Online Article - Grow What you Know

An Evolving Process for Curriculum Design

In 1997, I published the article "Working the Web for Education: Theory and Practice" whose purpose was to flesh out the "Zen Truth of teaching with the Web:"

It's a lot like what you're already doing.

It's unlike anything you've ever done before.

After presenting Web sites that illustrated the point, the article went on to describe five activity formats or Learning-Centered Scaffolds. In the past several years, a refined use of the strategy has emerged through in-person workshops with educators across the U.S. and Australia. The following column describes the way some people grow what they know by evolving their curriculum as part of a fluid learning process.

A Brief History

My career in recent years has focused on one main question: "How can educators most effectively use the Web to support student learning?" The first answer came when Professor Bernie Dodge invited me to work with him to develop the WebQuest strategy. From my perspective as a budding instructional designer, I viewed the WebQuest was a useful approach to facilitating students' critical and creative thinking. However, as a veteran classroom teacher, I knew that as important as higher order thinking was, other strategies were required to meet the varied needs of learners in the school setting. For this reason, in the course of developing Web-based activities, I looked for ways to structure sound learning practices into simple Web page templates. This was the birth of the activity formats that began appearing on Pacific Bell's Knowledge Network Explorer in 1996.

An updated overview of these Learning-Centered Scaffolds is available from Web-and-Flow. Read and click through this online article if such terminology as "Topic Hotlists," "Knowledge Hunts," and "Subject Samplers" aren't on the tip of your tongue. (Apologies if they are ;-)

The following table provides a short reminder:

Scaffold Type

Learning Process Goal

Topic Hotlist

Open exploration of a topic

Knowledge Hunt

Acquisition of defined knowledge

Subject Sampler

Affective connection to a subject

Insight Reflector

Facilitation of personal reflection

Concept Builder

Development of new concepts


Problem solving and creative thinking

The purpose behind these scaffolds is to foster desired cognitive or affective experiences for students and to help education move away from the Big Lie of Assemblyline Learning: working hands = working minds. Response to the scaffolds has been positive over the years with most educators agreeing that the above strategies aren't anything new, just good instruction reformatted for Web-connected learners.


A Case for Scaffolding

Given enough time, support and access, educators have come up with terrifically inventive uses for the Web. Creative juices flow as these able folks combine clever applications of authentic research, interpersonal exchanges, collaborative projects, and compelling Web publishing. Empowering individuals to design their own activities is always the best option, however, as a teacher I've frequently felt time's creativity-constricting squeeze. Therefore, I view scaffolds as springboards to soften the glaring blank page, the waiting search field, the cursor's relentless blink. So, if you've got the time and love a creative challenge, stop reading right now and go conjure some magic. If, on the other hand, you're overwhelmed with grading, planning, tutoring, teaching, or librarianship in all its redefined glory, see if the following strategy saves you some time, improves the quality of your professional life and conserves over-cooked synapses.


The New Idea - an evolving curriculum

Educators and librarians have always worked long and hard to collect and develop the resources and activities that combine to form a unit of study. Everything from bulletin boards and handouts to choosing video clips and guest speakers require an upfront time commitment. This is similar to the investment made by educators putting together Web-based activities in advance of student use. Unfortunately such a level of preparation is not always feasible. And giving up your life to accomplish this dream inevitably ends in nightmares. So let's turn to another approach educators also frequently use: "Ready, Fire, Aim!"

Whether it's called "punting" or "pursuing teachable moments," a terrifying potential's unleashed when educators willingly venture with students into the unknown. Instead of viewing such a situation as lack of teacher preparation, by tapping into the Web's potential, such dynamic teaching can model a flexible and responsive learning process. Let's see how this can actually work using a design environment we've developed at The following can also be done partially using an HTML editor, word processor, or Filamentality, but we'll use Web-and-Flow to keep things simple and focused on the learning, not the software.



1) A Creative Brief

Activities should be solutions to learning needs, so begin by conducting a quick front-end analysis. Sure it's a good idea to start with objectives and standards, but I believe a more powerful stance is to define a vision for student success: what do you really hope students will do, think and feel? This is where your intangible hopes enter in: "choose to read this book again," "wonder how other species are effected by the changing habitat," "be nice to each other." Also consider what about the topic is educationally most valuable. Trust your instincts. Next, pool all the cool resources, activities, field trips, movies, books, etc. you can think of that are related to the topic. This is the inventory you will draw from as the unit unfolds.

