Heidi Hayes Jacobs neither pulls punches nor minces words in the opening of her 2010 book Curriculum 21: Essential Education for a Changing World, or her talk at this year’s ASCD Conference in San Francisco. She begins, “What year are you preparing your students for? 1973? 1995?” I could feel a virtual finger alternately pointing at me and another wagging in disapproval.
I’ve been interested in the future of public education for ages. Working with the Center for Teaching Quality and the Teacher Leaders Network this past year and a half has added fuel to my fire. Punctuated through our group discussions about teacher retention, training, and retention has been the idea that public education is standing at the edge of a epoch, the end of over a century of analog teaching and the dawn of an age of digital learning. I actively sought out Jacobs book, and I was taken aback by the tone I assumed lay behind that opening question.
I felt a sense of guilt and shame that presumed what an honest answer from me must be. Even as I work to update and digitize my students’ learning experiences and environments, I know I am still moving at a snails pace. I can only imagine what some of my less-forward-looking colleagues might offer Jacobs as an answer, “I preparing my students for 20go-f&%k-yourself!”
If other readers are turned off by the opening question, I hope they will persevere like I did, because Curriculum 21 is asking exactly the right questions all educators should be asking themselves and one another as we navigate this period of education reform and reinvention. In chapter three, Jacobs puts these questions two ways, “What content should be kept? What content should be cut? What content should be created,” or, “What is essential and timeless? What is not essential or dated? What should be created that is evident and necessary?”
These are important questions, and Jacobs is in good company when she asks them. Sir Ken Robinson states in his RSAnimate video that is currently sweeping though school districts, “Some people say we have to raise standards as if this were a break thorough… Why would you lower them?” In his book, Out of Our Minds, he goes into more detail. “In place of a reasoned debate about the strategies that are needed to face these extraordinary changes,” he writes, “there is an insistent mantra that we must raise traditional academic standards. These standards were designed for older times and for other purposes.” He continues later with, “The essential problem is that many governments and organizations seem to think that the best way to prepare for the future is to do better what we did in the past – just do more of it and to a higher standard. The fact is we have to do something else.” Additionally, when Milton Chen, the former director of Edutopia, wrote about the six leading edges in education in his book, Education Nation, he purposely excludes a supposed “Higher-standard-of-what-we’ve-always-done edge.” On the cover of Linda Darling-Hammond, The Flat World and Education, the child is working on a laptop, not a scantron test.
Jacobs offers concrete steps for developing a 21st century curriculum or, more likely, of reinventing current curriculum using her three essential questions to drive curricular evolution. She would like to see schools, districts, and states use her well-developed curricular mapping system to ask these questions. One such way to map curriculum is vertically, asking, “What will a well-educated child know and be able to do when s/he is finished with this school or grade.” Vertical mapping takes all content areas into consideration. Alternately, schools can map horizontally, asking questions like, “What are historians writing about? What are scientists discovering? What mediums are writers and artists using? What problems are mathematicians grappling with?” These questions open the door to a content team asking the three big questions about curriculum: What should stay? What should go? What needs to be created?
Jacobs offers some suggestions about what to add and what to let go in social studies, English, World Language, Math, Art, and Science. She writes explicitly that teachers may disagree with her; she is fine with that, saying, “…that is precisely the point – to encourage an active inquiry as opposed to passive acceptance of content.”
But her real punch is to imagine a school of the future, she states, “We need new forms for schools rather than school reform.” Jacobs asks educators to look at four categories that have dominate school as it has always been done: Long and short term scheduling, Student groupings, Adult groupings, and Space.
Long and Short Term Scheduling. Without resorting to the phrase, “Because that’s how we do it,” try to answer these questions: Why is the school year 180 days long? Why is a school day 6-7 hours? Why do we break up our learning time into 45-55 minute blocks? Why is a school career 12 years long? Now, the fun part is asking these questions and dreaming up a little public-education sci-fi…
What would a school career look like that really supported student learning? Would students be able to graduate in only 10 years? Would we have room for children who needed 14 or 15 years? How would children tell us they are ready to graduate if we can no longer count on their birthdays to mark the passage of grades?
What would a school day look like that really supported student learning? Would every have to be there at the same time? Would they really have to take 5-6 equal-length courses each day? Could early birds learn at 5AM? Could night owls learn at 8 PM?
Student Groupings. Schooling is the only institution where a person’s manufacture date determines who they work with. “Good morning Ms. Jones. Welcome to Oracle! Now, I see on your employment paperwork that you were born in 1971. So… that will put you into our “39 department.” Ridiculous, right? Why are we so afraid of mixed age grouping on our classes? Music and art teachers can show us how it’s done; they’ve been organizing based on skill for years, using labels like “Beginning,” “Intermediate,” and “Advanced.” A freshman can enroll in the “Advanced” music class if she shows the teachers she has the chops for it.
Adult Groupings. Here is a place where many schools are already moving on Jacob’s ideas. Progressive secondary school are realizing that department meetings are far less useful than a meeting of the cross-curriculum teachers who share a cohort of students. The shared-student team can talk about the strengths and needs of their children and divide up the work of providing intervention, encouragement, or stretch activities. Curriculum Departments are still important, but their work of curriculum design and alignment should get done in longer, less frequent meetings. The opposite is true in elementary school, where vertical teams of teachers who will facilitate a child’s learning have a lot more to say to one another that the cohort of 2nd grade teachers. Sure those 2nd grade teachers have work to collaborate on, but like secondary departments, those meetings require more time and less frequency.
Space. Here, Jacobs isn’t just talking about virtual space. On-line learning is leading a complex existence in 2011. On the one hand, it is being touted and the next great silver bullet of education reform, with virtual schools popping up around the nation. At the same time, most schools and teachers are realizing that the internet is a powerful tool that can be as useful as one wants and is willing to invents time. We could simply replace our robo-phone call announcement with tweets or FaceBook status updates. Lesson plans can be posted on a blog or wiki for absent children to download and complete so they are not too far behind. Students can publish their work on wikis and blogs to allow for a greater audience for their products that just their teacher. Forward-thinking schools can use FaceBook and blogs to allow for students to collaborate on their projects with one another, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. These same tools can be used to collaborate with other students around the world, or with experts in the fields that the children are researching.
Some educational futurists believe that the era of physical schools is coming to a close. I don’t buy this. I have a hard time imagining when the socialization job of schools and the day-care role of schools are no longer needed. I agree with Jacobs that the physical spaces of classrooms are going to change over the next 10-20 years. If “collaborations” really becomes recognized as a critical skill, then rows of individual student desks may have outlived their usefulness.
What do you think are the key issues teachers, parents and students should be discussing? What do you think are going to be the critical skills of 2030?