Let’s hack the curriculum
Former high school teacher Ryan Burwell reflects on what he’s learned at CSI, and how these lessons can help revolutionize education.
By Ryan Burwell
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.
My brief time at CSI has reinforced my deep misgivings about this approach by showing me the power of a much more fluid form of education. It has also furnished me with the vocabulary to describe what needs to be done about it. Both the curriculum and the way we train teachers need to be hacked.
Prior to arriving at the plan that I will be summarizing here, I spent nine years as a high school teacher. During this time I witnessed the education system respond to the ever-changing needs of students simply by accelerating the rate at which new curriculum policies were adopted.
When I began my career, Ontario was one year into an entirely revamped secondary curriculum that 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 of 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 curriculum to innovate, we must start investing in 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. As entrepreneurs 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.
Since starting work as a consultant with Twenty One Toys at CSI Annex just four months ago, I have been amazed by both what and how I have learned. The rich tapestry of innovators in the CSI community provides an endless supply of fascinating interactions in an equally diverse variety of environments. Being able to participate in Six Degrees of Social Innovation (CSI’s monthly networking event), mentorship events, numerous presentations, and countless opportunities to shoot the breeze with entrepreneurs has done much more than just teach me. It has convinced me of the potential CSI has to train other teachers.
The idea is simple, yet powerful: immerse recently graduated teacher-candidates in an entrepreneurial setting. I have already seen this approach bear fruit. While mentoring two OISE interns at Twenty One Toys, I was thrilled to see their creativity spring to life in the rich soil of this amazing community. In their transformation I also saw the potential to mobilize a new type of teacher, capable of reforming curriculum and confronting an increasingly grim job market.
Thousands of aspiring teachers pour into the workforce each June, but by the following year only a third of them will have found fulltime work in education. So let’s train them as social entrepreneurs who approach their craft with a hacker’s eye for design and the support of a network of innovators.
To this end, I’m designing a twelve-week program organized around lessons distilled from my experiences at CSI. A series of interactive workshops will focus on themes that 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 propose 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, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or pay me a visit on the second floor of CSI Annex.
Educators and entrepreneurs have much to learn from each other – so let’s get together.