Bye Curriculum. Hello Braid.

Doug Johnson, in his post about learning to saddle and ride this horse we call 21st century learning, is saying that its time to get out there and try some stuff.  In my lengthy obituary for the idea of curriculum, I suggest that the old model of school — that of handing books around and expecting everyone to read certain things — is probably dead and gone, just as Clay Shirky argues that we’re seeing the rise of algorithmic authority. And these ideas draw inspiration or at least shared DNA at some point with Shelly Blake-Plock’s awareness that books as a technology are nearing the end of their useful lifespan.

And yet nothing changes, because, as Scott McLeod points out, the hierarchies of our school leadership structures aren’t really changing fast enough to keep up with the changes in society driven by the changes in technology.

Let me offer a thread of hope.

A braid, actually.

Joel Zehring (I don’t know if you have a blog, Joel, but I’ll happily link to it if you like; your twitter feed looks interesting) argues in (what’s currently) the last comment on Scott McLeod’s article that the Internet isn’t done yet, and school is sufficiently mature to survive.  The Internet, meanwhile, is a half-baked, half-cocked mish-mash of cable, servers, content, wire, and people, and it’s no good to refashion school based on the design of the Internet.  He says, instead,

“we should be growing students and institutions who can act from deep purpose and exercise wisdom, discernment, disciplined thought, and disciplined action, no matter the medium.”

He is absolutely right.

Yet, as John Michael Greer points out in this week’s Archdruid Report, Hagbard’s Law remains in effect: There can be no true communication in a hierarchy; overlings want to hear certain things even if they are not true, and underlings subtly reshape their thinking and their forms of expression to give their superiors what they want.

It’s a conundrum.  I suggested in yesterday evening’s post on how Curriculums were nice and all, but it’s time to move past that, but Ira Socol went a step farther, in his post on Mythic America and the need for rapid change.  And based on his reminder that new technologies lead to new societies lead to new tech lead to new soc lead to new tech leads to new soc…

We need to teach kids how to braid.

In school today, we study curriculum.  I’ve been teaching some variation on ancient  or medieval-to-modern history for more than a decade (approaching a decade and a half pretty rapidly).  But we really ought to be teaching ourselves and our students how to braid their knowledges and skills into one coherent rope… the cable of their lives, with unfinished threads poking out at odd angles here and their, the odd yarn or two, and many interwoven strands.  The thicker that cable, and the more tightly interconnected the combination of knowledges, skills, and competencies — the more effective and happy that student is likely to be as an adult.

What does the Braid look like?

Well, for one, I think it starts with renaming our courses, and shortening all of them.  Instead of spending a term on a course, we spend three days on a course, or maybe a week.  And we give it a new kind of title, like:

  • History: How to read primary sources like letters
  • Math: How to construct the first three Pythagorean triangles.
  • English: How to perform a Shakespearean play
  • Grammar: How to write a Petrarchan Sonnet
  • Engineering: How to build a stone wall
  • Science: How to identify ten constellations
  • Computers: How to touch-type
  • Programming: How to write an iPhone app
  • Naturalism: How to identify ten local trees
  • Outdoorsmanship: How to fly-fish cast
  • Sports: How to throw a jump shot
  • Science: How to perform dangerous exothermic-reaction experiments safely

And then we let students pick and choose, from a very early age, which courses they’re going to take each month, or each week.  We keep accurate tallies of who takes what, and sure… there will be prerequisites for some classes, and perhaps postrequisites — a teacher may agree to teach a student a specific class for which she’s not prepared, but only if she comes back for two others which will fill in the blanks.

Sure, there are going to be some basics that every kid has to know.  They’re going to have to have some sort of ongoing mathematics instruction, and a kid who doesn’t know basic lab safety probably won’t get into that last class in my list at all.

But if we make school more like, as the movie Beetlejuice used to have it, a stereo manual, maybe kids would be more excited about coming to classes, because they would have a clearer idea of what they were going to learn, and how that idea fit in with their overall plan for a life.

