Category Archives: curriculum

Why I hated Philosophy

by steven n fettig

I want to play devil’s advocate to my own post about open curriculum. So a short story from my younger days. In college I was required to take a basic philosophy class. Most students took it freshman year. I knew that it was going to be a “pie in the sky” class that I would hate. So I avoided it and saved it until my last year. I finally signed up for a once a week three hour class that I knew would be so painful.

The class started and I loved it. I have always loved math, logic, and arguing deep questions. In other words everything that the class was about. I seriously considered getting a minor in philosophy but I was too close to being done and did not want to stay in school any longer (later I considered going to grad school in philosophy).

So hopefully my point is clear. If I had never been forced to study philosophy I may never have been exposed to a great field that I find very interesting. (on the other hand I was forced to take a music appreciation course of classical music that I hated. The reason may very well have been the skill of the teacher).

So my question is should learning every be forced on a learner? If so when? What content is so important that learners should be coerced to learn it.

If not, how do we ensure that learners in an open system are exposed to varied and critical content for being a successful citizen?

Open Curriculum

I have been thinking alot about the conversation I am leading at Educon, #standardizethat and got involved in  an expanded discussion on Twitter about standards and curriculum. I was asked what open curriculum would look like. I have borrowed my ideas from too many places to mention including unschooling,  Postman, my own students, and my own children. So here goes my version of what a school with an open curriculum might look like.

At the crossroads by Timtom.ch

First of all, the schedule would change. There would be no grades, sorting by age groups, bells, or set schedule. Students would work in a large room with different adult content experts in the room. The ratio of students to teachers should not exceed 25:1. Students would choose the topics and projects that they want to explore and would sign up to at least one adult to report their progress to. Projects would be encouraged to be cross-curricular and deep. Most projects would center on social studies and science as a general topic with ELA and math skills being addressed as they “naturally come up.”

Students would research their topics and teachers would help develop their search skills and expose them to multiple forms of literature and multi-media to learn from. Students would publish their results in many different formats addressing writing and media skills. Students would work in groups and present their learning to each other improving their collaboration and communication skills.

Students would not be entirely left up to their own as far as what they study. Teachers would play an essential role by exposing students to interesting topics in ways such as field trips (which could be as simple as a walk outside to observe nature), experiments, museum like exhibits of interesting objects, compelling art including primary source photos, and interesting problems to solve. Current events would also drive curriculum. News events would be talked about and lead to explorations by students. Students would choose which of these demonstrations to partake in and which of them to pursue deeper.

The other essential role of teachers would be to help students make connections of their passions to new areas of curriculum. As content experts teachers would use student interests to guide students both to cross-subject area connections and to connections within subject areas. An important continuation of what good teachers already do is knowing their students. Teachers would spend lots of time getting to know students as individuals so that they can share relevant learning ideas with them.

Students would not be without structure or requirements. Ideally students themselves would build the structure and requirements themselves. One essential theme of the school would be that you must be learning at all times. Learning would be defined with the students but would be very open-ended. Students would also be required to make and accomplish their own goals about what they learn. Students would also be required to present their learning. This could take many forms but would include both written and verbal forms. This also means that students will be sharing with each other their passionate learning so that they are constantly being exposed to new ideas outside of their personal interests.

Aloe by Genista

For example I have a couple of students who are very interested in botany. They are bright, but literally do as little as possible in every class except science, because they find no relevance in it. In an open curriculum they would be free to study biology at a college level. As social studies expert, I would expand their interests by tying invasive species to the Columbian Exchange. Regulations around plants would lead to many government topics (legalizing marijuana, etc). Statistics would come up all of the time. They could also study the history of plants and medicine, especially Native Americans (one of these students is building his own wigwam at home in his free time). This would lead to topics such as western expansion, Manifest Destiny, racism, genocide, etc. The social studies topics we would address would be abundant, but we might not “hit every state standard.” The difference is that the students would care about the curriculum because it is theirs and would engage and remember it.

This example is just one pair of students. Imagine how diverse the curriculum would be when you add in all of the students’ interests. Without even trying topics that my current students are very passionate about include: immigration, gay rights, genetics, computer programming, art, poetry, women’s rights, depression, mental illness, and theater. I am sure that the other content teachers see even more interests that I miss.

