If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I'd spend the first four hours sharpening my axe.
One of the many pearls of wisdom said to have leapt forth from the lips of the great Abe Lincoln, it's an adage that applies to almost anything in life. Good curriculum design included.
In other words, it's worth taking the time to really prepare your curriculum before you start swinging it at the knowledge and skills gap trunk. If your curriculum is dull and heavy, it might not do the job in six hours.
However, when it comes to curriculum and learning design, I think the adage is worth looking at more closely for several reasons.
Prior to (or as, depending on how you look at it) the four hours of sharpening, I'd be asking myself some questions:
Why am I chopping down a tree?
Is it in the way of something, or do we intend to put the wood to some kind of use?
Do I really need to chop it down, and if so and it's about the wood, is it the best wood for the purposes I have in mind?
Do I need the whole tree (removed)?
Are there disused fences or cabins that might provide the wood I need, rather than chopping down a whole new tree?
Have I checked that this is the best tree at hand?
What's the tree made of? Soft or hard wood?
Where do I want the tree to fall? Is one direction safer than another, and/or will it make the wood easier to access, chop up into smaller pieces and transport to another place?
Does the axe actually need sharpening? Maybe it's already sharp enough.
Is there a neighbour with another axe handy? Perhaps we could chop at double the rate, and/or perhaps his axe is already sharper than mine.
What would happen if I just watered the tree instead, and put more nutrients in the soil around it?
Is there a chainsaw in the shed?
These questions focus on establishing a better focus in terms of both the objectives and the tool(s) to help us obtain those objectives. This is the sort of sharpening that will be essential if we are ever going to cut through boredom, irrelevance, difficulty and failures in our curriculum content and delivery methods.
Let's look at this another way, however, one that I think resonates more with reality for many busy teachers.
If I had six hours... Most teachers are lucky to get two before the guests arrive, and some are given tools ranging from small hand axes (good for little more than chopping up kindling) to toothpicks.
What do you do?
Some of the best ways to approach the tree chopping task here can involve:
- Spending the two hours you have available preparing axes for all the guests to join in and make the tree felling activity collaborative
- Taking your time and chopping in small sections, stopping for a rest to listen to the observations of your guests and reflect on your technique and aim before resuming again
In the first example, the sharpening happens via an ongoing, emergent, collaborative approach. The good thing here is that you are equipping the learners to take part in the curriculum process, and giving them a chance to help you locate the very best tree from the available options. This is often far sharper than anything you can sharpen and select on your own from some sort of position of assumed teaching/learning omniscience.
The second example demonstrates the "slow release" curriculum, taken in stages, with observation and feedback from the stakeholders concerned between stages. One stage informs and improves what happens in the next one. It avoids the risk of selecting and preparing absolutely everything in advance; if something goes wrong or could obviously be improved, there are opportunities to do something positive about it as the curriculum progresses (not after it is all finished up).
So, while I agree with Abe's point about effective preparation and foresight, I don't think it's always quite as simple or feasible as that.
And besides, it doesn't always necessarily guarantee the sharpest potential tool in the curriculum toolbox.