Public Schools as Ecosystems: Part III: Open Source Curriculum

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I’m going to branch out from my original premise of fostering interconnectivity and visualizing public schools as ecosystems and extend that concept further specifically into the realm of curriculum development. Right now, most states have adopted the Common Core State Standards, which is a promising advancement, as it gives all educators in the nation a common reference point in developing curricula, as opposed to varying state defined abstractions. This is the first step toward developing a basis for educators to collaborate in more innovative ways in developing their units and lessons. It means, theoretically, that an educator in Iowa could collaborate with a colleague in New York and know that they will have a common reference with which to base their objectives and assessments on.

The next step will be to establish a solid curriculum that can be developed, shared and refined by actual classroom practice. Traditionally, schools purchase their curriculum from companies such as Houghton Mifflin, McGraw Hill, or some other company that contracts with schools districts. Then they give the program to teachers, and teachers get these gigantic lesson plan books that have all these boxes and colorful little sidebars, and I’m sure they have some good information embedded somewhere in there. I’m not saying this curriculum isn’t necessarily well developed and effective. But there’s a disconnect between the classroom and the curriculum that does not need to be there.

There’s another disconnect in education that occurs on the level of research. Some researchers do a study on effective teaching strategies and find out some interesting findings and report those findings in a journal that maybe a few teachers read in a master’s class they take and have a classroom discussion about. And maybe those teachers have to apply some principles of that research into their classroom as part of their grade and they then write a paper about it. But that tends to be about as far as much research penetrates into actual classroom practice. I mean, for God’s sake, the concept of learning styles has been essentially debunked according to most research, but you would not know it if you are in the field of education right now. Again, as in the curriculum, the problem is not that the research might not be potentially useful and valid to classroom practice, but rather that the research does not often directly involve the teachers who are in classrooms everyday. It also doesn’t help that often educational research can become highly politicized.

Both of these disconnects can be resolved if teachers were the ones actively doing the research and developing the curriculum themselves in a transparent and rigorous manner. I believe that the potential to do this at a low cost and at a large scale can be found in the example of the open source model used in software engineering. This model has produced amazing work that can often be far superior to traditional, proprietary means. There are parallels in the development of software and the development of curriculum that hold promise for the transfer of the open source method into curriculum development, though there will be some caveats to that, of course.

First, however, it’s important to distinguish what I’m really talking about when I state the “open source model.” There’s a common misconception about what open source means, and most people will probably think I just mean that I think curriculum should be free. But open source refers to a process, not a product. This is an important distinction that I think gets lost in the examples of “open source curriculum” websites that I have seen out there (Curriki, FlexBooks, OER Commons). Note that I don’t know that any of these sites specifically claim to be “open source”, but they do tend to denote that concept by placing the word “open” as a frequent descriptor to content. What they are just saying is “free”. I think what they are doing is great, and I am not knocking them at all. But I think it is important to point out that simply having a repository of free lessons that have been designed by real classroom teachers and ratable by users is not open source curriculum. It’s useful, and it’s a great step in the right direction. But this is not what I am talking about.

What I’m talking about is actually designing units and lesson plans collaboratively using technology, with actual teachers developing them together (for free) from the ground up. The teachers doing this would have to be relatively sophisticated and dedicated pedagogues, as well as capable with technology, but the end users of this curriculum would potentially be any and all classroom teachers K-12 in the US, and eventually, any classroom teacher anywhere, given that our new standards are placing us more on par with international standards. As these end users utilize the curriculum, they would provide feedback and round out the curriculum based on their specific students’ needs, and even join in on the process as they explore the application of the curriculum as a living, breathing, evolutionary product.

Teachers could also collaborate on research using this model, and carry out research in multiple classrooms simultaneously in order to pool their data and observations, thus building a research base of “action research” that can better bridge that disconnect between academic research and actual classroom practice. This research could also feed directly into the curriculum development.

This is the big picture, the big idea of what I’m proposing in the transfer of the open source model into curriculum and research development. There’s a number of issues that are already evident even at this grand level of generalization, such as the fact that many teachers aren’t exactly tech savvy (I’m still trying to get most of my school to log onto Google), for starters. And then just the little nitty gritty details like the fact that you would have to design a platform that would enable this collaboration to take place effectively based on the lessons themselves, not just on conversations about them. This would require some kind of standardized format of a lesson such that it can be modularized and broken into pieces and built upon.

It certainly won’t be easy. But it’s possible. The tools are there and the potential is there. As busy and abused as teachers are, I think there’s enough committed, innovative ones out there to get the community started with just an ounce of dedication and a whiff of extra time here and there. Wanna join me in the effort?