Why Curriculum Constrains Learning

libraryThe printing press changed our relationship with knowledge and helped spark the Protestant Reformation, which one could say helped bring about the Enlightenment and all of those scientific advances (such as modern medicine) that we now take for granted. The Internet is once again changing our relationship with knowledge, whether we like it or not: much as the printing press did, to the dismay of the established ‘churches’ of our time.

As books are to subjects and disciplines, the Web is to processes. David Weinberger says that in the emerging network era, everything is miscellaneous. Consider that all subjects in school really are just miscellaneous labels. In such a miscellaneous world, it does not matter what you study as much as how you study and what you can do with your knowledge.

“Not only can we find what we need faster, but traditional authorities cannot maintain themselves by insisting that we have to go to them. The miscellaneous order is not transforming only business. It is changing how we think the world itself is organized and — perhaps more important — who we think has the authority to tell us so.“ – David Weinberger

With the infinite connections created by the Internet, all fields of knowledge are expanding and artificial boundaries between disciplines are disintegrating. The concepts of subjects and content mastery are becoming obsolete. But the need for constant learning, not just at school, is increasing. A focus on process-oriented learning uses any subject matter that is of interest to the learner or is something a passionate teacher is motivated to teach. Education in a networked world should not be focused on learning about stuff, but finding stuff that encourages learning.

Time waits for no one, and the Finns realize this, as they move toward an education model that scraps subjects and replaces them with phenomena, or topics. Even achieving top ranking in international student assessments is not enough to ensure the future of Finnish education. This small country is trying to prepare its students for a large, miscellaneous world.

Imposed curriculum constrains learning. Curriculum is a type of confinement: a confinement of learning experiences. Defined content, isolated classrooms, and fragmented schedules of time, coupled with impersonal testing, are institutional bullying. But curriculum development is an enormous industry in our public education systems, and moving away from curriculum design and on to the greater task of fostering learning is an enormous shift. Challenging the validity of curriculum in any form means to challenge people’s jobs, whether they are political officials, school administrators, consultants, or teachers. Part of the immense control and authority that curriculum has is that it provides careers and therefore sources of income. This is a significant roadblock to innovation in education.

When we look at the diversity of work options after formal education, it should be obvious that no curriculum can prepare everyone for everything. It does not matter what what is taught, but how students can learn. The American Library Association was promoting information literacy, not curriculum, in 2004; “The information literate student validates understanding and interpretation of the information through discourse with other individuals, subject-area experts, and/or practitioners.”

My professional focus is workplace learning and my opinions on public education are based on watching our two boys go through a public education system, plus a fair bit of reading, in addition to many conversations with educators over the years. I think that if we change public education systems, we may also be able to improve how we can support workplace learning.

We are moving to an economy that values emotional intelligence, imagination, and creativity.

We do not conduct our lives based on academic subjects, and no workplace is subject-based, but almost all of our curricula are stuffed into subject silos. Education systems need to focus on facilitating learning and critical thinking. When students leave school they will then have the learning skills to blast through whatever job training or college preparation interests them. Getting the education system out of the job/university pre-training business will likely make for happier learners, teachers, and especially parents.

What would a curriculum look like if you eliminated subjects and particular technologies and instead focused on universal cognitive processes? Many versions of this could be created. I imagine a curriculum that is open to teachers’ expertise and students’ needs, based on processes like those suggested by Marina Gorbis in her book, ‘The Nature of the Future’:

Social and emotional intelligence
Novel and adaptive thinking
Moral and ethical reasoning

Students would have more choice in how they would learn these process skills and how they would show mastery. Self-expression could be shown through writing, art, drama, mechanics, etc. This approach would also free up many teachers in curriculum development positions. Without a subject-centric curriculum, teachers could choose the appropriate subject matter for their particular class and the school system could concentrate on ensuing that students have mastered the important processes.

Discussing ‘what’ subjects we should teach is the 21st Century equivalent of determining how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, a popular topic amongst some medieval scholars. The answer is infinite. The real debate in education is whether we need linear, book-oriented curriculum at all. The nature of knowledge is changing, and so must education.

We are moving to an economy that values emotional intelligence, imagination, and creativity. At the beginning of the 20th century, about 50% of the American workforce was employed in agriculture. Today it is less than 10%. Yet there is still food for consumption and export, notwithstanding the major issues with some industrial agricultural practices. A similar shift is happening now. Jobs in manufacturing, information processing, or other types of routine work are quickly disappearing.

