What if we created a Curriculum for the Commons?

This article was originally published in Intrepid Ed News on 4 June 2021 under the title “Student Pathways into Curriculum: Chaotic or Empowering?

We justify our need for a set curriculum by invoking our responsibility to prepare students for the future, expose them to ideas that will make them respectable well-rounded citizens, and equip them with skills to help them succeed in their adult lives. Somewhere in there, we hope to produce young minds able to compete by day for prized spots at top universities (which are always good to add to the school profile) and entertain dinner party guests with repartee full of culture and facts by night. There is a body of knowledge that we all need in order to be respectable, so the story goes. The late Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks believed that the “existence of a canon is essential to a culture. It means that people share a set of references and resonances, a public vocabulary of narratives and discourse.” Well, that may be true, but whose narratives and whose discourse?

Sometimes students just aren’t interested in what we want to teach them. There are as many reasons as there are students, actually way more since students’ interests and moods aren’t static. We know that it’s an uphill struggle, yet we persevere, claiming it is our duty to expose children to ideas they’ve never encountered. How are students supposed to find out what they’re interested in and broaden their own thinking if we only cover what they already know? If we don’t introduce students to each discipline’s body of knowledge and know-how, who will?

Careful! There is a bait and switch at play: in order not to see ourselves as one of those people who force curriculum down students’ throats, we defend our ways by saying we’re helping students, guiding them. “You’ll see,” we declare, “they’ll thank us for it one day when they realize that we were that inspiring figure who opened them up to the unknown world of calculating the angle of the refraction of light!” It’s all nicely brought together in a conscience-appeasing dictum. Our job is to introduce students to subjects they don’t know they love yet.

The problem is that all these good intentions can quickly lead us to teaching what the teacher is in love with, or worse, what the teacher somehow feels the students should love because that is what the teacher was told she should love back when she was at school. Good intentions gone astray. From there it’s a slippery slope back to the systemic meta-narrative, the canon of Western civilization, and the public vocabulary of discourse that sound familiarly like the voices of dead white men?

Let’s reframe this, and take ourselves out of the classroom and into the living room. I don’t know about you, but whenever I’ve found myself trying to get my kids interested in something that I think they’ll love (but don’t know it yet!)… well, there is a definite pattern: huffing, complaining, disparaging, and misery (in which I end up partaking by the end). Sometimes I get lucky and my kids really do find enjoyment in something to which I have introduced them, but any parent knows it’s not that simple.

I bet the same huffing, complaining, disparaging, and misery happens in the classroom too. You just can’t hear it because there are different sets of rules there.

I’m not suggesting that there is no value or purpose in exposing kids to things they don’t immediately enjoy. I’m not a sadist, but if you’re lucky enough to be in New York City, a trip to the Met is worth an afternoon jaunt, even if it comes with a side of complaining. I’m just proposing there may be a better way.

What if students crowdsourced curriculum from the community (however defined)? What if we made the curriculum open-source? A Curriculum for the Commons.

Most of what we do already is heavily influenced by people we know and people we will never meet.

TikTok: As of January 2021, the platform has 689 million monthly active users, been downloaded 2 billion times, and was the worldwide #1 downloaded app in 2020, and Americans 18 and over are estimated to have spent 1.43 billion hours on TikTok in March 2020 (see more here).

Consumer goods: Of the 50 bestselling cameras on Amazon, only one has a customer rating lower than 4 out of 5 stars. (I could have picked almost any consumer good.)

Services: How often have you asked someone their recommendation for somewhere to eat?

Social influence is only set to grow as people become more and more networked, as digital communities reduce distance to zero and form around shared connections and interests, regardless of where members are and even which languages they speak. Our proclivities develop dynamically with the communities in which we exist. We seek advice from those we respect. When one of our own is into something, this often piques our curiosity. Think of the world of Minecraft. That is a community that extends beyond national cultures, beyond spatial constraints.

Kids like TikTok, Roblox, and certain YouTubers because their friends like them (otherwise, there would be no networks), not because an adult told them it was something they will love. Peers come with credibility that goes a long way… without the huffing. Popularity breeds popularity and creates social networks.

