Column #17, posted 7/4/02

A Funny Thing Happened...

A funny thing happened on my way to Carnegie Mellon West. Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) asked me to oversee the educational mission of their new campus in California. I designed something called the Story-Centered Curriculum, which is a way of implementing learning by doing, eliminating lectures, classes, and tests. Students do projects sequentially, each project leading to the next, so at the end the student has experienced a year in a simulated world that was designed to closely resemble the world that he or she is preparing to enter after school. In September two master's degree programs - each designed as a Story-Centered Curriculum - will open their doors to students at CMU West, one in Software Engineering and one in E-commerce.

As it happened, I had been talking to a K-12 school in Florida (called Grandview Prep) for some time about adding new technology-based projects to their curriculum. I realized that we could redesign the CMU master's degree in E-commerce and make it into a full-time senior year in computer science for high school students. They liked the idea at Grandview and said they would send all their seniors to this program. Much as that appealed to me, I thought that not all students would want to do computer science (although there is heavy business component to the curriculum as well, still it's not right for every kid.) So I contacted the University of Chicago, and they said they would love to design a senior year in writing. We began to design both for delivery in September.

This is when the funny thing happened. Grandview asked me to be academic dean of their school. They have bought into my ideas about education and want to do more. I suggested we immediately prepare curricula for eighth and fifth grades for September and then proceed on to do more. So, that is what we are doing.

These curricula ignore what was there before. They make no attempt to cover the material normally covered in those grades (although material that is critical will still be utilized in the normal course of the scenario). We are trying to change things, not modify them. The new curricula are all built in the form of story centered curricula which are elaborate goal-based scenarios (GBS's), grand scenarios in which students play active roles that emulate some aspect of the real world and learn by doing. These GBS's are built on the web so they can be exported to other schools. The teaching is done in the form of mentoring by experts who may or may not be teachers at the school. The idea is to have students live in a story for a while, helped through that story by materials we have prepared or can point to and by mentors who can advise and suggest strategies as well as review work and suggest improvements.

For the eighth grade, we are adapting the writing and computer science curricula from the twelfth grade. They will be combined into one story-centered curriculum appropriate for eighth graders.

For fifth grade, we are asking professors around the country who have designed various curricula using technology to let us use them in the first semester. We will attempt to meld them into a coherent whole. For the second half of fifth grade, we will design a brand new story-centered curriculum that encompasses law, science, medicine and ethics, and aspects of business.

We have our work cut out for us, but we are excited by the enterprise. We need help, money to hire people to build these curricula or people who want to volunteer their time. We have set up a not-for-profit corporation called Engines for Education, to handle this enterprise.

We will, in time, produce an entirely new K-12 curriculum and undo the damage done by the Committee of Ten who set out what is still today's curriculum in 1892. It is all well and good to prepare students for Harvard in 1892, but that is best done in 1892 not 2002. The time has come for society to recognize that current school curricula are readying our children for a world they will never live in. It is time to think about what today's children need.

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