A standardized curriculum, based on core subjects, cannot address the needs of the network era. Today, we are seeing that routine work keeps getting automated while technical work, for which standardized processes can be developed, gets outsourced to the lowest cost of labor. The value of this work is diminishing, because of its fungibility: the property of a good or a commodity whose individual units are capable of mutual substitution. ‘Jobs’ of the last century were based on the same premise of mutual substitution, in that one worker can be replaced by another. Software and global digital communications are making these types of jobs commodities, where over time, price tends to zero. Any work that can be described in a flowchart, will be automated.

The good news is that there will still be valued work to be done in the network era. For instance, craft work, based mostly on implicit knowledge developed through time and practice, cannot easily be digitized. In addition, creative work finds new opportunities and creates real competitive advantage. But craft work takes time to develop, and creative thinking has to continuously evolve and adapt to the changing environment.

There is much work that machines cannot do. Work that requires empathy, creativity, and an understanding of social context cannot be put into an algorithm. The valued work in any organization today is increasing in variety and decreasing in standardization. This trend is growing. There is a critical need for our education systems to adapt to a creative economy in order that its graduates are equipped to deal with a world in perpetual beta: one that is always changing and requires constant learning.

In the creative economy, being able to continuously learn, and share that new knowledge, will be as important as showing up on time was in the industrial economy. Systemic changes to business and education are happening. There will be disruption on a societal level, but we can create new work and learning models to help us deal with them. It can start by rethinking education.

Image credits: Stewart Butterfield

3 thoughts on “Why Curriculum Constrains Learning”

  1. Gerald A

    I don’t necessarily disagree with the overarching premise here: that subject silos are an unnatural and unnecessary constraint in education. But to abolish curriculum altogether is, in my view, too much.

    I don’t believe that education is primarily about developing tomorrow’s workforce. Part of the purpose of a public education is common experience and common language that ties our culture together. Curriculum is not merely the rails on which technical instruction rides. It is also an agreement on some scale (whether a local township or a nation) about what is valuable to the society as a collective.

    Process skills are indeed most important. But content also matters, and there should be a certain amount of content that’s common to all of us. Scientific knowledge, literacy, history–all of these matter, whether in silos or not, and we shouldn’t leave it entirely up to individual teachers and students to decide which parts of it to access.

    For Jarche’s vision to happen would also require a complete redefinition of the role of teacher. Teachers today do not have the training, expertise, or time to make those content choices. I experienced that this year in my district. We provided teachers with curriculum maps that outlined the skills and content we wanted students to know by the end of the year. Teachers were then free to teach those skills and content in whatever way they wanted. Some teachers loved the flexibility and choice. Most were overwhelmed and stressed. To design good instruction takes a significant amount of time and research, and they had neither the time or the knowledge to do it.

    To be clear: this is not an indictment of any of our teachers. They worked diligently and did the best work they could do. It was simply a skill that they were not prepared to do, nor did they have the right resources at hand.

    The job of teacher would have to change radically to allow the kind of education that Jarche is proposing. Are we willing to accept the high costs that would go along with this? Are we willing to lose the common language and experiences that connect us, and would that loss really be a benefit in a global society?

  2. Andy P

    This is an excellent and insightful perspective. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and divergent thinking. More of this dialogue is needed to inch us forward. It seems to me this change needs to happen at the University level for any real impact to occur. We often teach as we were taught. If future teachers, PhDs, and parents experience a curriculum free experience in their higher education they are more likely to perpetuate that approach in their teaching profession, expect it as members of society, and demand it as parents.

    How does a curriculum-free approach co-exist with (in my mind) the equally valid approach of competency-based learning? Are the two opposing or parallel?

    I do offer that regardless of the approach, curriculum or curriculum-free, there still will be people needed to consider ways in which the educational experience can best be designed, sequenced, officiated, and measured. So, like in many of the examples you give about jobs that are no longer needed, today’s curriculum jobs may not actually disappear, but will certainly change. Educational Experience Designer versus Curriculum Designer?

  3. Well said,. “Education in a networked world should not be focused on learning about stuff, but finding stuff that encourages learning.”.
    I agree with the whole article. I don’t interpret it to mean that “curriculum” will disappear and students can just learn only the things they want. I’m sure we can find a way to include the “things we all need to know” without coercion and without grouping kids by age and measuring them all at the same time. We will need to develop ways to implement this, but we’re smart educators.
    I also don’t interpret the article to imply that the only purpose of schools is job preparation. Indoctrination is another one. Consider the following: immigrants who become citizens. There are US citizens who learn about and also contribute to our culture and society. We would call them “productive members of society” (even if they do not have a “job”, but of course many do). Many did not pass through the US education system. Some may never have attended school at all. Did they learn “the things we all need to know”? Does it matter? Is the US citizenship exam intended to measure this? IMHO no. A common joke is that most of the American population (the ones who did go through the school system) would fail to remember the presidential facts, historical dates and the words in our founding documents on the exam.

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