I am not saying that open curriculum will fix every education problem or that it would reach every child. But I do think it would be superior to most schools today. I am also sure that it would have to change and adapt over time and be different in different communities. Also I think students would have to be trained into it. Students who have been in traditional schools would drowned if just dumped into it. They would need to be gradually released to wean themselves from teacher dependence to independence. I also fully admit that some kids would waste time and choose not to learn. But doesn’t that happen already all the time? I believe this would encourage the most learning from the most students and that the passion of authentic learning would spread to include reluctant students.

What’s missing from this vision of a school? (Oh, don’t say assessment and grades because those are missing on purpose. I am interested in learning, not comparing students)

How to win a war.

Last week I lost a war. This week I was determined to do better. The first thing I did this weekend was to actually complete the Venn Diagram assignment myself. I realized many weaknesses of it including poor design and poor choice of texts. I should have created structure before the assignment to help them understand the texts before asking them to compare them. The Library of Congress also did not really address the topics in the way that I wanted. 

So Monday morning I apologized again for the assignment and told students I was not grading it. I explained my intentions and goals of what I had hoped to accomplish and acknowledged how the assignment failed in its execution. I introduced a new challenging read related to the essential questions, but in this task did not ask them to do anything extra with the text, just understand it.

The rest of the week students chose a part of the story of the Spanish American War to tell and started developing materials for their videos. Students like this better, but it would be a stretch to say that very many of them are excited about the project.

Your Choice from marfis75

My larger solution is coming at the end of the project. We are planning the next project on the Cold War. I created a Project Briefcase with the standards and the topics of emphasis: McCarthyism  Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam. My temporary Driving Question is “How do you all want to study this?”

I have not planned how we will do this project, the audience, or what our final product will be. There will be no fancy entry event. Students are going to help design this project from day one on what they want it to be. I have given lip-service to this idea before but it is time to put my money where my mouth is: student designed projects. #winning

The one thing that we are planning for this project is a detailed simulation of the Cuban Missile Crisis. We feel this is worthwhile because the students have asked us multiple times including last week to do more simulations. Also it is taking a ton of time to research and set up on our part so there is no way that we can wait to start putting it together.

We are looking at this next project as a pilot for turning over our entire curriculum to the students. We have some concerns but it is time for students to take control of their own learning.

Student Designed Curriculum

Piles of sorted standards

Last year was my first year at a new PBL high school. Before school started I created a year-long scope and sequence of what topics our projects would be and what the final products would be. The projects gradually went from very specific teacher designed to more open ended ones. I included lots of student choice along the way and ended the year with open ended products such as our art fair.

I knew from the beginning of last year that I would be teaching the same students for two years moving up with them for this year. One of my goals was after students understood the PBL process to invite them to help me design projects. So at the end of the year I asked for volunteers and got around 10 per class (out of 50 students).

We set aside a time to meet during work time at the end of last year and I showed them a list of this year’s state standards. I had the standards all cut out into strips and asked students to sort them by topic which they had fun with. Then we spent another hour talking about project ideas, products, and authentic audiences.

So this year I have a very general scope and sequence based on the students suggestions. I have specifically designed the first three projects (the first one is not really a project, but a review technique that deserves a separate post, the second is the #MYparty election project which had to be planned since it is being implemented around the country, and the third is a more open-ended one on 9/11) but the rest of my year is fairly wide open.

I plan to continue to gauge student interests and get their help in planning the rest of the year as far as project ideas, driving questions, products, and authentic audience. Once again I do not want to limit students’ motivation, interests, or creativity by imposing all of my ideas on them. I am excited by the unknown paths that students and I will discover together this year. I truly believe that this is the most important part of any good curriculum: allowing it to be student-designed and focused.

I leave you with a quote from Postman and Weingartner “Unless an inquiry is perceived as relevant by the learner, no significant learning will take place.”

How Should I Not Plan My Class?

This short post by Shelly Blake Plock has been on my mind since school let out. How can I not plan my class better? It ties into the post about Girls in Technology too. I want to make my class more student-centered and problem-based. I already teach the majority of my class as problem-based, but currently I create the problems for the students. I am thinking of ways to get students involved in creating the problems themselves.

Problems are supplies, unmotivated students,