I have received a number of interesting questions and comments in response to my 2 blog posts on curriculum. Before I respond directly to some of them I want to make a few general comments to address a few misconceptions.

Numerous writers said – well, sure: voc. Ed. and art have been doing this forever. I am of course aware that there have been courses devoted to learning skills/crafts/trades/arts since the beginning of education. I have for many years – decades, even – held those performance areas up as exemplars (see, for example A True Test in Phi Delta Kappan in 1989). What I am proposing is far more radical. I am not calling for just a performance-based course; I am calling for a complete rethinking of what we mean by “course” “course goals” and (especially) “sequence” in any course. And that includes many voc. Ed and art courses which I think are often not well designed as courses. More on this later.

Secondly, a number of people seem to be blurring important distinctions. Problem Based Learning (PBL) is only one kind of curriculum-design approach to my more general point about future-focused autonomous performance. In fact, many PBL courses are quite weak in the sequencing of problems and the lack of focus on transfer. Similarly, Project-based learning is often haphazard and poorly-designed: it often is just a bunch of random projects in no particular sequence. It easily ends up being the opposite of what I am talking about – i.e. it ends up as almost no design at all. We throw up our hands and put it all on students and their interests. This is neither my goal nor does it solve the randomness problem described by Dewey in his critique of many Progressive schools 80 years ago.

Just because it is hands-on doesn’t make it minds-on.

Readers also surprisingly argued that if it was happening at Exeter then it could not happen in my little rural or big urban school. This is backward: it must happen in your school if it is best practice. We don’t similarly say, oh we could never do basketball the way great DI programs do; oh, we could never do Chorus locally the way Glee does it. I have no idea where this idea comes from but it could not be more wrong. By that defeatist logic, Jaime Escalante and others should never have tried to do AP courses in their schools. The goal is always to emulate best practice. In fact, Exeter’s approach works just fine in large urban classrooms as anyone doing Socratic Seminar knows. We have done model Soc. Seminars in inner-city classes of 50 (inner group discusses, outer group takes notes; roles switch halfway through) for years. Similarly, when I did a model PBL lesson in math in Edison HS in Rochester, the teachers were stunned at how engaged and effective their kids were. It is to our shame that our initial instinct is often to say “it can’t be done HERE…”

Demographics have nothing to do with designing backward from worthy goals and the need for engaging and naturally-developed work.  Consider the wisdom in gaming: the games are designed. Brilliantly. For all. Consider what they have accomplished: you are led without feeling coerced to learn even though you have no teachers, you have many choices, and the sequence follows from your choices (yet isn’t random). Please don’t write and say they are ‘only’ games; the issue is what game designers seem to know better than most educators: how to design backward from high-level skill-integrated performance goals with maximal engagement. Read Reality is Broken to learn more about why what game developers know is far more sophisticated than what almost all curriculum developers know.

I was at UNC-Greensboro a month ago. As part of their MALS program they are designing online courses in which the teams are made up of Professors, game designers and instructional designers. Subject matter is as diverse as the history of science, geopolitics and logic. A current course in terrorism culminates in an elaborate simulation of a terrorist group takeover of an oil platform in the Indian Ocean. All prior learning has to be brought to bear, and each decision has different consequences. Fantastic courses.

Quite a few readers said – OK I buy it, but how do you do it in History? The answer follows from the gaming comments. You make historical content the means to addressing history-related challenges and problems, as in a game; and you don’t start with facts, you start with questions and challenges, as in a game.

Simple example. Opening 2 weeks of a US history course: the first assignment might be an oral history of a recent important messy event, say 9/11 or (for littler kids) a key event in the recent life of the school (big playground fight, change of rules, etc.). Essential Q: What happened? Says who? We of course then learn that there is no single answer, and both facts and meanings are all tangled up. BOOM – we’re doing history, in week one, and leaving the unit with serious questions (a key goal). Next lesson: what happened on Lexington Green? Same problem, only now it is our basic history: people have different facts and theories. Next issue takes us into content: why is the ‘Obamacare’ issue so filled with fiery rhetoric? What are the key issues underneath the posturing and politics? BOOM, back we go to the Federalist and a close reading …. Then we start to build timelines for the EQ of What’s the proper role of government?, as we fill in with more inquiry and teaching around that question.

Doing history, learning history on a need to know basis, getting deeper into more and more messy and complex history as we go.

Final assessment at year’s end includes the following EQs: What happened? Says who? How should we assess what they say? How did we get here today – and does it matter that we know? etc.

Obviously this is just a sketch of the direction I am proposing, but I trust you are beginning to see the idea. The content does not determine the flow, the goals of meaning and transfer do. But content matters; it can’t just be projects. It takes artful design.