Modularized Curriculum

I’ve been away too long and have missed writing in my blog.   I have been wanting to write this post for several weeks…

Disrupting Class, the revolutionary book by Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn, has been one of the “hot” books about education this past year.  In it, Christensen and Horn make a compelling case for the role of disruptive innovations in changing the pace of innovation, often causing rapid change in industries.  The book describes how companies often become so large and ingrained in their system that they are unable to construct a truly innovative change, one that changes the status quo and shifts the market, over time, away from their model.  As a result, systems become very good at sustaining current innovations, but not very good at creating (or reacting to) innovations that either shift the market or create a new one.  They outline the evolution form departments stores, to large chains (Walmart) to online retailing.  Each step along the way marked by a innovative change that often began not as competition over current innovations, but instead changing the market all together.  A great example of this not mentioned in the book is the Sears catalog.  During the early 90′s, Sears began to see a decline in their catalog sales.  Trying to increase sales, Sears asked their customers what they wanted, to which they collectively responded, “more catalogs.”  Sears complied.  At the same time, however, a small company called eBay was beginning to attract a different market – those interested in buying and selling goods online.  Admittedly, the Sears customer was not same as the eBay customer, but eBay had caused a disruption and shifted the market away from the catalog.  Of course, now there is no Sears catalog and eBay sells billions of dollars worth of merchandise annually.

Recently, I had the chance to meet and listen to Michael Horn at the Wentworth Institute of Technology (That’s me with Michael to the left – Thanks to Stephanie Cheney for the invitation).  During his talk, Horn commented that maintaining innovations lead to failure, that systems need disruption, which made me think of the Sears catalog.  Sears was willing to appease their customer base, but wasn’t able to see and/or take advantage of the disruptive force that internet commerce presented.  In fact, Horn commented, “customers hold innovation back.”  Sears asked its customers what they wanted and it led to the ultimate failure of its catalog.

All of this makes me think of our customers?  Are they our Parents?  Students?  Community?  Well, probably all of the above, but more to the point, do they hold back innovation in education?  Educational systems have a tendency to survey constituents when making change, but is that prudent?  (Perhaps from a political perspective, but from the perspective of affecting change is it?)  Don’t constituents simply want more of the same?  How often do we hear, “Back when I was in school…” when folks talk about innovation in education?  For example, we know from Howard Gardner’s work that different children learn differently, but the movement to enact meaningful change for atypical learners is often meant with resistance because, “back when I was in school, we didn’t have…”  or “when I started teaching we didn’t have to worry about…” Despite mountains of research to suggest that innovations often lead to increase student performance, educational systems are loath to change – or perhaps it is more accurate to suggest that they can’t change.  Horn made the claim in our discussion that the interdependency of school systems creates standardization, thus not allowing schools to customize and personalize their program.  In effect, making them rigid and change adverse.

Which is why I am so excited about the prevalence of online schools.  (In the interest of full disclosure, I work part-time at the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School -VLACS.)  The online environment, if established properly, can provide students with the individualization and customization that they desire.  With open enrollment and any time, any place learning, online schools have the flexibility that well-established systems seem unable to provide.  In the book Christensen and Horn make a compelling case for online learning being  a disruptive innovation in education, much like my example of eBay being the disruptive innovation to the Sears catalog.  How disruptive could online education be?  Christensen and Horn predict that by 2019, 50% of high school courses will be offered online.  That percentage hovers around 6% now.

Finally, Horn predicted that the next disruptive innovation will be the modularization of the curriculum.  New Hampshire may be uniquely qualified to take advantage of this innovation if it comes true.  With state mandates effectively eliminating the Carnegie unit and moving toward a competency-based credit system, NH high school may be able to develop systems which would allow students to complete course modules according to their needs and or passions.  VLACS has recently developed its Personalized Pathway program.  Designed to help student meet competencies toward high school credit, Personalized Pathways has the long-term flexibility to allow for the customization and personalization of a high school program as students will be able to develop “courses” by building modules from a variety of disciplines.  In the end, students could be able to earn all of the competencies required for graduation, but not necessarily in the packaged courses offered in today’s high schools.

Isn’t that what we want?  Students standing up and saying, “This is what I am passionate about, so this is the way that I am going to show competency and earn my diploma.”

I’m anxious to read your remarks, so feel free to comment below.

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3 Responses to Modularized Curriculum

  1. Tony,

    I am thinking about a post on the book as well, but I don’t think I could get to the heart of the issue any better than you have. I think that your school deserves more recognition for its progressive approach. The question about satisfying the customers in education is a great one! How can we convince them that a new model is needed when they are products of the current model and most people are OK with it?

    Fortunately the SAU you work in has a reference point nearby in the VLACS. I would ask the school board to consider making the completion of an on-line course, or at least a hybrid, a graduation requirement for students. I know this is just the tip of the iceberg and doesn’t necessarily get to the modular approach, but it is a good start.

    I think that the model you describe would work well anywhere. Passion-driven education, what a concept!

    In MA they the state tells us that students are ready to receive a diploma if they pass a grade 10 test. The following two years would be a great time for those students who have met this standard to take off on a pathway of their choice and have the potential to start earning credit towards an advanced degree.

    I look forward to hearing more about the VLACS as you continue to be way ahead of most (if not all) high schools in New England.

  2. tbaldasaro says:

    Caroline,
    You bring a great perspective to this discussion and you raise an interesting question, how do we measure our effectiveness as educators and through who’s eyes? Further, what is the threshold? If we “miss” one child, are we a poor teacher? Perhaps to that student, but in general. I don’t know for sure either, but it is such a rich discussion.

    But, let’s remember this, you recognized your inability to reach that student. My guess, is you will learn from that and be better equipped to reach “that” student the next time. Your ability to reflect and redevelop is a mark of a high quality teacher, so keeping your disappointment of not reaching “that” student in mind, I would argue that you are practicing that which makes you a better teacher.

  3. Pingback: Blogging About Virtual Schools « Virtual School Meanderings

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