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Can Connected Learning Make A Curriculum Relevant?

Written by Traci Gardner
May 10, 2012

syllabus (policies only)Usually when I teach a composition class, I create a syllabus that covers a range of essay genres or that explores methods of critical thinking. I structure the course so students write narratives, descriptions, arguments, and research projects. At the end of the class, I expect students to be able to use what they’ve learned in their future courses and in their professions.

The problem is that my intentions don’t always appear clear in the classroom. One of the biggest complaints I hear students make about first-year composition is that the course isn’t relevant. How often will they need to write narratives of childhood memories or research papers about current events when they become accountants, engineers, and nurses?

Sadly, I don’t often have the time to explore why learning to write some specific document will matter in the future. Vague promises that “one day you’ll be glad you know this” aren’t very convincing. Even if I had time for more specific explanations, I know that the students are all on different paths. How can I possibly guess what will apply to whom, how it will apply, or even when and why it will apply?

I’d love for the course to seem more relevant to students, but I wasn’t sure how until I attended Katie Salen’s recent webinar on Making Learning Irresistible: 6 Principles of Game-like Learning. The answer isn’t that you have to use gaming in the classroom (though you can). It’s that you have to think like a game designer when you structure your curriculum.

In the webinar, Salen explained that designing game-like learning begins when you “create a ‘need to know’ by organizing learning around solving complex problems in engaging contexts.” In the case of state standards and the common core curriculum, Salen suggested you begin by identifying the specific standard or goal and then ask yourself, “What’s a 10-week context we can drop kids into that would let them hit that standard?”

The goal isn’t to teach certain information that students will apply later, but to put students in situations where they need to know certain information to solve a problem they care about or reach a goal they’ve set. Suddenly as Salen described this model, I realized I had been designing courses backwards.

You can read the rest of the details on how I’m rethinking course design on my post on the Bedford Bits site.

[Photo: syllabus (policies only) by intenteffect, on Flickr]

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