For technology to amplify learning, rethink your curriculum

As I strolled through the exhibit hall at the National Educational Computing Conference in Chicago in June, I had the sinking feeling that I’d been here before–that we’d all been here before.

While some of the products were different, the message I heard was the same one I’ve been hearing for the last seven years: “Are you frustrated with the way instruction is happening at your school? Well, that’s because you don’t have our product.” “Our curriculum mapping software will fix the problem.” “Our courseware package is aligned to state standards and will guarantee that all students master required content area.” “If all your students had laptops, they would really start learning.” “If all your students had handhelds, they would really start learning.”

Now, I don’t blame vendors for spouting these lines. That’s their job. Rather, I blame us for the impact this line has on us. I blame us for seeing the slick presentations and shrink-wrapped boxes on the exhibit floor and feeling like our schools are so far behind that we’ll never “catch up,” or that instruction at our schools is somehow broken because we are so far away from using these products effectively. What we have failed to realize is that, for better or worse, ours is an industry that is broken by design.

In one of the sessions I attended, Chris Dede from Harvard University demonstrated one of the worst-kept secrets in education: You don’t really need 90 percent of the facts you learn in a liberal-arts education. To illustrate, Dr. Dede played a clip from the sketch-comedy television series Saturday Night Live in which Father Guido Sarducci talked about his idea for the Five-Minute University. At the Five-Minute U, tuition would be about $20 and you would learn only the things you would typically remember five years after graduating from a traditional university. For example, in Spanish class, you might learn “Como esta usted?” That’s it.

Beneath the humor and hyperbole is a truth that is germane to our problems in education today. I haven’t had to translate any Spanish novels, balance a chemical equation, or graph a quadratic equation since I graduated from high school. For some reason, though, I spent three-fifths of my junior year doing these things.

After Dr. Dede’s talk, I started to think about why this has been the situation in our education system for several generations. It seemed clear that this problem is closely related to our inability to effect real school reform. I became convinced that until we understand this problem better and understand what our spoken and unspoken goals are in education, any attempts to use instructional technology to bring change will end largely in failure and frustration.

The idea behind many instructional reform models involving technology grows out of Father Guido’s criticism. Students are not learning because they aren’t actively involved in the learning process. They haven’t taken ownership of it largely because they aren’t interested in it. They don’t see the relevance. It isn’t authentic. In response to this, reformers argue, we should put students at the center of the learning process. Rather than ask them questions, we should get them to ask the questions. When the questions are their own, students will be driven by their own curiosity to solve problems and to construct meaning that they will see as truly valuable.

Instructional technology plays an invaluable role in such a model. It helps collaborating students communicate. It allows projects to occur across great geographical distances. It provides the research resources of the web and online libraries. It helps organize and schedule tasks for large, complex projects. It helps gather data, and it allows students to present and publish results in an eye-catching, professional format.

This seems like a no-brainer. I haven’t found anyone who would argue that students who are actively involved in an authentic, investigative project won’t learn more and become more motivated than their peers in a traditional, teacher-centric lesson. So, what’s the problem? Why haven’t we shifted our instructional models to reflect this more effective method of instruction?

The problem, I think, involves content–those facts and skills that Father Guido would cut out of his Five-Minute U curriculum. Reformers and constructivists would argue that a student-centric approach teaches skills and content in a context that makes them more memorable and more valuable. What they generally don’t talk about is that it is nearly impossible to cover all of the content in most curricula using a student-centric, investigative approach.

A critical question in instructional reform involves this issue of content. If the majority of our students are never going to use a majority of the skills we teach them at the high-school level, why do our curricula cling so protectively to them?

One reason, I think, is the notion of cultural literacy. We seem to believe that our current liberal arts and science curricula maintain cultural integrity and sustain the continuity of our culture’s knowledge. When we design curricula, we are driven by the fear of what might happen to us culturally if Shakespeare is forgotten, or if ignorance of history dooms us to repeat it.

There is some credence to the idea that by eliminating some of these curricular mainstays, we slowly change our culture into one that forgets its past and creates a cultural knowledge-base that is gapped and checked according to the projects teachers choose to assign from year to year. Right or wrong, we seem comforted by the idea that the current set of information in a curriculum represents a good, broad understanding of our culture in various disciplines. Even if most students will forget the majority of it after leaving school, we have done everything we can to communicate it to them, and through this communication, the body of general knowledge and cultural mythology remains intact from generation to generation.

There is also, I think, a fear of missed opportunities for our students. We often feel that by presenting information, even if we can’t guarantee mastery, we keep options open for students. In the days before a liberal-arts education was the norm for virtually everyone, the common form of instruction for boys was an apprenticeship with one’s father in preparation for a predetermined career. Free public education and democratic forms of government have created opportunities for virtually all children to have a voice in their government and to choose any career path that suits them.

This change has burdened educators with the responsibility of not only preparing students to be successful in their careers, but also helping them decide what those careers might be and preparing them to take an active role in their governments. We accept the possibility that, although we won’t appeal to the majority of students with a particular piece of instruction, eventually we will strike a chord in most of them at one time or another in a way that opens an opportunity or helps them find their career goals.

Despite our attachment to our present curricular models, we grow frustrated as we look at our inconsistent results. We seem married to the idea that to be a productive citizen, students must master all of the concepts in our curricula, and politicians and parents take us to task when they don’t. We continue to equate success in life to success in our curricula. As long as we continue to view the problem in these terms, we will get that sinking feeling at conferences and trade shows as we watch the newest solutions to education in shrink-wrapped boxes come and go with little impact on the patchy results we see in our schools.

To see results, we need to change the way we’re looking at the problem. We must come to the realization that mastery of every minute detail of our curricula for every student is a ridiculously impossible goal. We must revisit our purposes as institutions and recraft curricula along more realistic standards that are in line with those goals. We must face the reality that education is a messy and sometimes random process that rarely resembles the slick demonstrations on the trade show floor. If we are to adopt the one-size-fits-all approach of standards and high-stakes testing, we must examine our curriculum to determine what is insignificant enough to be left out, what is interesting enough to be presented, and what is critical enough to require mastery by all students.

These changes will make room in a curriculum to employ models of instruction that guarantee mastery, such as authentic, inquiry-based projects. Such changes in curricula invariably will be controversial, but this controversy will stimulate positive dialogue about the role of the school in our society and the meaning of education itself. These discussions are long overdue.

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