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Overhaul the Curriculum: The First Step We Must Take Toward Fixing Our Education System

• April 16, 2014 • 12:00 PM

(Photo: luminaimages/Shutterstock)

In order to teach students who will have to compete in the knowledge economy, a school’s curriculum should not be prescribed, but arrived at collaboratively.

For far too long education reform has been tinkering in the margins and offering band-aid solutions that keep the patient alive, but little else. Lawmakers have chased fads and bad policies that haven’t helped children thrive. One can only do so much to keep the patient comfortable before calling the priest. Our education system is on life support and it’s time for the last rites.

Educators, school leaders, and most parents already know that schools are outdated, though few think of a system that is fundamentally flawed and irreparable. But it is. The current education system isn’t just and equitable. Our pedagogical approaches—placing knowledge into empty heads and assuming learning has occurred—isn’t working and doesn’t reflect what we know about how people learn.

Schools do not approach education from an equitable and just position. Instead, we approach education like a little league baseball team whose coach is hell-bent on winning. We should not exclude students with disabilities from general education settings, but we do. We should not be quick to banish minorities to special education classes, but we are. Approaching school with the mindset that everyone can learn and deserves the opportunity to learn is fundamentally different than our system now—a high-risk system that favors fielding the best team. The very foundation of our education system should not be chasing test scores and “winning.” That’s a dangerous lesson for students and leads to a disastrous byproduct for our country.

In the knowledge economy, information is free and moving rapidly. The analytical is becoming antiquated—because Google had the answer 10 seconds ago.

Education’s mission of yesterday was to teach people the skills required to fill a workforce. In short, we were training widget makers for our consumer economy. But an education that trains students to consume a product doesn’t meet the challenges required in contemporary society. We need to engage a dynamic generation of sophisticated children in knowledge production. New technologies and their resultant new practices have radically changed the way humans learn, interact, and produce knowledge in contemporary times. We need an education system and workforce that understands how schools can better harness those tools to encourage innovative solutions.

How do we do that? First and foremost education policy needs to stop chasing trophies and test scores and instead go in a more holistic direction. Some of the most successful countries in the world—with the test scores to prove it—shy away from what the Finnish educator and scholar Pasi Sahlberg calls the Global Educational Reform Movement (GERM). High-stakes testing kills creativity in the classroom and shifts priorities away from learning how to solve real-world problems. The curriculum should offer opportunities to build new ways of seeing the world rather than a simple transmission of predefined content and skills that are still rooted in assembly line curriculum ideology.

A school’s curriculum should not be prescribed. It must be arrived at collaboratively through curriculum instruction teams that include teachers, administrators, parents, students, and community members. Having a more equitable and just process for curriculum development means more individuals can help shape schools with projects that are relevant and meaningful to their communities.

Much of this is to push teachers and students to become “produsers” of knowledge, meaning we care less about the consumption of knowledge and more about the creation of it. Doing this not only transforms communities, but it focuses young minds on problem solving and problem posing—not regurgitation of facts. It’s the shift from children and youth as consumers to children and youth, teachers, administrators, parents, and community leaders as produsers. Learners would produse knowledge and apply it to everyday tasks with real-world audiences. For example, one elementary classroom in Rochester, New York, advocated for healthier food options through a student-produced documentary film, called Lunch Is Gross. The student-teacher collaborative effort, which integrated math, science, social studies, and literacy learning into all aspects of the project, resulted in a change in the district’s food vendor.

In the knowledge economy, information is free and moving rapidly. The analytical is becoming antiquated—because Google had the answer 10 seconds ago. What computers cannot do well is ask the questions. And to get any conversation started requires a question. We have sat on the sidelines for far too long and now we have to ask ourselves this question: Will we work with or against the knowledge economy?

Joanne Larson
Joanne Larson is the Michael W. Scandling Professor of Education at the Warner School of Education at the University of Rochester. She is the author of Radical Equality in Education: Starting Over in U.S. Schooling (Routledge, 2014).

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