Five Valid Concerns of Teachers
that are Rational Reasons to Avoid Change

A teaching method will significantly improve education, on a large scale, only if the method is educationally effective and is widely adopted by teachers, districts, and states.

For any method of instruction that increases the emphasis on thinking skills — by using design-inquiry activities and science-inquiry activities`, whether or not principles of problem solving are taught (by using Design Process or in other ways) — the rate of adoption can be reduced by five practical concerns of teachers:


• Ideas versus Skills:  As described above, with limited teaching time we may not be able to "maximize a mastery of both ideas and skills."  If teachers want to cover a large number of ideas in depth, they will not want to invest the classroom time required to teach skills.


•• Quality of Teaching and Preparation Time

Quality:  If quality of teaching is defined by students’ performance on standardized exams that emphasize ideas, and if a teacher (and their school district) wants a high rating, they will “teach to the exam” by emphasizing the ideas-on-exams, even if they personally would rather increase the emphasis on skills.

Time:  But if a teacher does want to “go for it” with a new method, the process of learning how to effectively use this method may require more preparation time than they are willing to invest.    ( Most teachers already are overworked, so they don't welcome extra time burdens.  And university-level teachers usually are evaluated based mainly on their research, not teaching, which is an incentive to invest less time in teaching. )

Instructional Ecology:  Or maybe a temporary decrease in teaching quality will occur always, no matter how much time a teacher invests.  Why?  With the benefit of experience, a teacher has optimized their old teaching methods by mastering the component skills and combining the skills into an effective instructional ecology.  To achieve similar quality after a change, a teacher must master new skills, and also re-optimize their instructional ecology which now includes the new methods;  this process of re-optimizing will require some classroom experience, in addition to extra preparation time.  If a teacher is confident that eventually the new method will be better, they will have to tolerate a temporary decrease of teaching quality (actual or perceived) and choose long-term performance over short-term performance, similar to the priorities in Learning and/or Performing.  But there is no guarantee that new methods will ever produce results superior to the old methods, so every change is a calculated risk.


• Measuring Higher-Level Thinking Skills:  Accurate assessment of thinking skills is difficult.  Usually it requires more time, with subjective judgments that many teachers don't enjoy.    {more about Assessing Higher-Level Thinking Skills}


• Classroom Management:  In addition, teachers may worry that during activities their classroom discipline will be more complex and difficult, with possibilities for problems.  This concern has been addressed by proponents of activities, who acknowledge that classroom management for inquiry activities is different;  but they claim that it usually works fine, and they give tips for minimizing potential problems while taking advantage of the benefits offered by activities.  other articles   /   A teacher might want to teach using methods that, although educationally effective, could lead to problems with discipline and classroom management.  But these methods would...

    come into direct conflict with institutional realities. ... Teachers are required [by the structure of schooling] to maintain a precarious order, and only the very courageous are willing to risk its loss. ...  One cannot really get down to teaching unless there is a modicum of order, ... [but in actual practice] the injunction to keep order has become so supreme that it simply swamps the teaching function.    { from Herbert Kliebard (2002), Changing Course: American Curriculum Reform in the 20th Century }   comments



Helping Teachers use Design Activities and teach Thinking Skills

We'll examine — using General Principles and specific Computer-Based Activities — potential solutions for...

A Practical Problem:  Adoption of instruction that "increases the emphasis on thinking skills" can be hindered by practical concerns of teachers.  Three of these concerns — a competition-for-time between Ideas and Skills, perceptions about Quality of Teaching (for themselves and their school), difficulties in Measuring Thinking Skills — are closely related to each other, and to deep questions about educational philosophies, priorities, practicalities, and policies.


General Principles

We can more easily cope with these "deep questions" — which require tough thinking about values and tradeoffs — when we avoid a “winner takes all” assumption.  For a variety of reasons, I recommend eclectic instruction with some problem-solving Design Activities (using inquiry, broadly defined) to supplement traditional types of instruction, not replace it.


Reducing a Practical Concern:  When teachers increase their emphasis on thinking skills, we want to minimize the extra preparation time this will require.  We want to help them quickly master new teaching methods, and quickly re-optimize their instructional ecology with little or no temporary decrease of teaching quality, and an eventual increase.

Generally, we can help teachers develop-and-use Inquiry Activities for answering questions and solving problems.

More specifically, strategies for teaching Design Process can help teachers who, even if they use activities for thinking, are not familiar with an explicit teaching of strategies for thinking, who are using no model rather than a model.  If teachers take time to study the 5 stages of verbal-and-visual explanations in An Overview of Design Process they can quickly understand this model of design.  And they will feel comfortable with it, due to the familiarity of design thinking.  Even though it's new, it won't feel strange.  The basic ideas are simple and intuitive, yet there is plenty of room for intellectual growth, so it should be appealing for teachers who enjoy thinking, and want to share their enthusiasm for it by helping students think more often and more effectively.  And teaching Design Process provides a bridge to scientific methods of thinking in Science Process, making them seem more familiar and intuitive.

In addition to these general and specific ways to help teachers, here is another possibility:


Computer-Based Activities

We can design computer-based Instruction Modules to supplement other kinds of instruction, to help students understand Design Process and use it more effectively.

These modules would offer practical benefits for students, and for teachers regarding their rational concerns:

• If students do computer-based activities as homework, this will reduce the competition of ideas-versus-skills for use of limited time in the classroom.  But computer-based activities should supplement hands-on activities, not replace them, because both types of activities offer their own distinctive benefits.

• If part of the responsibility for teaching Design Process can be shifted to the modules, a teacher's preparation time will decrease, and so will their concerns about a drop in teaching quality.


Currently no computer-based modules are available, but there are Plans for Designing Instruction with activities that are computer-based and hands-on.