Posted by: judechua | September 23, 2008

In Praise of Folly: On Seriously Playful Curriculum Design

an extract from a short working paper : Do not quote without Author’s permission

Backwards Design

These several recent years, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s (2005) “backward design” has been very well received in many secondary schools in Singapore. On many occasions, they have been invited to speak to school teachers and to train them in backward curriculum design, and many schools leaders have made an explicit effort to encourage teachers to use their method of curriculum design.  I recall that when I was teaching in one very prominent secondary school just a few years back, teachers were asked to plan their lessons on a template crafted after Wiggins and McTighe’s theory.

Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s (2005) very influential theory of curriculum design recommends that we begin with the end in mind. Only after being very clear about our end-goals, which are what we would like to achieve, can design proceed well.  The need to clarify our goals is further reinforced by the recommendation to articulate with some precision what are indicators of success: assessment criteria and tools, and targets. Then can we finally, in this three step process, work on the final and 3rd stage where we craft or design the means—i.e., the pedagogies—for achieving the defined targets.

This backwards design method is attractive because it offers a simple and fruitful strategy for design.  It helps to distinguish between what is relevant and what is not for a goal, and rids the table of clutter. One has a clear goal, which offers guidance on the means: whatever is not instrumentally relevant for that particular goal can then be set aside, and the designer thus proceeds with a very lucid appreciation of what is worth considering and working with, having excluded the irrelevant.  Allied to this, there is the excellent emphasis on exploring enduring questions and promoting in depth understanding.

However, Wiggins and McTighe’s (WM) theory of design if adhered dogmatically leads to several unhappy design consequences.  In this short essay I explore some of these undesirable consequences with a view to encouraging some measure of deviation from WM’s very fine theory of backward design and refining the designing process as a whole.  This is not an attempt to set WM’s theory of design aside altogether, but rather to encourage and welcome other ways of designing that curriculum that do not obey WM’s recommendations, in order to complement it.  In this paper I mean to restrict my remarks to curriculum design in primary and secondary schools, although the points I make may also apply on occasion to curriculum design in higher education.

Educational Innovation

Firstly the seeming focus on a clearly defined goal appears to me problematic. One main problem  is the way a focus on a predetermined goal shuts one off epistemologically to other possibly desirable goals.  It has what I might call a “blinker effect”. While design can and often is goal oriented in a way that it is directed at one specified goal, it is also true that it need not always be so, and perhaps should not always be so. Consider someone who starts off with a goal in mind, and while working and experimenting on ways to achieve that goal finds his efforts rather unsuccessful.  None the less he realizes that the side effect of his hard work is that he has developed some rather useful educational material or pedagogy for other goals—goals which have little or nothing to do with the original goal.

Now suppose our designer is not following WM. So he has no strict regard for the original goal, and hence does not discount this new educational material or pedagogy as irrelevant clutter.  Had he followed WM the latter would be the natural conclusion. Fortunately, he has an openness towards new goals that might be aligned with the new means, and a new design—not at all futile or irrelevant—has resulted.  In fact many beginning teachers I have come across have generated new and interesting lesson plans precisely because of this kind of openness towards new goals.  For instance, Jane (not her real name), who is a teacher I recently met, was teaching students how to craft a fish sculpture using clay in her art lesson. After planning a very good lesson and executing it, she explained during a post-lesson conference meeting with me that the idea came to her how she might have integrated science into her art lesson.  Her suggestion was that students could research a variety of species of fish and use that research to guide the eventual design of the fish. Students would then need to explain what kind of fish they had researched, and submit a little note about that species of fish, etc. In this way the lesson might be an occasion for teaching and learning some biology. Now had she been too focused on the goal of teaching art, in all likelihood she may have ignored this flash of inspiration or idea.

This leads me to the next point. Comparing the approach of our designer and WM we can immediately see the potential or lack thereof in each strategy for innovation.  Whereas WM artificially restricts the designer’s search for innovative means to a linear quest for the best means directed at one particular goal, our designer’s modus operandi broadens the search to innovative means-end connections which freely depart from the original goal and so fluidly surfaces new alignments of means and ends. (WM may qualify their method by saying that the design process is not linear but fluid in the sense it may begin at any stage but the fact is that WM’s fluidity is still constrained by the clear goal in mind without which the design process is fundamentally flawed; indeed they consider purposelessness a sin.)

Goal-less Designing

In proceeding this way, our designer would have been following a recommendation of Herbert A. Simon, who won the Nobel Prize (1978) in economics for his work on administrative behavior.  In his late work The Sciences of the Artificial, Simon suggested that one’s designing can be goal-less (1996, p. 130). Meaning, one need not define one’s search for a design-means exclusively in terms of one determinate goal. Rather one should be willing to consider new benefits or consequences that arise as potential new goals to be sought.  The consequences that unfold may have been originally unforeseeable, but now gradually unfold, and may be then judged as worth seeking.  In this way, rather than only working backwards from a predetermined goal to the means, one may in fact be designing forwards: starting with a means/strategy and exploring what possible goals might fit these strategies.  In this way one moves to and fro, first backwards from a goal to a means, and then forwards from a means to other previously undetermined goals (and then backwards again, etc).

