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

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)

11 thoughts on “Open Curriculum

  1. Lisa Cooley

    I love it…and I also think you can do this and still fulfill the Common Core if you have to. Portfolios, reflections, journaling…at the end of the school year, teacher and student work together to discover what standards have been achieved. Big Picture does something like that, I think. Point is…you CAN have passion-driven learning into today’s classroom.

  2. Mike Kaechele

    Thanks, for starting this conversation Lisa. It was really helpful for me to articulate this idea in writing. I can agree with your ideas here to assess. I guess where I am at is wanting to try this in my classroom, but somewhat afraid to go all in to this style of classroom. The perhaps imaginary standards police scare me that somehow it will blow up on me and students won’t be prepared for the test. I guess I also fear that the powers that be will not tolerate this much openness in my class since we are a lab school of PBL in our county.

    1. Lisa Cooley

      I think what teachers need is permission to go for it for a couple of years without overly scrutinizing test scores. Time to stretch, time to fail, time for kids to get used to the responsibility and freedom.

  3. Chris Fancher

    Having presented at Educon I think that this is a great discussion topic. It deviates from your Standardize This Ignite you did and I’m now sure what you were thinking of doing in Philly, but it would be cool to have a room full of thinkers work this idea over for an hour. I enjoyed the post and you present some great ideas for further investigation.

    1. Mike Kaechele

      This will definitely be part of our Educon conversation as we talk about alternatives to standardization. I don’t like to criticize something without offering an alternative.

  4. Aaron Ross

    There is a middle ground as well, which would be a more interdisciplinary curriculum as opposed to the current 45 minutes for math followed by 45 minutes for science, and so on and so on. If classes were developed not around academic disciplines but around broader topics that incorporated several disciplines, several of your goals could be reached while at the same time not leaving everything up to the discretion of students. As big a fan as I am of ideas such as PBL and the like, there is a reason that the teachers are there – we have a broad view of subject matters and should be instrumental in helping to design the path of learning.

  5. Mike Kaechele


    I currently team teach a two hour integrated history/ELA class. It is better but still not my ideal. I have looped with my students for two years in a PBL school. As they have become used to PBL and weaned from traditional “hand holding” teaching I find them wanting more and more freedom of what they learn. Once you empower students with voice and choice in their learning it is hard to hold them back.

    I also tried to show in this post that teachers are very important in open curriculum. They are a source of ideas and enthusiasm. They help students find new paths off from their passions and expand them. They encourage and build student skills. Teachers would be an influence in the process of learning and would not be mere observers. Teachers background knowledge would help students explore connections that their lack of background knowledge might not allow them to see.

    The key difference is that excited teachers would influence students’ choices in curriculum instead of demanding it of students. This is a subtle difference but a very important one in regards to student motivation. Also not to be underestimated is the respect that students feel when they are in control of their learning instead of being forced.

  6. Sue VanHattum

    Have you read The Power of Their Ideas, by Deborah Meier? Her vision, while less radical than yours, was played out in NYC.

    I think you’d miss some of the beauty of math if you only did the parts that are tied to other disciplines. If it’s not a requirement, it would fit your vision to have math circles as one of many possibilities for students. Also, analyzing games makes for powerful math learning and may appeal to many high school students.

    My own vision is more oriented toward elementary level. For college, I’d start with no required classes outside the major, so students would explore their passions.

    1. Mike Kaechele

      Sue, I have not read that book. Very influenced by Teaching as a Subversive Activity though. I think math teachers would introduce beautiful problems just like other teachers and along side them. I have watched my chemistry colleague gets kids excited as they experiment and yell “this needs math!”

      I think some students would gravitate more toward math as others gravitate toward art, English, or whatever. These students would ask great math questions and find the important parts of math and learn the skills to solve whatever small parts that they “miss.”

    2. nate

      It seems that nearly all students miss the beauty of math because they have grown to hate the unwavering, linear trudge through unapplicable content. Let’s instead deal with it as it comes up, get excited about wielding it, and then toss out interesting and deep questions to for students and teachers to wrestle with. For fun, not for grades or “mastery or standards.”

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