Curriculum as Exercise Machine

When little kittens are still in the nest, they instinctively engage in simulated battles over precious resources.

These fake struggles establish dominance among the litter, and begin development of important muscle coordination the kittens will need if they are ever to become successful cats.  Their play-fights also remind us of the inherently educational function of games–teaching values and sublimating primal energies.

Humans have known for some time that strong, well-conditioned muscles and capabilities result in improved end task performance, and that consequently the best means for training have always been those that most closely resemble end tasks.  Great soldiers emerge from war-games, and boxers win if they have great sparring partners.  And the best preparation for a dance? Rehearsal and practice, preferably with a set of other dancers.

But what about the aspiring performer who wishes to train on his/her own?  That’s where exercise machine designers have stepped in, producing apparati that anyone can use on his/her own. Their main virtue lies in how closely the muscle training they provide mimics the desired result; hence the popularity of rowing machines and stationary bikes.

Of course, the effectiveness of an exercise machine is limited by contextual factors in the final performance. These random variables cannot easily be replicated on a machine. The best a machine can do is put competitors’ muscles through stresses and strains similar to those of the actual athlete’s in end performance.  No treadmill or stationary bike, save one in an air-conditioned wind tunnel, could replicate the effect of buffeting cross-winds such as one might meet in a mountain stage of the Tour de France, or the grade and humidity of a day at the Boston Marathon.

At the risk of being overly-simplistic, you could look at what humans call “Education” as a multi-year exercise or game-system devised for un-developed humans to play and thereby become physically and cognitively capable–a long set of challenges designed to produce functioning adults who co-exist in community. For the last 150 years or so, educators have built various cognitive and physical exercise machines (or curricula) for society’s children to use and grow by, and charged the cost to the commonwealth.  It’s a cost that, until lately, Americans seemed ready to pay. It’s investing in the seed corn, the future of the community,  insurance for our continued existence. And as measured by GDP, our society’s schools seemed to work, as the US economy outperformed most of the planet for a century or more. But now, of course, the USA is being out-performed by global rivals, and as profit margins and public funds are thinned, everything, including our public schools, is being critically examined for efficiency against global standards. Ed reformers are pretty much in harmony:  it’s time for another, better exercise machine for our kids’ bodies and minds.

But what kind of machine? The devil, and God, are in the details.

Over the years, the exercise machine has had various designs, from formal, industrial-style that packed students into rows and standardized their behaviors, to more open classrooms and self-directed learning. Lately, I and others have advocated a “hybrid” curriculum that gives students a balance of face-to-face learning activities in actual community and online, virtual learning activities.

However, I think the piece of the curriculum machine that will make the most difference in the next iteration will be the part that comes closest to replicating the sorts of learning and work students will be asked to do in their probable futures, when work will be globalized and collaborized in ways not yet imagined.  The key piece in a better exercise machine for our kids’ bodies and minds, then, is Problem-based learning (PBL)–how better to learn the value of skills and knowledge than in using them in community to bring about real results? Thus is the gap eliminated (and inefficiencies in traditional curricula reduced) between the learning experience and the end-user experience.  Increasing our machine’s efficiency will mean reducing or eliminating the artificial divide for students between:

  • Chemistry and working at the pharmacy 
  • Algebra and inventory-taking for a real enterprise
  • Computer Science and app building for the teeming world market
  • English sentence-diagraming and writing winning proposals for advancement, and 
  • Earth Science and gardening 

Of course, we will need to have vigorous gym classes to challenge our youngsters’ physical strength, their will, and collaborative skills via competitive games. The best competitive teams, communities collaborating for common, attainable goals, show the value of training when “real” ends are kept in mind.

One of my hopes for 2012 and beyond is that we be sure to transfer the collective skills that students will need via PBL.  By keeping it  as “real” as possible, the school’s curriculum allows for a relatively direct translation of training–> performance. And you want that, in any good exercise machine.

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