Sunday, August 23, 2009

Rethinking curriculum

I used to teach secondary English and the term "curriculum" usually signifies K12 or post-secondary education to me. It represents what kids should know after each grade level, and cumulatively what they should know at the completion of their education. Its not really different for instructional designers...we just wrap different terms around things for corporate education.

What is also consistent is that "someone" has to decide what should be known, or what is important to be known. This is always where the problems start. Who decides? How is the decision made? And the bigger question, what are we really trying to teach?

In his blog post, First, We Kill the Curriculum, Harold Jarche discusses how the exponentially growing amount of information available to "know" calls into question whether we need traditional curriculum or not. I agree with Harold in his assertion that no, we need to think differently about curriculum.

Here's my suggestion:
* Change K12 curriculum to focus on literacy, math, and critical thinking skills. Frame that in the context of science, history, art, etc. Worry less about the content and much more about teaching students how to analyze, synthesize, critique, and question. Foster curiosity and complex decision-making.
* Change post-secondary ed to focus on problem-solving in particular subject areas. Skill practice, practical application of skills, continued focus on complex interpretations and investigations.

Now you've got a critically-thinking generation entering the workforce...what are you going to do with them? Make them sit in a classroom and go through PowerPoint training? Keep clicking the Next button on an e-learning module? Ha. Good luck.

You see, these things can't happen in isolation. You can't change K12 education and not think about the effects on post-secondary or corporate learning. You CAN change corporate learning, but there's going to be more resistance if the way wasn't paved by K12 and post-secondary ed.

Let's think about this holistically. We need to rethink all education because technology and innovation aren't isolated, they are pervasive. Its time that K12 teachers, post-secondary educators, and instructional designers stop looking at their differences and start recognizing their similar challenges. We need each other for our efforts to be successful. We need to change the cultural mindset of what learning looks like. We need to change how people think about education.


  1. I think that's a good way to look at a more utopian education framework. Government has never been good at 'do it better anyway you can, we'll measure it over the long haul'. Tax revenue supported activities have two measurement modes, measure short term against a simplistic rubric or simply forget about it and hold nobody accountable.

    Which gets back to the heart of the issue. If the public is paying for it, they are going to expect a few things:

    1. It's equitable to all.
    2. It's replicable
    3. The results are clear.

    Which... brings us to where we are. Education reduced and flattened to the lowest common denominator, simplified and codified to a set of programmed building blocks by the same academics that were grown through the system.

    Could the biggest issue be that we (they, whoever) are afraid of attacking their own foundations in fear of invalidating our own position?

    Or is there something less incompetent in play? Is this academic determinism? Our academics shape our academics... The clutches of a catch-22 from which it will be very difficult to escape.

  2. "Now you've got a critically-thinking generation entering the workforce...what are you going to do with them? Make them sit in a classroom and go through PowerPoint training? Keep clicking the Next button on an e-learning module? Ha. Good luck."

    Actually, that's exactly what I want.

    I want the learning experience to be so phenomenal that our learners enter the workforce, immediately react to the disconnect and demand change.

    I had the very good fortune last week to converse with a few people to help clarify my thinking on this: everything we do as teachers has explicit goals and implicit goals. Our implicit goal in preparing learners for the workforce? Disruption. Challenge the status quo. IMHO, active engagement changes their landscape; a workforce that knows what it needs to be successful and is active enough will get what it needs, and that shift will spur new growth and new innovation.

    Start the impact where we can most affect it -- K12 (heck, K-3). The parents and the kids together will make it impossible to ignore.

  3. Koreen, I like your suggestion about the new 'skills vs. content' curriculum for children and agree that the problem is holistic - crossing current institutional and market boundaries.

    Here's another dimension of this complex problem. In other areas where technology has had a big impact on our lives, wave after wave innovation has changed the nature of people's work. In retail or travel or finance over the last 20 years, jobs, companies, and institutions have changed drastically, or else lost ground to competitors. After a certain point, automation can no longer improve the current process, it must eventually change the way things get done in order to continue to improve the outcome.

    Education has resisted change. There's a whole literature about why education has resisted change. More importantly, there is great potential for re-thinking the whole endeavor. The current educational institutions combine teaching with a variety of society's needs, like day care, sports, and general socialization of the young. Maybe those goals need to be addressed by multiple institutions.

    So where do you start with re-thinking the whole endeavor? SoMe is potentially the right place to start - new applications that connect teachers with students, parents, publishers, and other teachers. Human teachers are really good at some things, like formative evaluation, not so good at other things, and so bogged down in administrivia and classroom management they don't have time to teach, much less to learn new tricks. Getting teachers back to teaching would be worth leaving the schools behind.

    It is doubtful that public institutions will take the lead here - government agencies and teachers unions are not incentivized to change. But they will respond to competitive pressures eventually, and for-profit education in the US is a growing industry. That's where disruptive educational apps are likely to first emerge.