model railways

The model railway analogy for curriculum design

Whilst quietly engaged in the construction of my latest model railway project over the weekend (picture above), an idea came to be about the similarities of planning and building a model railway, and planning and building a new curriculum.

How does it go?:

Before nailing down track, willy-nilly, you have to think about a number of things first.  What is the overall effect you are trying to create; who is it for (e.g. me or the kids?); how much time am I willing to spend on its development; how much space do I have (i.e. which gauge am I going to use?); what kind of rolling stock will be running – freight/passenger, electric/diesel etc.
So whilst merilly cutting track and soldering joints, I thought about the analogy:

The track is a bit like the curriculum – a pathway to follow: there’s no point in sorting out content before I know what it is I want to achieve and what the intended outcomes of the whole endeavour are. Will there be optional routes, if so, where should the junctions be?

Once the track is fixed, then I am going to be stuck with it for some time. So I need to ensure that the curves are not too sharp for the Bullet Trains to negotiate at speed. Once a curriculum is fixed, it would also take a lot of work to go back and say, “no, that’s not what we meant at all! We didn’t intend our students to behave in this way”, etc. You need to ensure the track does what you want, within the constraints imposed upon you and allows the trains to ‘behave’ in the way that lets you achieve the desired overall effect (outcome).

The joints need to be smooth and even to avoid any de-railments at awkward moments. The track needs to exhibit continuity so that the trains can progress without continual stop-starts. Repeated de-railments will, of course, end up damaging the rolling stock so that it doesn’t roll smoothly in the future.

Who are your intended students?  Are they “freight cars” or “passenger coaches”?.  This has implications for the choice of locomotive (how much pulling will they need?), and your track-side buildings.  Do you need station platforms or container cranes? And if you happen to have the odd steam loco, then coal needs to be thought about.

Once you have all the physical components sorted, we then need to think about technology – are we going to be able to wire it all up to allow us to make it all happen? Likewise, once the pedagogy has been sorted out, then a  question remains – how can I use the ICT to support it?

The sequence of planning is important and has to be revisited in an iterrative manner, ‘cos everytime you make a decision, it has implications further down the line.  If you want to run Bullet Trains at a reasonable speed, then you don’t want too many sharp bends. If you want to offer appropriate challenge for top calibre students, you have to provide the appropriate programme – if they have to run at 1/3 speed, they will get bored.  If your track demands “shunters”, then even Bullet Trains will start to look like them!

Ok. So this analogy might be stretching things a bit and there may be a few holes in my thinking here. But if you have read this and reflected upon it, I bet you cannot avoid thinking about some of your students (or even more likely, some of your colleagues) as either ” Bullet Trains” or “shunters”. Next time you pull into a siding, think about your ‘track layout’ and how to make best use of your rolling stock. And, of course, you can’t always blame poor quality rolling stock if it doesn’t make it around the track.

Toot, toot!

Further Reading:

Ulriksen, L. (2009). The implied student. Studies in Higher Education, 34 (5): 517 – 532.

Railway Modeller Magazine – available at all good newsagents.



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