Category Archives: unschooling

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)

Art Prize

Today my family visited the second annual Art Prize, a huge art competition displayed all over Grand Rapids. The art is displayed both inside and outside of buildings all around downtown and anyone who registers can vote for their favorite pieces, American Idol style. There were many incredibly creative pieces and it was a lot of fun to explore and find them. Some of my kids’ favorites were the interactive ones that they could touch such as this sweet harp that “plays” based on sonar detection of sound waves or one of the many pianos randomly placed around the city.

We started the day parked in front of the Waters Building, a historic spot downtown. We arrived before the “official” start of Art Prize and wandered off to look at some of the outdoor exhibits. At the end of our day when we returned to our van there was a sign indicating that there were art entries inside. We went in and looked at the exhibits. Many were in small rooms off from a main hallway. We found this exhibit of hundreds of ceramic pieces that look like shells on a wood floor.

 My son immediately joined some other kids who were playing with the “rocks.”

My daughter made her name with them, but my son started sorting out by color into ones that he liked the best.

I couldn’t help but think about learning. I didn’t have to tell my kids, “Go play with this art.” I did not have to give them any instructions. They automatically started doing learning on their own. It is human nature to perform math-sort and organize- and to be creative and spell.

What if we used kids curiosity more in schools? I have been practicing spelling words with my son for two weeks. He does not like it and I think I hate it even more. What if I gave him a bunch of objects and had him “spell” his words? Would he “learn” them faster and better?

What if social studies showed a students a tool like How Big Really? and let students explore landmarks? Would students learn geography better? Would it lead to questions such as why was the Great Wall of China built?

What if history class started with today and went backwards? What if class started with current events and then would students ask how things got they way they are today?

I love the science class that I have with my son whether it is building a raft , walking in the woods, or picking vegetables from our garden. Science teachers who throw away the scripted labs “get” what learning looks like.

What if we skyped with students from other countries and then we taught students how to write letters? What if we studied the world’s problems and used that knowledge for social action?

What if math “happened” when students needed it to solve one of the many questions these explorations would lead to?

What if Language Arts was sharing all of these amazing experiences with the world through writing, blogging, videos, and podcasts?

We don’t need to teach students to be creative artists. We need to get out of the way and let them be artists!

I really think the “unschooling” movement has some very valid points of letting students play and learn at their own pace and in their own way. Maybe the definition of a teacher should be someone who creates wonderful learning opportunities and environments (read not scripted!) and lets kids decide what to learn in them.
I think one of the major problems with education today is that we do not trust students to learn. We then feel the need to control, force, and coerce them to “learn” what who knows who from who knows where decided are the “standards” for grade X.