The way to create a future-oriented curriculum
How to create a future-oriented curriculum
contributed by Thom Markham, Educator
This post has been updated and republished
It’s a cliché to say that change is coming too fast now for us to keep up, but clichés exist for a good reason: They are often true.
In the case of education – an industry that claims to be focused on the future but remains deeply committed to the past – the truth that our minds cannot work fast enough to track changes in the world has a crucial impact . How do we develop a learning system in a time when everything we know about learning is in flux?
The current arguments about the Common Core State Standards underscore our confusion. The Common Core authors’ impulse, which is sure to be shared by those who disagree on the details, is a noble one: an antidote to tight test-based accountability and a laundry list of results produced by the NCLB. With this measure, the Common Core Standards were of course a healthy alternative.
(Note from Ed: You are a decent answer to a decent question.)
But here’s my miracle: How can standards survive in a world where technology, the changing nature of knowledge, a great deal of chaosand an acute need to solve global problems has led to a massive disruption of school education? Is it possible that in a millennium we will be pushed along the standard in which the research process and not the scientific mastery of content is at the center of education? Are we reorganizing ourselves in a chaotic world without even realizing it?
Let’s stick with physics and put it this way: Is the trauma over standards a sign that we are entering another world of learning through an event horizon?
There are reasons to use this analogy. In the general theory of relativity, an event horizon is a limit in spacetime from which events can no longer influence an external observer. The opposite is also the case: observers cannot influence events. The point of no return – the point at which the attraction becomes so great that escape becomes impossible – has been reached. This is where we can find ourselves in terms of standards and turn the raging debate into a sideline.
Indeed, it is hard to imagine how content standards, no matter how cleverly written, can be the driving force that education will revolve around in the future. There is too much on-demand, online, networked Internet-of-Everything information. In such a force field, standards feel limited and archaic the moment they are printed.
The teachers already feel that way. I see it in their eyes and in their nodding approval, in their commitment to find something deeper for their students, in their desire to better serve their profession. You know something is going on; You just don’t know.
I say a better goal is to forget about standards and focus on creating a culture of research. Move away from the laundry list and keep an eye on the price: a comprehensive problem solving system that teaches students to think, collaborate, communicate, and feel. I emphasize the latter because problem solving, especially in the context of creativity and innovation, is a whole body exercise.
Part of going through the event horizon is the ultimate realization that resilience, empathy, purpose and commitment to causes beyond self must be engraved on the system. The problem with an event horizon is that you don’t know when you passed through it, and I doubt you can really prepare for a black hole. But we know we’ve entered strange airspace, and we know enough to take preparatory action. A few steps seem obvious.
6 Strategies for Creating a Forward-Looking Curriculum
1. Be ready to fill the void
This seems obvious, but without standards there is a huge hole in our system. Standards have been immensely helpful in addressing equity issues and in creating a common mental model of excellence in teaching that should be offered to all students everywhere. This needs to be replaced with a stronger commitment to justice, a renewed recognition that every child has reached the same global starting point and that all schools must operate by the rules of high performance.
2. Treat standards as best guess guidelines
Because standards serve a purpose, they don’t go away overnight. But, from now on, let’s treat them as if they were a compendium of the best thought human race had about what it was important to know last year. Use them as a platform, guide, reference for lesson planning, and a slightly inaccurate measure of what hopefully students will know in the future. As a teacher, decide what is non-negotiable and teach this content.
3. Plan for innovative thinking
Include a “Breakthrough” column in each rubric that will allow students to filter the standards through their own thinking and come up with original answers to authentic questions (and each lesson should have an authentic context).
4. Redefine smart
Now it’s getting harder. What defines a scholar in a system measured by mastery of the process? How do we confirm excellence? What is the stripped-down version of essential knowledge in a Google world? How do we essentially move from mastering the content to personal rigor – a kind of cosmopolitan pose that is characterized by trust, reliability, curiosity, openness and the ability to identify and integrate the information and skills required for competence in life and at work?
The obvious first step? Minimize tests and stop being obsessed with cognitive skills. A second step is to admit a great truth about the world: we do not know exactly what the scholar of the future will be like. So let’s use in-depth, well-constructed achievement rubrics that honor the whole child, assess growth in attitudes and thinking skills and content, and allow children to tell us about their future.
5. Minimize tests
A second step is to admit a great truth about the world: we do not know exactly what the scholar of the future will be like. So let’s use in-depth, well-constructed achievement rubrics that honor the whole child, assess growth in attitudes, skills and content, and allow children to tell us about their future. So rate the learning, yes. But let’s minimize testing and stop being obsessed with cognitive skills.
6. Realize project-based learning completely
Over the past decade, PBL has become the antidote to direct teaching – and it works. When students solve problems, work together for a purpose, investigate problems in the community, and show adults their learning, they become active, skilled investigators. Often times, they actually become better people as well-designed projects challenge attitudes, encourage self-reflection, and promote self-awareness.
A forward-looking curriculum
All of the PBL tools – a well-crafted driving question to capture problem solving, protocol-based teamwork, and multiple assessments based on a mix of skills and content – work flawlessly in all conditions. The solution on Monday morning? Stop looking at PBL as a once-in-a-lifetime foray to meet this final group of approaches in Common Core.
Instead, make PBL disappear. In a research-based school, it should be indistinguishable from general teaching.
Make cooperation the basis for “skillful” behavior. One fact is predictable beyond the event horizon: We will fly in teams in a networked, relationship-oriented environment. It is already impossible to distinguish what you know and what you learned online yesterday. The mind-merging is there, and the schools’ short-term goal is to let go of the isolated scholar model and help young people work together in effective, creative, and respectful ways.
This is vital because without collaboration the other 21st century skills – communication, critical inquiry, and creativity – will not flourish. The capabilities of the future are based on a holistic, internal process that has yet to be determined. The solution on Monday morning? Take seriously emerging social neuroscience, which shows that deep connectivity occurs through brain and heart functions while creating a philosophy of growth and collective resilience, especially when interactions are based on positive emotions.
In other words, nonjudgment, openness and empathy are the real keys to competence in the 21st century.
Teach a forward-thinking curriculum.
Alfred North Whitehead said it well in 1916: “The backwardness of the learned world is the secret of its mediocrity.” Dealing first hand with the intellectual and social issues of the day is now a priority. If we are teaching to investigate, we cannot teach the test alone. Even with the evidence that graduation alone is not enough, college and “college readiness” cannot be seen as the carrot for performance improvement.
To unleash the purposeful behavior required for deeper learning, students need a compelling reason to engage with content. The solution on Monday morning? Organize as much lessons as possible around service and topics that matter to young people’s future. Don’t start with standards. Start with what matters, then carefully fit the standards into the classroom.
Thom Markham is a speaker, writer, psychologist and internationally recognized advisor in the critical areas of research-based education, project-based learning and creativity. Thom is the author of Best Selling Guide to Project-Based Learning and Coaching: Expert Tools for Innovation and Research for K-12 Educators and co-author of the Project-Based Learning Guide published by the Buck Institute for Education. E-mail [email protected] or follow @thommarkham; Image allocation flickr user notsogoodphotography; A culture of inquiry through a forward-looking curriculum