2) Gather Links

Lastly, gather 10 — 20 Web sites that represent a good overview of facts, issues, and perspectives on the topic. This is easily done by copying and pasting Web sites from activities already created by teachers (see the earlier column "Wouldn't you Rather Gather?"). In fact, you may find a hotlist already set up by another educator on your very topic. Send him or her a thank you email.

3) The Topic Hotlist

If you didn't find a suitable pre-existing hotlist on your topic from places like the Web-and-Flow and Filamentality databases, you can publish the links you've gather in less than 10 minutes by using these online tools. Now you're ready to see what the kids think!


We can spend hours fussing over just the right wording for essential questions, but in some respects, doesn't it all boil down to a question I've heard my most understandably apathetic students fling into a discussion: "What's up with this?" How about giving students an hour to openly explore the compilation of links with this question in mind? They will have to answer it as insightfully as they can in the ensuing class discussion. This is where your vision, knowledge of the course objectives, and pedagogical expertise come together to find some fruitful directions for further study. You and / or the students might use a tool like Inspiration (or butcher paper) to create a mind map detailing the issues, perspectives and facts that begin to define "What's up with this." You could also poke around until more specific essential questions emerge or chart out a K-W-L table.

And don't forget to ask students to send you the addresses of particular Web pages that they found most useful so that you can add them to future activities.


1) Designing Intermediate Activities

Now it's curriculum design time. Based upon what the open exploration and following discussion told you about the students' prior knowledge, sophistication of understanding, and level of interest, you should be in good shape to choose the most appropriate learning-centered scaffolds to help address students' needs. If what students need most is a better understanding of background information, a Knowledge Hunt will prompt the acquisition of facts that you consider important. If you think students didn't get as excited as you are by the topic, find the most compelling links (images, human interest stories, fringe perspectives, etc.) and take students through a Subject Sampler asking them to relate what they discover to their own lives. If you felt students were still a little fuzzy on some of the key concepts, a Concept Builder will help refine their understanding. These intermediate activities could be ends in themselves if they satisfy the learning goals, but they could also be preliminary experiences for a WebQuest.

2) Unfolding a WebQuest

One drawback I've found to WebQuests is that they are still "inflictable" as assignments: "Go to URL X and do what it tells you." Although the introductions to most WebQuests strive for intriguing scenarios and authentic tasks, their success really rests with how the WebQuest is unfolded to students. One positive aspect of the Ready, Fire, Aim! approach is that if students' answers to "What's Up?" display a sound understanding of the topic and really hook into the complexities, they're probably primed to adopt a role and take off into a WebQuest. And look, the students are fired-up and you haven't had to write a witty introduction and penetrating question.

Depending on the extent students have internalized learning-to-learn strategies, you may choose to structure assignments for individual roles an a group process task as seen in most WebQuests or allow students to design their own. Thus we're using a complete design flow to achieve learning as a function of presented strengths and needs, not a predetermined format. An important element to remember is that while students may be expert at acquiring knowledge, the transformation of information or construction of meaning tends to be difficult for all learners so I suspect they will need your help transferring their separate learning into one transformative product.

3) Write the Assessment Rubric

Built into Web-and-Flow is the ability to write an authentic assessment rubric for each activity. The cells of the 3-by-3 matrix come with default suggestions for outcome, but teachers are encouraged to change any or all of the descriptions. Arriving at the desired outcomes is, of course, an outstanding opportunity for student participation. So before students get very far into the learning process, ensure that they see themselves as partners in measuring their achievement.



In these days of standards and accountability, don't be afraid to occasionally engage in a little "ready, fire, aim!" Rather than neglecting important benchmarks, you might find that you increase your effectiveness by focusing on your students actual learning needs. Facilitative educators contribute value as learning coaches, cognition monitors, and interpersonal counsellors while encouraging students to take ultimate responsibility for their learning. Evolving a curriculum in a learning-centered process can fine-tune activities to student interests and needs as well as making the workload more manageable for educators. So why not grow what you know?

first published in MultiMedia Schools Magazine
© copyright 2000 Tom March

© 1999 - 2008 Web-and-Flow and Tom March