Friday, 14 June 2013

Let's Hack the Curriculum

                The fact that schools must prepare students to innovate in a rapidly changing world has been repeated to the point of becoming an educational cliché- the twenty-first century’s equivalent of stressing the “Three Rs”.  Indeed, we have thus far tried to impose order on our increasingly dynamic era by preparing students in the same way we have always instructed reading, writing, and arithmetic.  That is, by creating and following curriculum.
A desire to explore alternative approaches has led to my decision to leave traditional education.  June 25th, 2013 marks the end of my nine year career as a high school teacher and the beginning of my journey as an entrepreneur.  I have been inspired to take this leap through my interactions with the dynamic population at the Centre for Social Innovation. CSI is a collaborative workspace with three locations in Toronto and one in New York.  In addition to providing space for social entrepreneurs to work, it has a fulltime team of educators and community animators whose sole purpose is to organize programs and events which allow members to share knowledge.  CSI has shown me a powerful and fluid form of education.  It has also furnished me with the vocabulary to describe what needs to happen in the school system.  Both the curriculum and the way we train teachers need to be hacked.     
Before arriving at CSI, I had always associated hacking with the tech world.  This quickly changed when I learned about Project Ukulele Gangsterism, the brainchild of CSI Director of Culture Adil Dhalla.  His idea to “hack the morning commute” with dozens of ukuleles and a song entitled “Have an Awesome Day” made me question my narrow understanding of this concept.  Hacking has moved away from its techy and pejorative origin and towards the idea that positive changes can be carved out of a larger system.  Adil’s ability to inject some fun into the doldrums of rush hour is part of a growing hacker mindset which is also infiltrating education.  After posting this, I am heading to OISE for a weekend “EduHack” Conference.
Although the idea of the teacher-as-hacker is starting to gain traction, it definitely faces an uphill climb.  Change in education remains remains firmly tethered to policy.  As a consequence, "innovation" has been equated with accelerated changes in provincial curriculum.  When I began my career, Ontario was one year into an entirely revamped secondary curriculum which had been streamlined from five years to four.  The teachers who mentored me were still grappling with a dramatic shift in assessment policy which had been phased in over the previous four years.  Six years into my career, that policy was replaced.     
                Of course, curriculum needs to evolve if it is to remain relevant; however, relevance is a far cry from innovation.  The accelerated changes I confronted as a teacher are positively glacial when placed next to the quantum developments outside the school system.  In the same time it took to revamp Ontario’s assessment policy, an additional 1.5 billion people gained access to the internet.  The Ontario math curriculum was revised in 2007.  Bureaucratically speaking, this was yesterday; but it was in the Stone Age compared to the 0.26 seconds it takes Google to find 2,490,000 results for “calculus help”.  The inescapable conclusion is this- traditional curriculum is a tried and true means of setting academic standards, but cannot possibly keep pace with changes in how we use and disseminate knowledge. 
If we can’t rely on policy to innovate, we must better prepare the individuals who can.  We need to train teachers in the art of innovation if we want our schools to create rather than simply respond to change.  Teachers must be given both the tools and the confidence to hack the curriculum from within.  As the entrepreneurs at CSI know, this type of training does not come from a textbook and is not shackled to an overarching curriculum mandate.  However, there is a methodology to crafting an entrepreneurial mindset.    
I would like to tap this methodology to rethink how we prepare new teachers.  To this end, I am planning a twelve week program based around lessons distilled from my experiences at CSI.  It will take newly graduated teacher-candidates through a series of interactive workshops focusing on themes which are relevant to educators and entrepreneurs alike: network thinking, communication and active listening, assessment and iteration, and presentation design.  Participants in the program will hone these approaches by both engaging in, and initiating events at CSI.  The program will culminate with a pitch night in which this cohort of newly minted “edu-preneurs” will present their educational ideas to a collection of entrepreneurs and educators who are in a position to help them realize their vision.

Although I plan to scale it in the fall, this program is already in effect.  I consider myself its first graduate.  The lessons I have learned so far at CSI have given me the reason and the confidence to develop the program briefly outlined above.  Of course, I still have much to learn, and am eager for your input.  If you’re interested in discussing this further, I would love to hear from you!