Sunday, 17 March 2013

Designing a Complete Curriculum

The crowd hushed while the orchestra pit came to life this past Thursday at Radio City Music Hall.  In no time at all, actors and dancers hit the stage to perform their vignettes.  It seemed like another typical day in the life of this iconic theatre, but this time the song and dance wasn't the most recent interpretation of an old musical.  Instead it was the launch of Samsung's new answer to the iPhone, the Galaxy 4S.

It's odd that a company would go to such lengths to announce a product to the world, but why shouldn't it?  After all, it has designed something amazing worth celebrating.  Tired of swiping your smartphone with your finger?  Well now you can use your eye.

You're probably wondering how this is relevant to teaching RLA.  Here's the thing. We're so busy teaching and assessing academic, discipline-based standards, we're forgetting one key component that enables the people at Samsung or any other innovative company to work their magic.  Design.  

There are lots of reasons why we should add design standards to our curriculum and teach to them more directly in our classes.  Here are just a few:

    "Design" and "Create" are at Level Four on the DOK
  • There's a lot more to design than meets the eye.  Steve Jobs, one of the most famous designers of all time, said, "Design is a not just what it looks like and feels like.  Design is how it works." His definition isn't just limited to the IKEA desk or iPhone.  It applies to meaning and understanding as well.  When we teach design and offer our students to use it when expressing their ideas, their learning is much deeper as a result.
  • To design is to create.  When we create, we think across disciplines and take all of the learning into consideration before we put paint to canvas.
  • By engaging in design, we practice and enhance other essential skills.  According to Frank Nuovo, former Vice President and Chief of Design at Nokia, design is about solving problems and creating solutions.  Not only that, good designers don't work in isolation.  Relying on sound interpersonal skills, designers collaborate with others which leads them to even better ideas.  
Quiz:  Match the Font
  • Design is more crucial now than ever before.  As Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind, puts it, there has been a "democratization of design." What was once reserved only for the financial elite or the highly skilled, design tools are now readily used by a larger population.  Just take a look at laptops, digital SLRs, smartphones, and the growing list of software and applications that run them.  Still not convinced?  Try out the quiz that Pink put out to his readers.  He claims that twenty-five years ago only the experts would've been right.  Now, most of us are (scroll down for the answers). As a result, the marketplace is increasingly more competitive, and design elements have become a game changer.
  • Design elements enable us to communicate in ways that go well beyond words alone.  Sure, as RLA teachers, we focus on words as our medium, but in today's world, we understand the power of images.  But there are additional elements in design tools that enhance communication such as color, fonts, music, and layout.   

Simply put, if we choose not to include design in our teaching, we're missing the boat.  And when we miss the boat, our students are stranded as well.  With that in mind, here are some possibilities for our classrooms:

  • Teach a design mini-lesson:  Take a design element and see how it might fit as a teaching point for a mini-lesson.  For example, as a reading response students can use color and shapes instead of words to capture the mood of a chapter.  They may also sketch objects from the text to represent symbols. 
  • Evaluate real world design samples:  Have students become design critics when viewing a youtube clip, a trailer, a visual ad, Blog themes,  etc.  Students can explain what works and what doesn't work in terms of design elements.
  • Use design-based tools with fixed templates:  Many tools offer preset templates that include effective design elements such as iMovie trailers, Prezis, Blogs, Pic Collage, Glogster, Keynote, even Microsoft Word and Powerpoint.  When students select templates have them explain their choices based on how the design elements enhance the meaning they are trying to convey.
  • Teach toward design-based extension projects:  When students complete a Literature Circle book, extend their learning with projects that require purposefully-chosen design elements.  It could be a bumper sticker, a commemorative stamp, a monument, a theme quilt patch, you name (click here for a list of great ones).  Again have students explain their choices in terms of design as well as literary analysis.

Before you get started though, I have to warn you.  Many of our students have lost their innate willingness to design.  Gordon MacKenzie, a former creative director at Hallmark Cards, tells of his countless school visits where he asks students, "How many artists are there in the room?"  The responses are nearly always the same.  The kindergartners all raise their hands while by sixth grade, not a single student raises his hand.  

Here's why.  To design means to risk, and along with risk comes failure.  Many students are more concerned with "getting it right" than "trying it out."  It's not entirely their fault.  That's the way we've taught them. 

So why don't we model it by taking a risk and trying out some of these design ideas in our classrooms?  Who knows, we may be surprised with what we and our students create.  Whatever it'll be, it'll certainly be cause for celebration.  In the meantime, I'll check for availability at Radio City Music Hall.

Answers to the quiz:  1. b, 2. c, 3. a


  1. Have you read Presentation Zen? If not, if offers simple design concepts that pair beautifully with our classrooms. The current iLife/iWork series taught by Dianna Pratt, Shaun Kirkwood, and Patrick Green has been inspiring to me for its elements of design lessons--I've taken their slideshows and used them in my own classroom. They will offer it again in the fall (I think), and it links perfectly to your post.

  2. Another emerging outlet for creativity is having kids design memes (to summarize books, capture theme, show character/symbolism,etc). There were a good number of courses on it at NCTE this year, especially at the college level. I haven't tried it yet but am keen.