Just add water–Is Instant Curriculum in Your Future?

Splash Water Glass Just Add WaterIt’s not an overstatement to note that most curricula in American Public High Schools are bloated.  There’s too much to learn and so our toxic love affair with memorization and regurgitation continues, and only those students who like to play the memorization game feel loved by the system, and those who don’t find themselves jilted or just plain lost.  And while I note that the AP system has made strides to move away from content cramming and into more concept-based classes, the notebooks I’ve seen from students in certain AP classes read like the copied pages of an encyclopedia.

Now, there’s something to be said for the ability to memorize and retrieve information.  Indeed, I’ve benefited to some extent from having such a mind. My two appearances on TV game shows and the infinite nights of bar trivia I’ve attended evidence at least one benefit.  And, of course, there is the cognitive benefit that the more one knows, the more one is capable of knowing.  

But as most every pundit of education has noted for better than 15 years, drowning the brains of captive children with information is a poor goal for education in the digital age.  With the world’s libraries and all their stores of information in our pockets and at our fingertips, information is (clichéd phrases coming…) “ubiquitous,” and that means it’s no longer “what you know, but what you can do with what you know” that matters.  It’s the compelling stories you can tell with the information that will matter more than the knowledge of the information itself. * 

This is, of course, not entirely true.  Doctors, politicians, plumbers, engineers…we would agree that possession of a standard body of knowledge is crucial for them (and us).  However, for most of us, knowing the process of mitosis by heart, or the economic deficiencies of a banana republic…for most of us, those things are not (and here I’ll adopt David Perkins’ standard from his book, Future Wise: Educating Our Children for a Changing World) “lifeworthy.” That is, they are not “likely to matter, in any meaningful way, in the lives learners are expected to live.”  

And so, when I read a recent article by Alden Wicker on Vox about the movement to remove water from many of the cosmetics and cleaning products we use (to reduce packaging, plastics, and shipping costs), I got to thinking, thanks to the musing of Paul Haluszczak of Education Reimagined, about how a concentrated curriculum (focused on vital competencies) could be reconstituted by each learner through his or her own liberal application of “water” which Haluszczak suggests might be learner agency or interest–a sort of “autodidacticism via starter formula,” if you will.  

 

This concept is reminiscent of an idea I encountered on the website of consultant Christian Talbot–Minimum Viable Curriculum.  An MVC is “centered on just enough content to empower learners to examine questions or pursue challenges with rigor.”  As they explore, they will invariably encounter spaces where they need more information, and so they will grow the curriculum, with teacher assistance, of course.

As such a model would have to be project-, design- or challenge-based, the learning would occur mostly on a “just in time” basis rather than following the “just in case” model we use to stuff so much irrelevant information into our children’s heads.   It would also help focus our pedagogy on the act of learning itself, rather than mere transmission of content.  I doubt there’s a teacher alive who wouldn’t admit that what they seek most for all their students is that they learn how to understand and best manage their own learning processes.  A model like what I (and many others) am scratching at here seems a reasonable and prosperous starting point for such a goal.

I’ll continue to add water to this idea and see what (re) constitutes.  Hopefully, more such posts will emerge.

*(Note here I’m not saying that there is less value in knowing things.  Only that flooding students with content at the expense of building skills in self-driven, self-determined learning is, anymore, little better than treading water in order to cross the English Channel.)

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