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 The conversation is largely focused on the shift from the use of a paper textbook (which in all fairness is out of date at an increasingly fast rate) to digital content.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.