Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Idea #2: Eliminate Curriculum (As We Know It)

At the end of the school year I met with the administrator who does my evaluation and he/she asked me to think over the summer about some "big ideas" that would be worth discussing that could improve our school. This is the second of hopefully several blog posts that will explore some of those ideas. (The first was Eliminate Letter Grades, GPA and Class Rank.) Warning - this will be extremely long, somewhat rambly, and very narrative/descriptive.

Name of Administrator,

In my previous big idea I suggested that there were three major areas that needed to be explored: our system/schedule, our curriculum, and our assessment/reporting system. While I felt that assessment/reporting was fundamental to everything we do, and drives so many of the decisions (and assumptions) we make regarding what we do, curriculum is a close second.

For me, talking about curriculum with educators is analogous to trying to talk to a fish about water. If you ask a fish how the water is today (go with me on this), she's likely to say, "What water?" Water is so omnipresent for fish, such a "given", that it almost doesn't even register as a variable in their environment: it is their environment. Curriculum is the same for educators. We have spent a large majority of our lives immersed in school that has been defined by the curriculum.

First we attended 12 or 13 years of K-12 schools, then typically four years of college, and - for many of us - a year or two or three of grad school (not to mention numerous professional development opportunities that operated similarly). And as educators (particularly if you are a career educator) we have spent our adult lives in schools that have been defined by the curriculum. As a very specific example, I have spent 45 of my 51 years (not counting those professional development opportunities as additional time) in formal, traditional (for lack of a better word) educational settings. What water? What curriculum?

Over all those years in formal, traditional educational settings, we have lost track of some of the basic assumptions we have made (and continue to make) about what school is. One of the most basic assumptions we make is that a pre-defined, standardized curriculum is not only necessary, but is central to the basic idea of what school is. In many ways, it has become the de facto purpose of school. So, for this post, here is my basic assertion: When we create and "deliver" a pre-defined curriculum to our students, we are robbing them of the essence of what it means to learn.

Because we have been so immersed in "school" as we know it, because curriculum has both visibly and invisibly shaped most of our lives, we have trouble seeing the pitfalls inherent in a curriculum. Here's a basic truth about curriculum that I would hazard to say we rarely share with our students: it's a guess. Some folks would argue that it's a well-informed, educated guess, but it's a guess nonetheless, and it's a guess that's made using some very faulty assumptions.
  • The first assumption is that we know what is essential to be "educated." We don't.
  • The second assumption is that we know what is essential to be "successful" (which we really need to define) in the future. We don't.
  • The third assumption is that the future is going to be very similar to the past and present. It won't be.
  • The fourth assumption is that the only way to prepare students for their future is to have them learn a pre-determined, fixed set of knowledge and skills, in a certain order, at the same time, and within a certain time frame. I remember Will Richardson referring to in a presentation a long time ago as "just in case" education. But today's world - and so much of what we know about learning - requires a more "just in time" approach.
  • The fifth assumption is that all students need to know the same things, at the same level, and at the same age. They don't.
  • The sixth assumption is that, even if you agree with the previous five assumptions, our system as it is currently constructed is well-designed to accomplish those things. It isn't, and it doesn't.
What does it mean to be educated? I don't think we really know. If you ask most people this question, the response will typically include some or all of the following:
  • literate
  • numerate
  • critical thinker
  • knowledgeable
  • lifelong learner
  • problem solver
There are many more, of course, but those tend to be the top responses. I don't necessarily disagree with these, by the way, but I disagree with how people are typically defining them. Let's take "literate" as an example. What does it mean to be literate?