And some of the courses would have to have titles like

  • Health: Ten risky things that (probably) won’t kill you (the first time).
  • Responsibility: Seven ways to really fuck up your life in a hurry
  • Compassion: Four ways to heal the planet and make a difference
  • Finance: Five ways to get rich slowly and one to ruin your credit score

And in a digitally connected world, a student at my school isn’t limited to just the classes I and my colleagues teach.  They’ll have access to any course that anyone cares to make, anywhere in the world, who has Internet access. Mind the gap, though: the places where that connectivity doesn’t reach are going to have to be reached, or in the long run this isn’t going to work.  And John Michael Greer would want me to remind you that we live on a small planet, the oil isn’t going to hold out forever, and the energy requirements of these sorts of systems are very high indeed. Warning heard, even if not always heeded.

Even so, a real life is made up of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of these small stories and skills and competences and knowledges, twisted together and appearing and reappearing on the surface, disappearing deep into the braid of the self when not needed.  Shelly and Ira and Clay and Doug and I don’t have the same stories or skills or competencies or knowledges. But I think that a student educated on a mixture of our ideas, plus potentially thousands of others, will have a thousand useful threads to weave together into a useful, happy and productive life.

And the truth is, this is what our students do anyway. They may be paying attention one day, and pick up a thread we throw out to them, and work it into who they become five years down the line or more. The next day, they’re sullen and listless, because they discovered something really important yesterday, but they’re not given the chance to build on that idea.

We’re building braids into our lives all the time, and yet we continue to call it curriculum.  Maybe we should make explicit the implict world, and speak the name that gives the idea shape. Welcome to the Braid.

Your milage may vary.


  1. ‘The Braid’: I think R. Steiner would have agreed that this is a more natural — let alone more engaging — way for human beings to learn things.

  2. I agree with everything you’re saying, of course, but I don’t see these changes as happening wholesale any time in the future. Sadly, the pendulum continues to hover on the overtested, overtaxed side of the grandfather clock of education (how’s that?) College tuitions are increasing even when graduates from America’s top colleges and universities can’t find jobs anywhere. (You’d be better off nowadays, I think, to graduate from high school, spend three years learning a trade, and then giving college a shot — or, alternatively, take the $200,000 you might spend on a private college education and open a small business.)

    The other aspect of this issue that I don’t think gets discussed enough is that it will take generational changes in thought patterns to make any of this achievable. In America, as elsewhere, “success” is still measured (by in large) by those sorts of lessons that teachers still taught and students still learned back in the 1920s.

    Yes, there are many things that I do in my independent school classroom that are innovative. I use technology all the time, I’ve got a SmartBoard coming this spring, I teach middle school students around a Harkness table, and I have alternative assessments up the wazoo. But right now, my students are taking a literature test on which they have to write, circle answers, and do other mundane tasks. Yes, I’m asking them to analyze what they read, and, yes, I’m going to grade their analysis more than I am going to grade their spelling. But, if the old-world stuff were to fall off the map, the traditional parents at my school would have a conniption fit, and I’d be out of a job…

    • Ben,

      You and I are in the same boat. I’ve taught without textbooks all fall, and my students have read bits and pieces of a dozen different primary sources. But I’m pretty much being forced to bite the bullet, and hand out the standard textbook. I’m not being told to drop the wiki teaching I’ve been doing, or the primary sources, but I’m definitely being told to put it on the ‘back burner’, so to speak.

      It’s all about ‘reading comprehension’ and ‘standardized assessments’ and ‘apples to apples’ comparisons between student work. And yet, you and I know that the only way to learn to write is to write, to practice, to do….

      That “out of a job” part bothers me the most. We’re very good at what we do, but innovation comes so slowly to classrooms to begin with, and we’re usually being dragged back to the traditional ways faster than we can experiment and make progress….

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