The desirability of our designers’ way of design—let us call it goal-less designing (GD)—can be warranted even for someone obsessed with the one original goal.  Instead of being “stuck” (if one is) when one cannot find a good design or solution for a goal, GD allows the designer to proceed with exploring new consequences and new solutions apparently unrelated to the original goal, but which may turn out later to be an intellectual stimulant for a previously unforeseeable solution.  Analogously, someone completing a difficult test but is unable to complete an early question would do well to move on to other problems instead of encircling that problem, because there is always the possibility that one might trigger an insight or memory when one works on a later, related problem.

When proceeding under GD, a useful attitude is therefore “openness”. This openness is not passive, but is an opportunistic attentiveness to how new means-ends relations might emerge and therefore exist.  This kind of opportunistic attentiveness is akin to the entrepreneurial, attentive search for new business opportunities.  In this way, the curriculum designer who designs under GD is less of a linear engineer, but is in significant ways like the opportunistic serial entrepreneur, whose radar is always on in the search for new products for new markets, or in our case, new pedagogies for new goals.

Playful Folly

GD as such is in some sense unpredictable, and hence is open to indeterminate consequences which are revealed and received with joy when these consequences may turn out beneficial.  There is a constant air of revelatory anticipation of surprise and discovery.  Results are not predetermined but designers are in a state of suspense regarding what might possibly emerge. It is like a game, where there are on the one hand rules which govern the process but do not determine the result. The rules in design include prescriptions which rule out clearly bad products, but within these limits there is still room for various undeterminable states of affairs and resulting goals. The designing process is hence something of a game, and designing becomes play.

One’s capacity for play can be further enhanced even within these perimeters by employing what James March, a professor of management at Stanford, calls a “technology of foolishness” (1994, p. 263)—a hyperbolic psychological technique which presses the designer to explore trajectories that defy psychological conventions in order to better reveal currently unforeseen benefits and consequences that can become new goals.    Such benefits and consequences are unforeseen on the one hand because they may truly be unforeseeable. But they may also be unforeseen because of prevalent epistemic habits that are in fact vicious and grounded in fallacious judgments.

I offer one such technology of foolishness for our reflection. (It is called a technology of foolishness because it prescribes what appears unreasonable according to conventional thinking.) This technology of foolishness I might call “experimental hypocrisy”, and is discussed in James March’s (1994, pp. 262-264) work on decision engineering.  There designers experiment with different roles and identities which are departures from their usual self. Hypocrisy is usually frowned upon, not only because it is in some sense dishonest for misrepresenting one’s “true self” but also because the hypocrite in a very real sense behaves in direct opposition to his own preferred tastes and preferred self-concept, and when such hypocrisy is rigorously pursued would end up attaining (many short term and some long term) goals which are not entirely preferred or considered choice-worthy by the person.  But as March notes, the onus on hypocrisy inhibits foolish playfulness. By contrast, through experimental hypocrisy, the designer’s adoption of such identities expose him or her to new experiences which he or she might in fact come to grasp as desirable goals.

Thus for instance, a self-centered teacher with typically no desire to promote any good beyond his or her own welfare might experiment with the identity of a human rights activist, and come to grasp the joy in engaging in the educational enterprise for goals that are other than for one’s own benefit, and come to regard the instrumentalizing of his or her own profession for merely self-seeking ends as no longer adequate or at least optional.  This might then translate into his or her curriculum design in a way that the achievement of grades (regardless of whether the student has really grasped anything) in order to reflect well on his or her own professional performance is not the only driving aim of his or her lesson plans; rather the lesson plans may now strive to achieve other educational goals like moral development and civil values or at least may now be alert to these as worthy educational goals whereas previously it had been locked into drilling students (through route learning) to produce the desired statistics. (Chua, 2006, pp. 67-72)

In technical jargon, this strategy is an acknowledgement of rationality’s boundaries or of our own “bounded rationality”, as Herbert A. Simon (1983, p. 19) might have put it.  Meaning, the strategy follows from the humble acknowledgement that one may not really know as much as one might think one knows. One presumes to know too much if one suggests that one’s goals are all known, and stops exploring new possible goals.  In order to overcome this presumptuousness, the folly of hypocritical experimentation willfully generates a scenario which challenges one’s apparent exhaustive grasp of goals by surfacing new goals.


  1. I agree with the educational innovation and goal-less designing view. UbD restricts other innovative and/or creative goals. What is important is that the educators must also have the ever-present goal in mind. Today, the acquisition of content dominates teachers’ and students’ experience. Thus, the need to challenge the common practice of teaching knowledge and skill for acquisition first and then teaching for meaning and transfer of learning later is important. The educators must recognize that the purposeful and effective use of content is the ever-present goal. Thus, they must design all teaching and learning instructions with that goal in mind.

