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Choosing Curriculum
Last Revised: January 1, 2009
How to Design A Course
The Right Fit
One of the primary advantages of homeschooling is tailoring the program to fit the needs and interests of the student. Sometimes the curriculum can be adjusted, but sooner or later you will probably want to design your own course. Especially at the high school level, it can be hard to find curriculum for specific electives. There are so many options possible that it makes it hard for publishers to produce something for a limited market at a reasonable price. So what do you do?

Finding the Right Track
The root word for curriculum refers to a race course – literally, the course you run to get to your destination. Let’s continue the analogy with car racing to see what is involved. First, you need to identify which race you will be entering and where the track is located. How long is it? How many laps are involved? What kind of course is it – a straight drag race, a banked oval, or a street race?

Next you need to decide what car you will use. Sometimes this is dictated to you by the type of track you are racing on – such as an Indy course, Grand Prix, or street car. But beyond those general limitations, you have some leeway in the type of motor installed, the brand of tires you mount, and the fuel blend you concoct.

To navigate the track successfully, the driver has to know what method to use and what strategy to follow. When will pit stops be made? When can an attempt be made to pass the car in front? Are there straight-aways that allow for acceleration, or are there difficult turns that need to be negotiated more slowly?

When you plan a course of study, you will need to answer the same questions. What kind of course do you need? A core course that has a specific scope to it or an elective that can have more flexibility? What is the track like? Do you want a full year’s course or a semester’s course? Does it involve a long-term project or short-term instruction? Does the course content dictate what types of materials need to be found?

What will you use to get you around the course? What resources, books, supplemental materials, interviews, or contacts will provide the main substance of the course? Does it have to be recognizable to a school official to meet state regulations or can you customize the materials to fit the track you want to follow?

To navigate the course, the student needs to know how the material will be covered. In daily lessons? Or through open-ended reading assignments that culminate in a project? Are there any prerequisites or preliminary skills that need to be mastered first? Are there any writing assignments or research that has to be planned out in order to meet certain deadlines? What outside input is needed?

Two vital elements to be determined: how will the student know when the course is completed and how well did the student finish?

Writing a Course Description
Now don’t panic. This doesn’t have to be an elaborate document. Usually a one-page summary will do. The document should include:
  • a paragraph that briefly describes the nature of the course;
  • a listing of the materials and resources to be used in the course (usually in the same format as a bibliography, including the title, author, publisher, and copyright information);
  • what is required to complete the course;
  • the number of credits that can be earned if it is a high school course; and
  • how the course will be assessed or graded.
The paragraph description should tell the length of the course (e.g. quarter, semester, year, two-year project). It should explain whether the course is designed to be a survey - covering just the highlights of a large amount of information – or is an in-depth study of a specific topic. If it is an in-depth study, is the topic narrow enough to be manageable in the time involved; is there enough substance to warrant the number of credits assigned?

Generally speaking, if you use the Carnegie system of assigning credits (the most common for high school courses), then one credit’s worth of work should take around 150 to 180 hours. This is based on the t ypical 9-month academic year (180 days). A semester course should take around 75 to 90 hours.

The operative phrase here is “should take around.” The amount of time required will depend on how fast the student reads, the type of work involved (e.g. reading versus hands-on projects), the complexity of the subject or tasks, the amount of outside input required, and the type of resources being used.

If you are using a textbook or real-book, you can compare the length and breadth of the book to typical curriculum textbooks. In a classroom situation, if the class covers three-quarters of the book, that is usually enough to complete the course and award the credits. If you have an avid reader, it may not take 150 hours to read all the materials; yet there is enough substance to be equivalent to a full credit of work. Likewise, if your student works slowly, just because it takes 150 hours to complete the project doesn’t necessarily mean there is enough substance to qualify for a full credit.

This is why it is helpful to describe what is expected of the student to complete the course rather than focusing on the amount of time it takes to fulfill the expectations. Sometimes these are listed as formal learning objectives (like those found in teacher’s guides). But don’t worry if you don’t know how to write these. You can simply describe or list what the student is expected to do. For instance, if you have real-books that cover the specific topics you want to study, the course description should explain how many books will be read and any corresponding writing assignments or projects.

If you want to write formal learning objectives, Click Here to go to the 'Archives' page,
click on 'Choosing Curriculum,' and then look for articles on goals.

The final step is to explain what grading system will be used. Will points be assigned for the materials read? Are there any tests or major assignments involved? If so, how much will these count toward the grade? If a project or performance is required, list the specific requirements or performance standards involved, and who will evaluate these.

You can view 'Sample Course Descriptions' for different types of situations by returning
to the index at the top of this page and then clicking on any of the samples provided.

Finding Resources
If you are going to the extra work of designing your own course, chances are you will not be using a structured curriculum. The whole point is the opportunity to customize the class. To make things simpler, most families find a real-book on the topic to form the basis of the learning material. A real-book is a non-fiction title written by an expert in the field or a fictional novel written by someone who is passionate about the topic. You can use the table of contents to write the summary paragraph describing the course.

The other option is to design the course around a project such as a 4H program or scouting merit badge. Fine arts electives usually culminate in a performance or creative piece. The trick here is to decide how to evaluate or grade the project. The simplest way is to give points for each element of the project that is completed. In the case of the 4H program, points may be earned for the daily care of the animal, building and/or maintaining housing for the animal, and participation in a fair or show. Bonus points can be given for any awards earned.

In the case of a fine arts project, points can be awarded for maintaining a rehearsal schedule, learning any specific skills involved (e.g. memorization of a script or dance routine), and participation in the performance. In some cases, if an outside instructor is involved, you can have the instructor set specific performance goals for the student and then determine how well the goals were met.

This is the key point – did the student accomplish the original intent of the course? This may seem obvious, but sometimes homeschoolers get so caught up in “playing the educational game” that we lose sight of the real purpose – learning a specific skill or gaining new information.

That’s why it is so important to be as specific as possible in describing the main expectation for the course. This will help you decide which materials to use and how you will know if the course requirements are fulfilled.

When designing your own course, try to think “outside the box.” Since most of us are products of the public school system, we tend to think of education as something found in textbooks or classroom lectures. But most learning comes through experience, interacting with the material in some way to cement it into long-term memory.

Rather than focusing on the method, try thinking about the end result. What topic does the student want to explore? How can you tell if the information has been grasped? Are there any specific tasks involved? Are there any skills that can be demonstrated? Once these boundaries have been set, then it is easier to determine what is needed to accomplish the tasks involved. It may require Internet research, contacting a specialist and becoming a short-term apprentice to learn the skill, the student coming up with his/her own designs or artistic piece, attending a workshop, or doing in-depth research at a museum or institute. Or it can simply be learning by doing – such as learning construction and contracting by building a shed, or learning landscape design and business skills by running your own lawn and gardening service.

By focusing on the end result, you can design the course around specific, observable, and measurable skills that can easily be accounted for on the student’s transcript.

KEY WORDS: design, course, description

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