Curriculum Design is Like Farming

Designing curriculum and instruction is like farming – it is cyclic. As in farming you plan, sow, nurture, harvest and use the evolved understanding and tools to start the next cycle of plan, sow….It is critical to let the land fallow between end of Cycle 1 and beginning of Cycle 2. Toxic and quick-grow tricks are to be strictly avoided for a healthy, organic crop. So in curriculum design, you plan the outcomes/vision, design the framework and align content; then you hand-hold educators who will transact it and then wean them away as you watch them – with extreme delight – take ownership and students achieve the desired outcomes. The learnings from Cycle 1 and evolved needs/expectations then feed into the design for Cycle 2.

At the end of the crop cycle, a farmer observes the harvest with delight and celebrates his perseverance and patience. At the end of a curriculum cycle, a curriculum designer observes how once-resistant educators become leading advocates and improvisors. The consummation of learning during this cycle leaves both the educator and the curriculum transformed, invariably for the better.

cropped-mp900227791-e1316497052922.jpgThis seemingly smooth loop of planning, teaching and assessment is full of surprises and needs strategic suturing from time to time. Systemic dysfunction also needs to be factored in.

For the curriculum designer, just like the farmer, the end of the cycle signals the time for review and redesign – to renew and to improve.

During 2012 and 2013, we designed, trained, implemented, supervised and evaluated a leveled program of spoken English for a US-based charitable organization. This registered charity operates learning centers throughout the underserved pockets of Delhi developing among underprivileged youth proficiency in spoken English. There were about 18 centers when we started in 2012, now there are close to 100 such centers.

Our first curriculum cycle bore fruition in February 2014, when our first cohort graduated from the program. By the end of Cycle 1, we had:

  1. a few teachers who became trainers, curriculum designers and program supervisors.
  2. graduating students craving for extended learning beyond the current program offering.
  3. a few students who have been hired to work as teachers in our fast-expanding set-up. They continue to learn at one center and teach at another.

As the program grew, so have our expectations. So after the fleeting moment of celebration, we decided to up the ante for everyone by adding ambitious learning outcomes to our program. While the primary aim continues to be developing proficiency in spoken English, we felt that the program be upgraded such that the students also become critical and independent thinkers, who are active contributors to the society imbued with a strong sense of community. A tall order for any learning program, indeed, particularly for one that is perceived to be a non-formal learning paradigm.

As if designing a program to help our students achieve this was not challenging enough, I decided to involve teachers/trainers in the exercise of curriculum redesign. They bring valuable experience about program articulation and implementation and participation in this exercise would help them steepen their learning curve. I was working primarily on professional intuition. Reaffirmation came in the form of the Annual ASCD conference – the Mecca of professional development – a gathering of 9000 educators from 100 countries and 250 exhibitors of educational products/services. So the organization very generously sent me off to Los Angeles, USA. As expected, there were significant learnings from educational experts and practitioners working in similar domains with similar profiles. Conversations with these wonderful learned people reaffirmed my beliefs and design for the learning of our students.

The revamped curriculum is a motley of brain-teasers, scaffolding of cognitive processes, metacognition and project-based learning around issues of self and community as students graduate from novice to experts in spoken English.

As we prepare the seeds and tools of the program, I visualize the crop of expectations that we wish to harvest with an eye on its implication for hiring, training and resource procurement.