When I was growing up, being literate basically meant being able to read, at about the 8th or 9th grade level. Now we've done a ton of work in the last 40 years or so and have improved the definition of literacy tremendously. It's not "just" being able to read, but to be able to think critically about what we read, and write, and communicate, and it includes numeracy, and scientific literacy, and artistic literacy, and a long, long list of other "literacies", skills, and habits of mind. Even the National Council of Teachers of English has laid out a much broader and more nuanced definition of literacy:
Literacy has always been a collection of cultural and communicative practices shared among members of particular groups. As society and technology change, so does literacy. Because technology has increased the intensity and complexity of literate environments, the 21st century demands that a literate person possess a wide range of abilities and competencies, many literacies. These literacies are multiple, dynamic, and malleable. As in the past, they are inextricably linked with particular histories, life possibilities, and social trajectories of individuals and groups. Active, successful participants in this 21st century global society must be able to
  • Develop proficiency and fluency with the tools of technology; 
  • Build intentional cross-cultural connections and relationships with others so to pose and solve problems collaboratively and strengthen independent thought;
  • Design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes; Manage, analyze, and synthesize multiple streams of simultaneous information; 
  • Create, critique, analyze, and evaluate multimedia texts; 
  • Attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments.
Notice that it's not a single "literacy," literacy with a capital L; but multiple literacies. And those literacies are "dynamic and malleable." That means they are constantly changing, shifting, adapting, and are shaped by the learners themselves. What percentage of our staff do you think meets the above definition of literacy?

As another example, let's look briefly at "knowledgeable." What does it mean to be knowledgeable in 2015 (and beyond)? When nearly the sum total of humankind's knowledge is a click (or a voice request, or an automated computer request) away, what does it truly mean to be "knowledgeable"? How valuable is it to have a built-in, random-access storehouse of "knowledge" in a local repository we call our brain so that we can recall individual factoids on demand? To be clear, I'm not suggesting knowledge isn't important, it is. It's necessary, but not sufficient. But how important, and how much knowledge, and what kind of knowledge? I'm suggesting that our current emphasis on knowledge acquisition and retrieval is misguided. It's not (just) how much you know, but it's what can you do with it? Knowing isn't enough, being able to do something with that knowledge is what we want for our students. And, increasingly, it's not (just) what you know, it's who you know.

Lifelong learner. This is a buzzword that educators have been using my entire career. We love to give lip-service to it, but do we actually believe it? The irony is that the assumption of a fixed curriculum is antithetical to the concept of being a lifelong learner. Why do I have to know Algebra by the end of 9th grade if I'm a lifelong learner? Does everyone have to know Chemistry and, if so, do they have to know it by age 17? If I'm a lifelong learner, shouldn't I be continuously learning, and if I need to learn Algebra or Chemistry or whatever at the age of 24 (or 44, or 64), can't I do that? (And, by the way, while Algebra may not be changing so much, Chemistry certainly is, so a decent portion of the Chemistry they are "learning' in 2015 will be outdated when they are 44 or 64). If our goal is to create lifelong learners, why are we so fixated on making sure they are "learned"?

Okay, so I could go on about this for a long time (you probably think I already have), but I'll stop with this part for now and address the next logical question: so what should we do instead? Again, as I said in the previous post, this is something that needs to be a school-wide discussion and, to be perfectly clear, I do not think there is one right way to do this. But I have learned previously that sometimes it's helpful for folks to have at least one possible vision of what it could look like in order to get the conversation started. So here's my conversation starter.

While I personally think we should throw out the curriculum (as we know it) for all four years at AHS, I think that is probably too radical of a step to take all at once (and very unlikely to happen). So my suggestion is a bit of compromise, but one that I think still holds reasonably true to what our students need while simultaneously having at least a small chance of being adopted and being much easier to practically implement as we transition from our current system. I would propose a hybrid solution, with freshmen and sophomore years staying somewhat traditional, and junior and senior years being radically different.

I'll delve into the details a bit to sketch out the idea, but will try not to delve too deeply since this is just one possible vision of what it could look like. The basic idea is that freshmen and sophomore years would still look fairly "traditional," and by traditional I mean that students would have a schedule of classes with somewhat similar requirements (core, elective, hours, etc.) as we do now. This would help address concerns that ninth and tenth graders aren't ready for the radical changes I'm going to suggest for juniors and seniors, that they will need to transition from the schooling they've known to this new approach, and then we need a couple of years to bring them into this new culture of learning at AHS that we are trying to develop. It would also address some of the practical matters regarding graduation, state, and college requirements, as well as provide a place for existing staff that might not be quite as ready to jump into the radical innovation portion.

