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How Does Curriculum Fit with Personalization, Technology, and Empowerment? And a Few More Questions.

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I often find myself demonstrating this-or-that edtech tool to rooms of educators using content I taught in the classroom. Thanks to the The Great War YouTube channel spurring my interest, I often use World War I content. As I demo a tool or strategy,  I will ask the audience a World War I-related question. This is often met with blank stares. When I casually mention the Schlieffen Plan, I might as well be speaking Latin. 

What a teachable moment. A room of educators. All with advanced degrees. All so good at their jobs that they took the initiative to attend a conference to improve their practice. And these successful adults forgot everything they learned in high school about World War I.

This raises an important question in an age where technology liberates students from learning exclusively from school-provided materials: How does curriculum fit with personalization, technology, and empowerment?

I recently had this conversation some teachers at a conference. Like this blog post, we had more questions than answers.  We talked about how schools teach students both content and skills. A great argument about the value of skills in education is The Skills to Pay the Bills by Chris Aviles. In it, Aviles argues that focusing on skills is more important than memorizing facts. 

Further, the trend towards personalization, if done right, can open doors for students and truly empower them. Salon documented the prison dynamic of compulsory education, but what if we can make school a place where students pursue their passions while obtaining valuable skills? In that model, would students be mandated to learn about World War I? What are good reasons for mandating specific content or not mandating it?

Mandating content can stunt creativity. This is especially true when teachers are forced to cover content for standardized assessments as Rafranz Davis argues in her Medium piece, How Systemic Control Stunts Creative Growth. Davis discusses the many factors that stunt creativity in schools - everything from bubble tests to gender roles to standing in line and being told who stands wherein said line. If schools toned down content requirements, beyond the freedom to pursue non-mandated subject areas, how would that affect barriers to creativity?  

So the de-emphasis on content is sounding pretty good, right? Let's make 20time 100time. Let's turn Genius Hour into Genius School Day. That was my thinking until I saw a tweet that made me reconsider some of my assumptions:

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The Atlantic article Dr. Fast links to in her tweet discusses how familiarity with subject matter affects reading comprehension results, something any reading teacher can attest to. However, her point about narrowing curriculum is important. Would de-emphasizing content do our students a disservice?

Here are a few more questions I'm pondering as I think about the relationship between curriculum and student empowerment:

  • Is the difference between how content empowers students and how skills empower students so great that it justifies emphasizing one over the other?
  • How does mandated curriculum empower students? Or does it just continue oppressive patterns in schools?
  • What are the benefits of allowing students to pursue the content knowledge they want? What are the drawbacks?

What do you think about curriculum and student empowerment? Please share your thoughts in comments below or tweet me @TomEMullaney. Thank you for reading.

Author's Note: The image for this post is a creation of Brad Flickinger on Flickr: https://www.flickr.com/photos/56155476@N08/6659988943/in/photostream/. I edited the image and used it in accordance with its Creative Commons license.

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Tom Mullaney is a Digital Learning Integration Designer for the San Francisco Unified School District. Tom's education experience includes Special Education, Social Studies, and educational technology coaching in New York, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. He is a Google for Education Certified Innovator and Trainer. Tom hosts the Sustainable Teaching Podcast and contributes to the BamRadio Network EdWords blog. Use his TED-Ed lesson to teach your students about the French Revolution. Contact him on Twitter, @TomEMullaney or via e-mail, mistermullaney@gmail.com.

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Guest Tuesday, 21 August 2018