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Education's User Revolution: A Participatory Curriculum

Note: Eric Westendorf, co-founder and CEO of LearnZillion.com and former principal of E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in Washington, DC, is guest blogging this week.

In Wednesday's post, I argued that EdTech's secret power lies in connecting teachers to each other. We also met Becky Halsey, whose engaging math lessons have been viewed over 75,000 times on our site. Though Becky is just one person, she represents tens of thousands of teachers who could be developing their talent in ways that benefit both students and the entire teaching profession. What's missing? A thoughtful participatory curriculum.

An Old Idea

Twelve years ago, when I was teaching in Raleigh, North Carolina, I had the opportunity to visit Japan and observe teachers engaged in a form of professional development called lesson study. I found what I saw fascinating - instead of starting, as I had, with a blank lesson plan template, every teacher in Japan receives a set of lessons that have been revised and improved by teachers over many decades.

Japan's participatory curriculum improves every year as teachers contribute their suggestions--a process that is the basis of their professional development. Rather than listening to lectures or sitting through workshops, teachers engage in the deep practice central to talent development I described in Monday's post.

One of the lessons I watched began with the skull of an animal on a table. Before the class, the teachers discussed the objective: What understanding of physiology and its relationship to the environment did they want for their students? Did they think the existing lesson questions were the best way to start the discussion? What could they anticipate about the students' response? How could they build on those responses to bring out the key insights?

Not only did teachers start with a solid lead, they had an incentive to continue to improve upon it because they knew their refinements had the potential to be included in the following year's basic curriculum.

A New Approach

Done thoughtfully, professional development and curriculum are two sides of the same coin. The curriculum is the external facing side; the set of organized resources and lessons that a teacher can use with students. Professional development is the internal side; the deep practice that teachers participate in to adjust, improve, and test new adaptations, the best of which get pushed to the external. As a result, the curriculum can evolve as quickly as possible to meet the needs of the environment.

So why haven't we had a participatory curriculum in the United States? In part, it's because of the decentralized way our system has evolved. The main reason, however, is what James Surowiecki, author of the Wisdom of Crowds, would call a classic coordination problem. We have a thousand points of light but no way to line them up. Japanese-style central planning, however, needn't and shouldn't be our answer.

We can solve coordination problems in a bottom-up way using technology. For example, Linux, the popular open-source computer operating system, is developed collaboratively by many programmers throughout the world, but often, different people come up with competing solutions to the same problem. Linus, the founder, is responsible for taking the results of the decentralized development process, aggregating them into something useful, and then freely distributing that code for the community to use as they see fit. Wikipedia, meanwhile, relies on a cadre of committed volunteers to moderate the content. That model - while imperfect - has made Wikipedia one of the world's most useful sites.

Education's User Revolution

There is strong reason to believe that a participatory curriculum would be much better than any curriculum that currently exists. 

As Surowiecki points out, large groups, structured properly, can be smarter than the smartest member of a group. The "best" answers typically come from a synthesis of diverse viewpoints and experiences - something teachers have in abundance. After all, teachers stand at the point where theory (what should work with students) meets practice (what actually does work). This gives them local knowledge about what works, what doesn't, and what might be done to improve it. The aggregation of this independent local knowledge is what creates a "wisdom of the crowds" solution. A solution that could generate tremendous benefits for students and teachers, alike.

Examples of opportunities created by user-participants in other industries are are numerous: YouTube makes it possible for fresh talent to be discovered; Airbnb enables regular homeowners to become bed and breakfast managers; eBay and Etsy allow anyone with Internet access to make a living through their own virtual storefront. In each of these cases, technology makes it possible for end-users to become participants in ways that create benefits for everyone involved.

Why shouldn't education be next?

-- Eric Westendorf

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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