Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink, Outliers and The Tipping Point, gave a TED speech about Howard Moskowitz, the extraordinary psychophysicist, and his impact on the food industry. Moskowitz invented the concept of horizontal segmentation: that the key to satisfying consumers is providing a sufficient number of distinct choices. “There is no perfect cola or perfect spaghetti sauce,” Moskowitz would say. “There are only perfect colas, perfect spaghetti sauces.” This is why today we can inspect the shelf of pasta sauces at the food market and choose among meatball, traditional, zesty, garden vegetable and so forth. In taste tests, consumers tend to cluster around these different types. If we only offer one or two varieties, even of the highest quality, consumer satisfaction will average between 6 and 6.5 on a scale of 10. When given meaningful choices, closer to their particular preferences, respondents will move to an average of between 8 and 8.5.
Which is the difference between feeling ok about what we eat, and feeling really happy.
I find this remarkably helpful as a basic principle of curriculum design. Boosting satisfaction and relevance for learners comes from providing meaningful choices. At the level of the syllabus, this suggests that one way to characterize needs assessment is the identification of how a particular learner population groups around certain topics or skill areas or outcomes. There is no perfect syllabus, in other words: only perfect syllabi. The various flavours will available through a menu of topics, projects, and/or materials. Successful courses must contain significance elements of personalization, learner-centredness and choice.
This variety will also be available at lower levels of planning: most lessons will also reflect choices through such devices as workstations or specialized groupwork. In jigsaw reading, for example, teams form around a text of choice and become experts in that material. The confidence and enthusiasm from mastering interesting material drives the sharing process as expert team members mingle with those from other groups to compile complementary material as the basis for solving a problem or pursuing a project.
So, it turns out, curriculum design is not about putting together one rigid plan to be followed by all, but rather composing a flexible catalogue of choices, with some training and direction for participants to make well-informed selections.