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What If There Was No Curriculum?

As an advocate of the transformation of learning, I am surrounded by all things technology when it comes to K-12. Much of the conversation currently revolves around choosing digital content as curriculum to use on shiny new devices. The conversation is largely focused on the shift from the use of a paper textbook (which in all fairness is out of date at an increasingly fast rate) to digital content. While it is cost effective, and there are benefits to switching to digital content, there is an even bigger opportunity here: get rid of the curriculum altogether.

Assumptions of Curriculum

When a district chooses to purchase a specific curriculum for every student, the assumption is that every student learns the same way. Think back to middle school math— full of problems to work through but with no real context. Many times students will say, “When will I ever need this in my life?” It’s not an unfair question—when new information is presented to students in the traditional classroom, there is virtually no context for why they need to know it, fostering an environment of disengagement.

It also assumes that teachers can’t or don’t want to create lessons that ensure students meet the requirements of state standards, which is why they would need a curriculum for the year. Teachers work incredibly hard to teach students the same concept in multiple ways. Curriculum can sometimes tie the hands of teachers and limit options for presenting information.

Finally, curriculum assumes that every student learns at the same pace. The assumption is that by the fifth month of school, every student should be learning specific content on a specific day. This is how “swiss cheese learning” happens. The scheduled curriculum requires teachers to keep moving on throughout the year. Students will grasp and master some concepts, but others may not quite be there yet. Using a scheduled curriculum forces students who have not mastered content to continue building on a knowledge gap—exacerbating achievement levels.

What Would Schools Look like Without Curriculum?

As districts and schools create a vision for what success looks like (most have come to the conclusion that proficiency alone doesn’t cut it), the learning models will look different. That’s the beauty of a no curriculum model. The learning environment, if fluid, is dependent on the students doing the learning. This also means that students learn outside of classroom walls—ideally partnering with the community.

Community-based initiative learning will better prepare the next generation workforce. In order to make this kind of model work, the role of the teacher is completely different from what it looks like in the classroom. This is where state standards come in and are incredibly important. (Note: this is not a plug for Common Core—any state standards will do.) Without curriculum there has to be a measuring stick for student learning. The standards ensure rigor. The job of the teacher is to figure out a way to tie projects back to the state standards. This is the only way to know if students are really “college and/or career” ready.

It would look like students solving real-world problems, collaboratively, and building relationships in the community. Students come and go as they need, which encourages learning to happen outside of classroom walls. Working alongside the community requires real deadlines, and time management skills to meet expectations.

Iowa BIG (who has the most inspiring learning model I’ve ever seen, and I visit a lot of schools), does not use a set curriculum, and instead they let the interest of the student and needs of the community determine how lessons are taught.

Let’s Talk Policy

In 2015, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) was signed into law, and brought forth incredible opportunities to transform learning. Prior to the passage of ESSA, under No Child Left Behind, there was one indicator of student success, and that was performance on the summative end of the year assessment. When a summative assessment is the indicator of success, the curriculum will teach to that test.

Teaching to the test, for some time, has been an unfortunate inevitability. If districts move away from the test score (and proficiency) as the sole indicator for accountability (which is now possible under the law), it liberates teachers and students to have the freedom to teach a well-rounded education, that cultivates “soft” cognitive skills and social emotional learning. These skills cannot be gauged on a multiple choice exam, but when assessments are based on performance, things like grit, resiliency and collaboration can be assessed—catapulting students with these skills into a workforce that is desperately seeking employees that fit that seemingly tall order.

This will not Happen Overnight

Innovations are taking place all over the country, and baby steps are needed to get the process started. Some may read this piece and think this idea to be impossible. Transforming education will only happen once a vision is set, and there are relentless leaders working to make the vision a reality. Policy allowances are a reality, and it’s now time to sync up the culture by providing the supports needed to students who might otherwise have been previously overlooked.

Susan Gentz is the deputy executive director for the Center for Digital Education and a contributing commentary writer for Clay & Milk.

What If There Was No Curriculum? | Clay & Milk
A central Iowa ag-tech accelerator has secured more backers and finally has a name. The Greater Des Moines Partnership first announced the accelerator last year, naming four initial investors. On Monday, the Partnership said the program will be called the "Iowa AgriTech Accelerator" and named three new investors. The new investors include Grinnell Mutual, Kent Corp. and Sukup Manufacturing, all Iowa companies. They join investors Deere & Co., Peoples Co., Farmers Mutual Hail Insurance Co. and DuPont Pioneer. Each investor has agreed to put up $100,000 for the first year of the accelerator. Startups entering the program will receive $40,000 in seed funding in exchange for 6 percent equity. Tej Dhawan, an angel investor and local startup mentor, is serving as interim director until the AgriTech Accelerator names a permanent leader. Dhawan held a similar role with the GIA before Brian Hemesath was named as managing director. As interim director, Dhawan said his main job includes hiring the accelerator's executive director, establishing a business structure and initial recruiting for the first cohort. The accelerator will place few filters, such as location and product, on the applicant pool, Dhawan said. "When you’re seeking innovation, innovation can come from every corner of the world so why restrict ourselves," he said. One area the the AgriTech Accelerator won't recruit from is biotech. For its first cohort, the AgriTech Accelerator will work out of the GIA's space in Des Moines' East Village, Dhawan said. A future, permanent home is still to be decided. The accelerator's program will host startups from mid-July through mid-October, ending with an event connected to the annual World Food Prize. The GIA, which the AgriTech Accelerator is based on, also ends with presentations at an industry event. The accelerator has also started lining up a mentor pool. The Iowa Corn Growers Association, Iowa Soybean Association and the Iowa Pork Producers Association have agreed to provide mentors, as has Iowa State University. While the AgriTech Accelerator is loosely based off of the GIA, it will differ in its business structure, Dhawan said. The GIA runs through a for-profit model for both operations and its investment fund. The AgriTech Accelerator will have a nonprofit model for its operations and a for-profit setup for its fund. Dhawan said the nonprofit model is being used so the accelerator can better work with other nonprofit partners, such as trade associations. "These are all organizations that are nonprofits and can be amazing stakeholders without ever having to be investors in the accelerator," he said. "It becomes easier to work with trade associations in their nonprofit role when we are also a nonprofit." When it's up and running, the AgriTech Accelerator would be one of a handful of ag-focused startup development programs in Iowa. Others include the Ag Startup Engine out of Iowa State University and the Rural Ventures Alliance from Iowa MicroLoan. Matthew Patane is the managing editor and co-founder of Clay & Milk. Send him an email at
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