  2. How does one starts planning without a goal? Yet when it is goal-oriented, the design of the lesson is restrained and could end up unsuccessful in trying to achieve the goal. I agree we need to exercise flexibility and be opened to new goals in the process of designing our lessons. We should not discard a good strategy or means which could be useful to a new goal. I like the scenario of the beginning teacher, Jane who has integrated biology with art. In her case, I felt that she has achieved two goals yet they are linked.

  3. It is a noble idea to have goal-less plan.

    However, this predicates that the teacher is extremely skillful in moving her class towards the best (but unplanned) learning outcomes.

    What is perhaps less ‘sexy’ but more probable (and probably already widely practised by the very able teachers) is to plan but encourage teachers to deviate away from the planned outcomes.

  4. In view of curriculum design, I asked, “Should the teachers be first held accountable for curriculum teaching?”
    My belief in education curriculum should link back to Learning Organization – System Thinking. To achieve the school goals, all subjects must be in tandem and have their curriculum structures in place. I think curriculum structures should be anchored by a curriculum framework. From top-down curriculum perspective, ministry provides the curriculum design with predetermined specification (syllabus) to strategically control the coverage as well as uniformity of teaching & learning in island-wide. The school takes on this control strategically to develop the curriculum and set a framework with purposes, putting pupil learning and teacher teaching as pedagogy.
    The curriculum leader should develop the curriculum and apply curriculum learning to craft the teaching & learning (T&L) framework. My understanding of a framework is not a work flow. The T&L framework indicates the vision as the purpose. The framework provides structures for curriculum leaders to develop the student-centred curriculum in their subject areas. The development of curriculum follows the features as defined by the SEM model: Content, Pedagogy and Assessment (CPA). (attached framework document).

  5. There is always a question being raised, “Why do we need to develop the curriculum since it is already designed by the curriculum planning division?” Looking from the angle that it is a valid question, curriculum leaders only need to carry out the designed curriculum, i.e. to implement the curriculum according to the syllabus by putting it into the scheme of work (SOW) and monitor the effectiveness. However, when teachers deliver the planned curriculum, there might be no concrete development of the curriculum that aligns to the school goals. To achieve the school goals, all subjects must be in tandem and have their curriculum structures in place. A curriculum structures should be anchored by a curriculum framework. From top-down curriculum perspective, curriculum division provides the curriculum design with predetermined specification (syllabus) to strategically control the coverage as well as uniformity of teaching & learning in island-wide. The school takes on this control strategically to develop the curriculum and set a framework with purposes, putting pupil learning and teacher teaching as pedagogy.

  6. As we situate the craft of teaching in the present world context, it seems that it has become more and more important for school leaders to be able to articulate what the school stands for. The envisioning exercise that we do in schools is an example of this. I often ask whether there is any merit in doing this. As good teachers, do we not all aim to achieve the C2015 outcomes even without articulating them? How much does the vision, mission of one school differ from another? Do we all not aspire to make the learning experience enjoyable and have our pupils become useful citizens?

    In Singapore, education has been instrumentalised to serve the purpose of the economy, churning out the type of products that the market needs. These days, the entire education endeavor seems to have become a lucrative enterprise.

    Look at the vocabulary we have invented for ourselves as educators:
    Every school aims to create a ‘niche’ and to market itself locally and overseas. To convince teachers to ‘buy in’, school leaders engage them in dialogue and focus group discussions. At one time, teachers were horrified to be told that our pupils are actually our ‘clients’ and that there should be ‘customisation’ of what we do in the classroom. Corporal punishment by teachers was made punishable and school leaders were firm in enforcing this. Report book remarks were sugar-coated to mask unpalatable comments that parents claim would negatively affect their children’s future.

    With the SEM, which is really a business model of accountability, is there any wonder why schools are run more like business enterprises, with programmes to be run and awards to be chased? What is the curriculum? Since S’pore is producing top guns in PISA and TIMMS, the general conclusion is there must be something valuable in it. Those hungry for success flock here in droves,driving up the competition in our schools. In such a context, where even education is commoditised, is it any wonder why teachers feel alienated from the work they are doing?

  7. In defense of frameworks:

    Having a curriculum design framework makes it easy to replicate and use as a tool to mentor and train teachers.

    Having a proper curriculum design process means that learning is not incidental, learning is achieved by sound design principles.

    But what’s wrong with incidental learning?

    Incidental learning depends primarily on luck and the teacher’s ability to identify and seize teachable moments. Are all teachers masterful enough?

    Even if we acknowledge that incidental learning may be valuable, experimentation methods like goal-less design still leave us none the wiser as to how to go about designing lessons to achieve our original, intended learning goal.

    Also, what is the likelihood that, through such goal-less design, the entire curriculum will be developed? We should not confuse lesson design with curriculum design, otherwise we run the risk of the fallacy of composition – we wrongly infer that what is true of the parts will be true of the whole.

    • Misreads the argument

    • interesting and thoughtful comment. I like the point re the fallacy of composition

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