These are digital platforms and crazes come and go. No one plays Fortnight anymore and Among Us disappeared quickly. Games and social media as a category remain. Sports remain. So do music, nature, and crafts. There are many things kids are into and ways they influence each other that last.

What if we provided learners with the opportunity to tell us and each other what they’re into and built the curriculum around their interests? I mean building a real curriculum, not a genius hour. What if we took their ideas, created units, and provided a challenge within a Project-Based Learning framework? What if we required that curricular outcomes have a positive impact on the community, so that personal, team, and community interests aligned? What if we figured out what the kids needed to know in order to meet their goals and facilitated mastery of skills within a just-in-time learning model: learn something when you need it, not in a vacuum?

What would this look like? Let’s think of a possible example:

In our learning community, we take the time to collect information and document what students are interested in, what they do on weekends, what they’re curious about. The information comes from formal sources (student-led conferences, parent-teacher conferences, surveys, electives, advisory conversations) and informal sources (conversations with students on the fly, observation, anecdotal evidence). The documentation is shared with all concerned staff.

One day we notice that several students in the school love cats. We connect this with the reality that in our neighborhood there is a stray cat problem. We construct a driving question around “How can we collect data on the stray cats of Anytown in order to help authorities care for the cats?” What if the students who want to participate in the project gather support from others and organize teams to address the problem? What if we built the unit project around that? Momentum might just create more momentum and gather the critical mass to launch a PBL project. Though the mechanics and logistics would vary, the point is that the ideas come from the students and the community.

Even though every context is unique, there is a high likelihood that if one group of students is interested in a topic—in this case, cats—others elsewhere (across the world) are too. Cats, basketball, airplanes, baking, Minecraft, music… I don’t need to list examples to convince you. What if we leveraged these commonalities to build a curriculum one unit and one project at a time? We would have to make sure that we provide a diversity of experiences and exposure to content, but we can make that happen. The knowledge you bring from each discipline depends on what you’re trying to achieve (e.g. from Science: nutrition, anatomy, zoology).

What if we had a platform that connected learners across the world into communities of interests that shared problems, ideas, and solutions that pertained to their interests? What if we made disciplinary and trans-disciplinary connections to each of these problems and shared resources and knowledge? A GitHub for learning maybe? An open-source repository of ideas and solutions?

What if we could bring in experts from a range of areas to help meet project objectives? What if these experts came from all over the community: teachers, professionals, artists, practitioners, and, of course, young men and women themselves (the students!)?

Lots of questions with no definite answers. These questions are meant to begin the conversation that takes us in a new direction for learning and education. A Curriculum for the Commons.

And the best part is that somewhere along the line an adult can introduce a young learner to a topic, question, or area of interest and that young learner could spread the word, for instance in robotics, medieval warfare, countless other areas. There is no canon.

As for the challenges themselves, the Curriculum for the Commons, learners, and mentors could share ideas, inspire one another, collaborate… and none of this would be new. Kids are already doing this through Discord, TikTok, Roblox, and Instagram.

We would be meeting students where they are rather than dragging them where we think they should be, which hasn’t been a very successful journey, or there wouldn’t be so many discussions about how to engage students and how to raise achievement levels.

We need to break open the walls of the classroom and create communities of learning, abandoning the canon, abandoning the curriculum borne of more than a century ago.

We need a Curriculum for the Commons.

An organic curriculum that delivers just-in-time learning provided by a community of experts across the world. A curriculum that exists for the times, while remaining based on the disciplinary content and know-how that are important. After all, if you can’t apply the content, what’s the point?

This would take student-centered learning to its apex.

This would be a major step toward finding common purposes.

This would take us closer to solving some of the world’s biggest and smallest problems, together.

This might just turn into a bio-centric curriculum, for the benefit of all life. Learning for the Anthropocene.

A Curriculum for the Commons would create a network of knowledge and relationships that acknowledges that we are part of many communities of learners. It reflects the realities of 2021 and, more to the point, might allow us to solve the pressing problems of our time.

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