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Engage Learners with A “Do Something” Curriculum

This is cross posted at “The Innovative Educator”

The Innovative Educator’s popular post “Fix Boring Schools, Not Kids Who Are Bored” struck a cord with many readers. Add me to the list of bored, restless, and misbehaved children that fit in the educational system like a square peg in a round hole. In second grade, my school tried to hold me back for not being “developed” enough after consistent misbehavior.  As a result my mom took me to get some tests done and I tested into fourth grade. Weary of putting a scrawny ADHD dork into rooms full of boys three years larger my mom opted not to go this route.  By High School, I set a school record, but not the kind that makes a mother proud. By that time I wasn’t buying the whole scene. I got into punk rock and my record was for the most detentions served.  I was never engaged in school. My success as an adult, occurred despite, rather than because of my education. If not for reckless ambition following the onset of testosterone and political activism involved in the positive side of the punk rock subculture, I might have never reapplied myself.

The most irritating aspect about school for me was the focus on remembering fleeting knowledge.  The curriculum was content driven, and though there were some skills that came along the way – writing, mathematical, and analytical, – the daily practice of schools was in the  “do homework/take the test,” kind of vein.  I wanted dramatically to learn TO DO SOMETHING.

Even then, when the internet was still in its infancy, it was clear to me that content knowledge was almost always something you could look up and master quickly when needed, but that to learn to “do something” – to learn to produce good work, from scratch and of economic and social value – was what would be relevant in the world.

Today, I run an education focused start-up called Inigral in San Francisco.  Being an entrepreneur means having to immediately learn (and hire and support others in learning) a range of skills and procedures. I need people on board that can do things and/or throw themselves into something and learn full competency quickly.  Contract law, finance, design, product development, engineering, etc.  The world of work makes it painfully obvious that the school curriculum is not aligned to the world outside school.

Some people are fortunate to find programs where they can pick up these kind of skills in college, and there’s some validity that the core curriculum in part sets the basic platform for later economic contribution.  But, mainly, I see that people figure this out how to “do something” DESPITE the schooling system rather than because of it.  For example, in my own company our Chief Technology Officer taught himself software engineering in high school, and an intern I hired taught himself video production.

School can effectively prepare students if they don’t focus on “procedural knowledge” – the act of mastering and employing a skill to attain value.  School must start teaching that life is a series of new processes and skills you will have to master, therefore the operation of acquiring new skills is perhaps the most important skill of all.

Just as important is the ability to anticipate what kind of skills will be relevant, to adapt, and to proactively learn from them.  After all, the necessary skill set in the workforce transforms rapidly.

This is not a new idea.  We have seen trade-based courses and non-core electives that focus on skills.  We have also seen the rise of Project-Based Learning and other models of instruction.  However, I have yet to see a “do something” curriculum or school design. Somehow the American conversation on education actually devalues approaches without a singular focus on core content.  It’s that strange obsession that, I feel, has us barking up the wrong tree altogether.

Content Knowledge is Dead

I heard Susan Jacoby, author of “The Age of American Unreason,” on the radio the other day using meaningless statistics about teenagers (and adults) ignorant of basic bits of content knowledge. Sure, it’s a little offensive that people can’t point out Iraq on a map when we’ve talked about it for six years. But, I think calling alarm to content ignorance is missing the whole point. In fact, it’s the problem.

The emphasis on content knowledge IS the problem. Students have always thought content knowledge was irrelevant a la Mark Twain. Why? Because we forget. Because there is no point other than that the teacher makes us. Because, especially nowadays, I can just go look it up when I need it.

We don’t need content emphasis revival. For example, I can’t identify the President of Australia. I just made a request for that information and got it in less than 8 seconds (PM John Howard followed by Kevin Rudd), 7.9 of those seconds were filled with me going to my browser and carelessly misspelling the word Australia. In technology, we worry a lot about how fast our servers respond to requests. There is a more than significant portion of the world’s smartest people trying to get bits of information in front of everyone’s face, upon their request, faster than ever before. Let me make a bold statement that the educational community will not internalize for another 50 years: Content Knowledge is Dead.

Yet, states everywhere are mandating a mind numbing sequence of content standards in what some call the accountability movement. Politicians hear alarms going off, like 80% of 16 year olds believe the War of 1812 was in 1898; their reaction is to demand that teachers teach every bit of content that anyone might think is important for any reason. One problem – teaching all of that is impossible. Another problem – even if you succeeded the students would forget most of it.

So, if content knowledge is irrelevant, why does everyone think education is so important? Because the side effect of schooling is that a minority of students along the way manage to develop an internal schema for information discovery, processing, communication, application and evaluation. A minority of those students manage to pick up some processes and methodologies for taking creations and delivering them to entities that might pay for them. And, who knows, they might pick up some useful tips on filing their taxes and voting.

My point is that if content knowledge is dead, the emphasis should be on teaching those side effects that have come to be called Procedural Knowledge. When students can generate questions and identify problems at point A and make end products using standard (or innovative) procedures that contribute value to others at point B, and they know all the steps in between for the core disciplines, students will be little content knowledge processing machines and all the more inspired while they are doing it. Who knows? They might even remember how long the Hundred Years War lasted.