Vertical Learning
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Vertical Learning

A Curriculum Architect Takes on K-2 Technology: Week 0

At the end of August, I was hired by a small school district in Massachusetts to be their part-time K-2 technology teacher. In some ways, this was a major departure for me. I’d been a middle school math and science teacher and curriculum specialist for fifteen years—before founding Vertical Learning Labs to develop vertical learning theory and work on my own curriculum. I’d never ever taught technology or elementary students (never mind kindergarteners!) before.

But in other ways, this new position is right up my alley. I love taking on new challenges, and I love developing curriculum (especially vertically aligned curriculum) from scratch. The existing K-2 technology curriculum had grown out of an academic support class (where students practiced math and reading skills on iPads—and also learned to type on old netbooks). The district’s new superintendent and the school’s new principal have asked me to redesign the K-2 technology curriculum so it’s more aligned with state standards and more focused on developing 21st-century skills.

Who am I writing for?

Ideally, I would have had most of the summer to research, think about, and begin designing a curriculum, not just Labor Day weekend. But as someone who likes to make lemonade out of lemons, I’ve decided that it might be fun (and useful) to document the curriculum development process as I work on it on the fly. My plan is to write a journal entry once a week to keep track of my thoughts and reflect on how things are going.

Because these entries are primarily for myself, my writing will be a stream of consciousness. However, I’m also sharing these entries publicly because I feel that they might be helpful for people who are interested in K-2 technology or curriculum development.

My role as scholar practitioner

I’ve always loved the immediacy of developing curriculum that I’m going to teach to students the next day. It sharpens the mind and gets creative juices flowing. As much as I enjoyed developing curriculum full-time, I did my best work while I was inside the classroom, interacting with students.

Part of it is the feedback you receive, but I think it’s more than that. Social science, including educational research, is in the midst of a replication crisis. In Social Science Has Failed (by Any Practical Standard), Howard Johnson argues that social scientists should be more pragmatic and less theoretical. Rather than generalizing, we should be grounding experiments in context. We simply aren’t at a stage where we can take a unit of curriculum, which is effective in one context, and reliably get it to work in a different context. As curriculum developers, we need to test and iterate on our ideas in the actual contexts they’ll be used in—and then try to understand how the curriculum and the context are related after the fact.

John Cutler hits on the same point in Is Agile the Enemy (of Good Design)? I was particularly struck by the example shared by his friend, the footwear designer. If shoes are designed iteratively and only mass-produced at the very end, the complete shoe design is never tested and iterated on. This process is effective only if mass production is understood so well that the designers can factor it into their designs along the way—without testing. This certainly isn’t the case in education. We can’t research best practices or effective curriculum products in a narrow, non-representative set of contexts, and then expect to get similar results when we roll them out to a much wider set of very different contexts. This is why I see myself as a scholar practitioner. I feel like I need to integrate and test the whole stack, from concept to delivery, before I can even begin to generalize. We don’t understand teaching and learning well enough to consider modularization.

My context

Since I wasn’t hired until after the school year had already started, I missed out on the first day of school for teachers and the typical orientation activities for new teachers. Therefore, I’m walking in more than a little blind. However, here are a few things I do know about my context:

  • I’m teaching at the primary school (pK-2).
  • I’m teaching 16 classes per week: one kindergarten, one first-grade, and one second-grade class each day, with a second kindergarten class on Wednesdays. I see each class once a week for the entire school year, which means each child will see me approximately 30–35 times.
  • Class periods are 40 minutes.
  • I don’t have a classroom of my own. Instead, I travel from classroom to classroom. There is a space above the library I can use, when necessary. And there is an unassigned classroom I can take over if the current model doesn’t work out.
  • I have an iPad cart and a netbook cart. The netbooks are very old and were seldom used—mostly to teach typing on.
  • Teachers are using responsive classroom practices.
  • The layouts of the classrooms vary. Some do have projectors. I believe all students have headphones.
  • Class sizes are around 23–25.
  • Teachers generally leave the classroom while I’m teaching. However, some students have aides attached to them, and those aides will stay.
  • Currently, technology is a standalone class and there hasn’t been any organized effort to integrate technology across the curriculum. Each grade level does have its own iPad cart to share among classrooms. When I asked the principal about me pushing into classrooms to work directly with other teachers and integrate technology, he was enthusiastic—but it’s not in the cards (or budget) for this school year.

