First Steps on My Instructional Design Journey

My experience designing curriculum for a high school music appreciation pilot course helped me eventually become an instructional designer.

“What do you mean, there’s no textbook? What are we going to teach from?”

It was January of my first year teaching K-12 music and band. The questions came from the choir teacher, Cathy.*  Cathy had been hired mid-year to replace the previous choir teacher, Victoria*, who resigned over winter break. We taught parallel sections of a music appreciation course, but we needed to write the content ourselves.

Cathy was in a state of disbelief. She simply couldn’t fathom it: how could the two of us create not just worksheets and tests, but reading assignments and projects too? How could we create an entire curriculum?

First Steps on My Instructional Design Journey (with sheet music)

A course pilot with no curriculum

I admit it; I’d been pretty nervous myself at the beginning of the school year. I loved the opportunity to stretch the band students with some music theory and history, but wasn’t quite sure how I’d manage with no textbooks, no curriculum materials, and no budget. This was a pilot course, so I had nothing from the previous teacher to build on either. The choir teacher also taught a section of music appreciation, so at least I had someone to collaborate with. However, we needed to write everything from scratch.

First semester: Working together

Before the school year started, Victoria (the first choir teacher) purchased some materials for a unit on rock history. It was, admittedly, too basic for high school students, but it gave us a six-week head start on pulling together more appropriate content for the rest of the year.

For first semester, we alternated units, each taking responsibility for creating materials. I pulled out my jazz history notes from college and wrote an overview, timeline, and bios; Victoria built a unit around musicals from her expertise. It consumed a lot of time, especially since we were researching and writing basically everything the students read. After all, we were effectively writing our own mini-textbook. But it was also a lot of fun.

Second semester: Continuing on my own

Then, second semester came around. Victoria was gone, and Cathy started teaching. For two weeks, she asked me nearly every day where the textbooks were. I wonder if she imagined I was hiding the books from her, playing some elaborate prank.

Eventually, Cathy decided she wasn’t willing to put in the time to create content herself, even with my help. She purchased a collection of worksheets and taught from those in precise linear order for the rest of the year, never straying from the planned sequence.

I continued creating content on my own for my section of music appreciation. For one of my favorite projects from that course, students planned a virtual orchestra “concert,” including selecting music, determining the order, and writing program notes. This authentic assessment engaged the students more than any other project that year.

Doing curriculum design helped me as an instructional designer

I didn’t realize it at the time, but designing that music appreciation curriculum was one of the first steps on my journey to becoming an instructional designer. For one thing, it helped me realize how much I enjoy creating curriculum.

Curriculum design and instructional design use some of the same approaches. Identifying objectives, building knowledge over time, and aligning activities to outcomes are all skills I developed during that first year of teaching.

Being forced to create all those learning resources from scratch was part of my journey to becoming an instructional designer, even though I’d never even heard of ID at the time. I’m still researching, writing, and creating, just like I was then, trying to craft great learning experiences. That is the essence of what I do. And I still think it’s fun.

Read more about instructional design careers, including several posts on transitioning from teaching to instructional design.

Photo by Valentino Funghi on Unsplash

*Names have been changed to protect their privacy.

Originally published 8/7/2014. Last updated 9/12/2019.

5 thoughts on “First Steps on My Instructional Design Journey

  1. As a private piano teacher and ID-wannabe I can easily relate to this :-). In Argentina there aren’t very good piano courses/textbooks in Spanish. Most are outdated, boring, or just not good for my needs (and those of my students). On the other hand, the few translations available of English books are very expensive. That’s one of the reasons I make my own mini-textbooks. I prepare materials in almost any style and I craft everything I need for my lessons from scratch. And that’s A LOT of fun. Actually, I found out this is what I enjoy the most: planning and creating the best possible learning experiences for learners. Right now my humble tools are Open Office Writer, MS Paint, GIMP and MuseScore (looking forward to learning any software needed!). I’d really love to dive into ID and start creating awesome stuff for all kinds of learners (not just piano/music students). Your articles are really helpful 😉
    By the way, I came across ID for the first time thanks to your blog. BIG thanks, Christy! 🙂

    1. Walter, the open source tools are all good choices. MuseScore is my favorite choice of the open source music notation options too. You can create some terrific materials for your students with those tools. Are there open educational resources that you could use to supplement what you create yourself? I wonder if other piano teachers are in a similar situation as you and have shared resources online.
      It’s great that you’re putting the effort into creating valuable experiences for your students. I didn’t know it at the time, but looking back I can see how that helped prepare me for my work as an instructional designer now.

      1. “Are there open educational resources that you could use to supplement what you create yourself?”
        Yes, they are! I’m always looking for good free sheet music in different styles, free backing tracks, lesson ideas… Otherwise it just would be too much work for me :-).
        “I wonder if other piano teachers are in a similar situation as you and have shared resources online.”
        Yeah, probably :/. I share everything I make for free: I put PDFs on my piano studio website, Facebook page, etc. But I’ve done this thinking of piano students who want to learn some piano. Maybe I should connect more with other piano teachers :D.
        Thanks for your reply!

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