Remember when Jimmy Carter said that he'd like to start each
government department with a zero-based budget and then have
them prove they needed any money at all? He never got very
far with that and I probably won't get very far with what
I am about to suggest either: zero-based curriculum planning.
How about if we assume that everything we have so far created
as courses is wrong, throw them out, and start over? I think
this idea has merit in corporate training as well as in high
school and college. To illustrate what I mean I will discuss
high school. This is not entirely random since I am now engaged
in a project to redesign high school.
In high school, we can either accept that the subjects we
teach are the ones that have always been taught and this is
because they were handed to someone on a mountain somewhere
by a deity, or else we can ask: what is that any adult should
know how to do, and start from there. In fact, I have asked
this question many times of many people. Here are the most
common answers I have received:
An adult should know how to:
- Speak in public
- Work cooperatively in a team
- Lead a team
- Handle his or her finances
- Make healthcare decisions
- Function within the society in which he or she lives
- Get along with a mate
- Raise children in a healthy manner
- Learn from experts
- Handle the technological tools of the society
- Make nutritional decisions
- Keep fit
- Navigate the terrain
- Convince others of his or her ideas
- Reason and draw conclusions from evidence
This isn't a complete set of course. Feel free to add your
favorites. My question is: will your favorites include: biology,
chemistry, physics, trigonometry, algebra, geometry, macroeconomics,
or English literature?
If the latter are not your favorites, then you need to think
about why you send your children to schools that teach them
and why, in your corporation, you let the same old courses
be taught again and again without examining what people really
need to learn to know how to do.
If the old courses are your favorites because they have always
been there and you are really conservative, you need to ask
yourself how much you remember from them - do you know the
quadratic formula or the periodic table for example? If you
can't recall those things there probably wasn't much point
in drilling them into your head in high school. And, if you
can recall those things there still wasn't much point in having
drilled them into your head in high school.
So, what should we teach? -- The stuff that people really
need to do on a daily basis.
But, how do we do that?
We need to create contexts in which the important things
happen. Most of the subjects that I listed above are both
obvious and difficult to teach directly. One must create contexts
where people work in groups, have to reason and plan, must
make written and oral presentations and so on.
Last week, I held a meeting in Chicago of new technology
experts to plan a technology curriculum for high school. It
is meant to take up all of year three of a four year virtual
high school curriculum that we are building meant to prepare
student for careers or further education in science and technology.
The New Technology curriculum that we planned is a story
centered curriculum (NT-SCC) that consists of projects in
which students engage, sometimes in groups and sometimes on
their own. These projects require deliverables, that once
delivered allow students to proceed on to the next project.
Each project is designed to be fun, relevant to young people,
collaborative, and to allow individual expression and the
pursuit of particular interests that a student might have.
Taken together, the projects increase in complexity and tell
a story of life in the world of computers. At the end of the
NT-SCC there is a choice of intense internship-like experiences
that prepare a student to get a job in an aspect of the world
of new technology that the student has found to be of interest.
Here is a project-by-project list of what we have in mind:
Project 1: Blogosphere
Students are asked to create their own blog. The blog is to
be about technology or a new technological event that interests
them. It is to be documented with web sites they have visited
and is to include a critical analysis and their thoughts on
the technology they have seen. The student is asked to add
some new technological feature to the blog. The new blog feature
is evaluated by the working group and the teacher.
Project 2: My Alternate Space
Today's young people are connecting with each other at places
like MySpace. The 2nd project is meant to build upon that
interest and expand it technologically. Working with an open
source version of MySpace that we will construct students
will begin to expand the possibilities within that sort of
Project 3: Web Site
The curriculum now shifts into an individual mode. Each student
needs to build his or her own web site. The student will learn
appropriate scripting languages. The web site project starts
with an examination of web sites that the student believes
are good and bad.
Project 4: Enhanced Web Site
Now students are encouraged to team up with other students
they find interesting. They need to make their sites interactive,
use java-script, flash and other means to make the sites first
rate. They learn about information architecture, web design,
graphics and animation.
Project 5: Create Something
This is the beginning of the student's opportunity to work
on something of personal interest. The student is given a
month to build an artifact of some kind. There are three possible
tracks a student could follow:
- The Software Application track - In this track,
the student who is interested in programming, mash ups,
games, or any kind of new software application spends the
month building what interests him or her. This can be done
individually or in teams.
- The Physical Component track - In this track the
student can do a project in networking, computer hardware,
robotics or the creation of smart spaces, embedded systems
and smart devices using sensor technology
- The Artist track - Here a student can create their
own movie, cartoon, television or music project or any other
artistic creation using technology.
Project 6: Web Magazine
Students create a web magazine and produce two issues in one
month's time. They play different roles- writer, editor, webmaster,
animator, graphic artist and so on. The issues will be about
subjects other than technology but related to it, such as
political, environmental, and social issues. Writing, teamwork
and learning about non technical issues is the intention of
Project 7: Mini-Search Engine
The next project students will tackle is to build their own
search engine. This project takes three weeks and is meant
to have them build a real world application that actually
Project 8: Mobile Technology
Students add mobility to whatever they have been working on.
This takes three weeks.
Project 9: Build a Business
Students propose and execute a technology business, writing
the business plan and building a prototype of their product
or service. They look at business plans for other new technology
businesses and adapt one of their own for whatever they have
been working on. This takes three weeks.
The curriculum ends with a simulated internship. Students
pick from the following areas:
- Telecommunications -- Here they would work for
a phone company, real or simulated, in a series of work-like
- New media -- Here they would work for a video
production company (real or simulated.)
- Software development 1 -- Here they would work
for a software company doing applications (real or simulated)
- Software development 2 -- Here they would work
on projects that involve real time systems, security, networking,
- Web development -- Here they would work on web
- Embedded systems -- Here they would work on creating
So, this is our plan. We begin building soon. Can we just
get rid of what was there before in year three of high school?
We had better.