While this would resemble what AHS looks like currently for ninth and tenth graders, it would not exactly duplicate it. All of our "courses" would undergo some changes, some more subtle and some more radical, all designed to begin to transition and transform our students to be prepared to be successful, more independent learners in their junior and senior years. This would have to be part of a coherent vision of the four years at Arapahoe, and a coherent vision of what it means to be a learner today (and in the future). There would be a lot of heavy lifting involved in making these changes and I could foresee some significant changes in required courses in ninth and tenth grade given the radical changes I'm suggesting for 11th and 12th.

So what then does 11th and 12th grade look like? There are lots of possibilities here, and I think it's important to realize up front that it will not be one-size-fits-all. It will - and should - look different for different students. But I envision much more personal learning (not "individualized" or even "personalized", although I think personalized can be interpreted similarly to personal). In brief, "individualized" learning is something we do to kids; we try to deliver the existing curriculum in individualized ways to be more successful with each student. While I prefer that as compared to non-individualized learning, that's not what we're going for. We're going for "personal" learning, which is learning that kids do for themselves.

We want students to become (with our help) master learners. We want them to pursue their passions, to engage in relevant, meaningful and deep learning that matters both to them and to the world around them. We want them to have the ability to spend two months (or two years) pursuing an idea deeply if they so choose, and our job is to help them do that as successfully as possible. This could take many forms, from internships, to apprenticeships, to independent or small group studies. Or it could even look somewhat like traditional courses for those students who feel like that will best meet their needs at this time. The power of the approach, however, is there is no one fixed path, and - for most students - it's likely to include all of the above approaches (and more) put together in unique combinations.

If our goal is to help students become lifelong learners, who are literate, numerate, and knowledgeable critical thinkers and problems solvers, then we need to give students the opportunity to do those things right now, in high school (not at some unspecified "later" in the "real world"). We underestimate the ability and the passion of our students. To paraphrase Marianne Williamson,
Our greatest fear is not that our students are incapable, it's that they are capable beyond our expectations. It is the fear of what might go right, not the fear of what might go wrong, that most frightens us.
At this point you may be thinking that this sounds interesting (perhaps even "great"), but what about having students "college and career ready?" I would take issue with that phrase. Over the last few years this phrase has been developed with good intentions, but I think with three underlying, and faulty, assumptions.

The first faulty assumption is that we truly know, starting in Kindergarten - at least 13 years before students will enter college or a career - what they will need 13 years (or 17, or 37, or 57) years in the future. Even if you shift the start to ninth grade, it's the height of hubris to assume that we know what our students are really going to need in their career in 2050.

The second assumption I think is really a slightly disguised bias toward college. At least in my recollection and personal experience, the phrase "college and career ready" started out as "college ready," and then the "career" part was added on later when folks figured out both the elitist and impractical implications of saying all kids should be college ready. The bias, I believe, is that while they say "college and career ready", the strong belief is that college is better and, well, if you can't be college ready, then okay, you can be career ready. I also think the assumption is that if we design our schools to produce students who are college ready, they will also be career ready. I'm not sure I completely follow the logic of that.

The final assumption this phrase makes is that "college and career ready" should be our goal. I would strongly argue that, while I believe the approach I'm describing will actually make our students more "college and career ready" than our current approach, that really shouldn't be our goal. Again, I would reference the saying we have prominently displayed in our cafeteria, "Not for school, but for life, we learn." If we are "preparing" our students for anything, it's for life (although I'm not a huge fan of focusing too much on "preparing" vs. actually living). While "college" and/or "career" will likely be a sizable portion of many of our students' lives, it is not their entire life, and we should be "preparing" them for all of it. (And since "college" is really just "pre-career", this phrase really implies that we are preparing them solely for careers; for jobs, to be workers, which I also think is problematic.) If we believe that education is about more than simply preparing students to be good employees, than "college and career ready" cannot be our goal.

