Yesterday, David Warlick, in writing about Wikia, mused “what if we had a curriculum that was open and inviting to being gamed by the learners — in a good way?”

I’ve spent most of the last couple months neck-deep in state standards, textbooks, and other curriculum materials, trying to develop some more comprehensible and engaging ways to teach things. A few thoughts and experiences I’ve had while doing this:

– If a kid was tasked with creating with a concise, understandable, and engaging way of presenting a math concept as a 2-3 minute video (as I’ve been doing), he or she would sure understand the concept.

– If a kid researched the history of India and found three “reliable” sources (none of which were Wikipedia, though I’d add that as a fourth resource) that each had a very different take on the “facts” with no consensus on “key dates” like when India became a British colony, some real understandings would emerge. (Some of these might include that all sources are somewhat subjective; that there often isn’t clear consensus on what is a “fact;” that events happen on a continuum, not on a specific day; and that understandings of underlying motivations and themes are more important than names, dates, and places.)

– If a kid had to develop an assessment that tied to key state standards, they might well wonder how these standards were developed and have some interesting reflections on curriculum, standards, and assessment. (Or maybe that’s just me talking.:)

All of this fuels my interest in the open education movement and the idea that open tools like wikis are a very interesting alternative to textbooks. My interest in this area is grounded in a belief that most textbooks and other curriculum materials are ineffective educational tools.

One real problem with the idea of having kids actively creating their own curriculum and learning is time. I concede that there really aren’t enough minutes in the school schedule (or even hours in the whole day) to explore the content required in that kind of detail. Of course if teachers didn’t have to reteach skills and content every year because it wasn’t mastered in previous years, that would help. But there still isn’t enough time for everything.

Following that line of thought leads to looking at curriculum frameworks. There is simply too much included in most sets of standards to be reasonable. That leads to a curriculum that becomes a whirlwind of trying to get kids to memorize a rush of facts that will get them through the state tests. The result is kids who don’t know the basics and, even worse, who have poor basic literacy skills and a real lack of critical thinking and analysis abilities.

We need to examine critically state standards.

Having sat on various discussions with state DOEs and textbook committees, I know the problem. We all want kids to learn what is important. And we all have different ideas of what is important. Get a committee of 20 or more people together to discuss and negotiate this, and before you know it, you have a set of grade level expectations that is 100 pages long and a textbook that weighs so much that it is a health concern (for chiropractic reasons….not considering the learning implications :). [Sidenote: The textbook industry has come up with the clever solution of having schools buy two textbooks for each child so that one can be left at home. They seem to have sidestepped the learning implications at stake.]

How much of this is really critical information? Will it help kids get a job or compete effectively in the 21st century world?

These are tough questions. It’s much easier to include everything in the curriculum than to make hard decisions about what to drop. It’s more politically expedient to declare that no child will be left behind than to look at why our education system is not preparing students for the modern world. It’s more convenient to blame things that are out of our control like kids’ home lives or text messaging than to think that the problem is at the very core of how we’ve been defining successful learning.

While I’ve heard a lot of luminaries point to a lot of problems with education, I haven’t heard many people point to frameworks and standards as a source of the problems. What do you think? Do state (national, district) standards need to be reformed?

This problem is so steeped in politics that it is difficult to know where to begin working on it. But like others, I want to try.

A new approach to defining what's important

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