My role as curriculum architect

Since I’m developing a new K-2 technology curriculum, more or less from scratch, I see myself functioning as a curriculum architect, not simply as a curriculum developer. I’ll use the relevant state standards as a jumping off point, but I don’t feel bound by them. My primary responsibility is to design a curriculum which will enable all students to thrive in a technological world.

The K-2 technology curriculum addresses standards found in two separate frameworks: the Digital Literacy and Computer Science framework and the Science and Technology/Engineering framework.

The Digital Literacy and Computer Science standards are organized into four strands:

  • Computing and society
  • Digital tools and collaboration
  • Computing systems
  • Computational thinking

The Technology/Engineering standards are also organized into four strands, but only the first strand is introduced in grades K-2:

  • Engineering design
  • Materials, tools, and manufacturing
  • Technological systems
  • Energy and power technologies

Because I’m addressing two sets of standards, I need to do a little refactoring to integrate them. However, I’d still refactor the standards even if I didn’t have to. That’s because merely “knowing” the standards isn’t enough. To deepen my own understanding of the standards, I need to climb Bloom’s taxonomy, which means translating, interpreting, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and eventually evaluating those standards.

I start by coming up with a kid-friendly definition of technology: the making and use of tools. Then, I refactor the standards into four kid-friendly strands:

  • Using existing tools
  • Understanding how tools work
  • Inventing/making new tools
  • Using tools safely and responsibly

I feel these strands are more accessible to kids, and I suspect that I’ll have an easier time thinking about and working with the standards when they are in this structure.

Finally, I also want to define a computer as a specific kind of tool. A computer is a tool which can be programmed to solve many kinds of problems/do many kinds of things. (p.s. I’m thinking of defining a tool as an artifact that humans make and use to solve a problem.)

Learning progressions

Once I have a framework for the curriculum, I start brainstorming various potential learning progressions, with an emphasis on building toward those skills and concepts we need to function in today’s society and into the future.

To give you a sense of what a learning progression looks like, I’ll share one example that I’m still fleshing out.

  • Under computational thinking, students are expected to explore abstraction by identifying common attributes. In kindergarten, students could learn to sort objects by color, shape, size, etc. We could even introduce OR, AND, and NOT operators.
  • In first-grade, students could apply the same concept to keyword searches in an online database. For example, if we are researching elephants, we could search all of the articles in an online encyclopedia based on whether their titles contain the keyword elephant—and then sort/retrieve the ones that do.
  • In second-grade, if a keyword search returns many articles, students could analyze how to list those articles. Should it be random or by relevance? If by relevance, how is relevance determined? By how often the search term appears in the article? By how many people previously opened the article? By the average length of time people spent reading the article?
  • In third-grade, students could also evaluate articles for accuracy and appropriateness. Then, they could create an algorithm for ranking search results (computational thinking). But what if an article writer tries to game the system? How do we make the ranking algorithm more robust. Is that something we should be thinking about (safety and responsibility)? And if we chose to rely on centralized gatekeepers/curators, how does that affect the democratization of information?
  • In fourth-grade, what if we adjust the algorithm for ranking search results based on data we have on the history of the searcher (profiling)? An accessible example might be Spotify or Netflix. If Spotify can predict what songs you might like based on the songs in your library, and if it ranks those songs higher in your searches, that’s a good thing. But what if a song is buried (or not shown at all) because Spotify thinks you won’t like it, but you really would?

I like this learning progression because it touches on a number of critical issues we’re grappling with today, including profiling and identifying high quality information in a flood of low quality information. And from there, it’s only a short hop to machine learning, artificial intelligence, privacy, and security. But we’re not just introducing critical issues, we’re introducing them in a way such that students have the mental models to engage with them fully and robustly. It’s not about organizing learning around themes or packing skills and concepts compactly and efficiently—it’s about generating learning momentum so students can apply higher level thinking skills.

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David Ng

David Ng

Founder and Chief Learning Officer of Vertical Learning Labs