Again, I could go on for a long time, but let me close with one more issue that is likely to be prominent in any discussion regarding a plan that looks anything similar to what I've proposed. What will teachers do with those juniors and seniors? This is more than just a practical question, I think it actually is a fundamentally philosophical question about what it means to be a "teacher" in 2015.

If this idea were presented to staff I think it would engender many reactions, but I could perhaps envision dividing teacher reactions into four groups. A small, but not insignificant, number of our teachers would be ready to jump in with both feet. A small, but larger number of our teachers would be intrigued and ready to jump in with one foot, but would need some time to think through this and adapt. A similar-sized group of our teachers would be willing to dip a toe in. Finally, a small, but not insignificant group of our teachers would not want to even get near the water. I think all four groups, but especially the last two, would express something similar to, "But I"m a (fill in the blank) teacher. What would I teach?"

This reminds me of something I've heard Chris Lehmann say many times, "I don't teach "English" or "Math", I teach students English or I teach students Math.) I think another obvious, but perhaps unintended, consequence of defining school as delivering curriculum is forgetting the fact that we aren't here to teach subjects, we are here to teach students. I think I might even go a bit further than Chris's statement and suggest that even the phrasing "I teach students (fill in the blank)" is perhaps still not quite what we're going for at AHS in 2015 (and beyond). If our goal is to help them become lifelong learners, then even saying "I teach students mathematics" is too limiting.

I just finished reading Will Richardson's From Master Teacher to Master Learner, and I think Will does a much better job than I would in describing this shift. (I highly recommend you read it, in fact, I think it would make a great follow-up book study for the staff after Mindset.) But, briefly, let me try to convey my interpretation. The role of the teacher is no longer (and perhaps never should have been) to deliver a fixed body of knowledge to a student; rather, the role of the teacher is to be a master learner and to help students become master learners. We need to model learning for and alongside our students and, in the process, help them become the best learners they can be.

So instead of Chris's phrasing (which I still like), I would initially change it to "I help students learn (fill in the blank subject area)" and, then, one step further, "I help students learn," and, even further, "I help people learn." Limiting it to just "students" ignores the very concept of lifelong learners - we are all students, if we needlessly delineate students as a separate, and often by implication inferior, category, then we are limiting ourselves and everyone around us. This touches on my personal mission statement that I tried to compose a while back,
To help myself and those around me become better learners and discover and pursue their passions.
Maybe a little better, but it's awkward with the multiple 'ands', and I still don't quite like the phrase 'better learners.' So then I'm reminded of another post where I reference something David Jakes wrote talking about culture, and I wonder if somehow my mission statement should try to talk about a culture of learning.
To help myself and those around me develop a culture of learning; one where we help each other discover and then pursue our passions.
In my suggestion for how we transform AHS (particularly junior and senior year, but also transitioning to and developing the culture for it in freshmen and sophomore years), the role of the teacher really does shift from "teaching" in the traditional way we've defined that to "learning, helping others learn and become better learners, and developing a culture of learning." Some teachers (perhaps many) will not initially (or perhaps ever) be comfortable with that definition or role but, in the end, it is the role that our students need us to fill. We need to make a decision, are schools designed to meet the needs of our students? Or not?

Clearly, there are many more details I could go into, including a suggested timeline for this transition (initial thinking, between two and five years), but I think this is probably enough to lay out the general idea and to get the conversation started. I look forward to having this discussion with the entire staff.



  1. Love it man!

    The only sticking point I have is "what's good for the goose is good for the gander" argument: why wait until 11 and 12 grade?

    Could this begin with pre-school? Really, how could 11-12 grade look and feel more like a pre-school: personal learning, discovery, creating, dare I say "playing"?

    I get it. An institution needs to build capacity for this kind of change. But what if ya got rowdy? I think of what _Mosaic_ is doing at Castle View.

    I would love an opportunity to coffee and rap about some ideas.

    1. I, of course, agree. But as I indicated in the post, I'm doubtful such a radical change all at once has even a 1% chance of being considered. The compromise I propose has an approximately 2% change of being considered, so I went with that :-).

  2. Thoughtful and well-written post, Karl. Thank you.

    I struggle but don't disagree with the fact that something that makes this much sense has "a 2% chance" of being considered (probably less in most places -- the fact that an administrator even asked you for big ideas like this is remarkable).

    It is an inspiration that folks like you keep fighting the good fight every day, despite the current climate we live in. Your students undoubtedly benefit greatly from that.

    I look forward to reading more about how this is received and what results.

  3. When my art students beg me to stay later in my class so they can miss math class, I almost want to keep them, but I force them to go to math class like everyone else.

    Math needs to be an elective. Math has followed me and tortured my arty soul and has blocked many paths in life. Why do we still keep math as a required blockage to so many kids? My 7th grade daughter was just kicked out of her successful visual art program at Denver School of the Arts in DPS, because she flunked math.

    Kids ask us why they have to memorize and regurgitate a subject that can easily be referred to electronically. Gone are the arguments for math "in case they are stranded on an island" and don't have a calculator. Those days are gone and we need to catch up.

    Kids have a point, and it's not because they are lazy or stupid. We keep telling them they need to take math for college, so they need to take math for further academics, not because they actually need it in real life. Math is built-in to stay and it seems crazy to me, but no one wants to move forward and get out of the mental math trap. Teach kids how to do daily math for grocery bills and taxes and stop there. Use the time and resources to build the kids as individuals and let go of antiquated math class. This freaks out most people, because math is part of the water we swim in. It's time to get real and have a serious conversation about the debilitating continuation of the belief in math for all no matter what.

  4. Hi,Karl,
    I have enjoyed reading your thoughts, and wondered if we were going to get back to the conversations that the shooting derailed at the end of 2013. One of the things I was thinking (and you may not like this, as it uses college teaching as a model) is to create something like "majors" for students. Those first two years of high school are when students take their "core courses," and those should be redesigned for actual use in this world. The last two years (which, I believe, would be something students would really look forward to, and therefore stay in school) are for pursuing their passions, their "major," which might revolve around mathematics, or performing arts, or literature, or some combination of them. Their work would require them to develop their own inquiry on some question or idea they really want to learn about, and they would have a team of teachers who would be advisors, and who would help each student come up with "assignments" that are more individual and organic, but allow teachers to use their strengths--albeit in a different way. There are some colleges that use an approach somewhat similar to this, like The Evergreen State College, which my son attended, and there are charter schools working in the same vein. I do think that if we are going to take such an approach, however, we would need to radically alter the teacher to student ratio. Our school is based on a factory teaching model, and as you know, our class sizes have done nothing but go up, while we still have not hired back the faculty we lost to the recession. A more personalized approach means hiring far more teachers, or leaving behind big schools altogether. I would love to talk more about this.

    1. Well, thinking about it as a "major" is certainly one option that students could choose. I would hesitate to categorize it as that for several reasons. First, I think that ties it too strongly to the legacy college system. Second, I think it puts pressure on students to decide on a major/career path too early, as opposed to just focusing on something they are passionate about. Finally, I think adults are the ones that feel the need to categorize in the first place, and it's viewing it more from the point of view of the system than the student.

      Having said all that, I still think it would be much better than what we have now.

  5. Thanks for the thoughts, here, is the new K-9 "curriculum" in BC, where I am lucky enough to work. Like you I'd love to see curriculum disappear, but this might be a step in the right direction:

  6. I absolutely loved when you said teachers aren't there to teach subjects, they are there to teach students. Teachers tend to put so much emphasis on teaching students a subject, then sending them off to the next class to learn another! The curriculum needs to go. When students follow day by day, step by step instructions over and over, they have no drive or interest to learn anything!