First, we kill the curriculum

The printing press changed our relationship with knowledge and sparked the Protestant Reformation, which one could say helped bring about the Enlightenment and all of those scientific advances (such as real medicine) that we now take for granted. As John Naughton, of The Observer, says of a UK study on information seeking:

“The study confirms what many are beginning to suspect: that the web is having a profound impact on how we conceptualise, seek, evaluate and use information. What Marshall McLuhan called ‘the Gutenberg galaxy’ – that universe of linear exposition, quiet contemplation, disciplined reading and study – is imploding, and we don’t know if what will replace it will be better or worse. But at least you can find the Wikipedia entry for ‘Gutenberg galaxy’ in 0.34 seconds.”

The Web is changing everything, whether we like it or not; much as the printing press did, to the dismay of the established church.

As books are to subjects and disciplines, the Web is to processes. David Weinberger says that Everything is Miscellaneous, and in our interconnected world it sure is. That means that ALL subjects in school or university are miscellaneous and it doesn’t really matter what you study. It matters how you study and what you can do with your knowledge.


Even medicine is miscellaneous. The other day we were discussing a diagnosis with an orthopedic surgeon and the first question he asked was, “I’m sure that you’ve researched this, so what have you found out on the Internet?” In one miscellaneous area, we could have been more knowledgeable than a specialist, and he wanted to check.

On Sunday I listened to a discussion on the radio about the need for teaching black history and more ethnically diverse subjects in school. These educated people were discussing symptoms without addressing the cause because a subject-based curriculum will always be based on the wrong subjects for some people. Without a subject-centric curriculum, teachers could choose the appropriate subject matter for their particular class and the school system could concentrate on ensuing that students have mastered the important processes. Some of the processes that readily come to mind are critical thinking, analysing data, researching, communicating ideas, creating new things, etc.

All fields of knowledge are expanding and artificial boundaries between disciplines are disintegrating. Our education system needs to drop the whole notion of subjects and content mastery and move to process-oriented learning. The subject matter should be something of interest to the learner or something a teacher, with passion, is motivated to teach. The subject does not matter, it’s just grist for the cognitive mill.

Discussing ‘what’ subjects we should teach is the 21st Century equivalent of determining how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. The answer is infinite. The real debate in education is whether we need linear, book oriented curriculum at all.

21 Responses to “First, we kill the curriculum”

  1. Jon Husband

    The Web is changing everything, whether we like it or not; much as the printing press did, to the dismay of the established church.

    You sound like a techno-utopian to me.


  2. Jon Husband

    Yeah, I “knew” you thought along those lines, as do I.

    Some good, some magnificent, some bad, some horrible, and lots and lots of learning left in front of us with which to engage.

  3. Daniel Lemire

    Project-based curriculum have been around forever. But this has not be widely adopted within Universities for some very good reasons:

    1) Courses can be recycled across programs. For example, you have one calculus course that you use for the business students and the geology students. Once you get rid of book-oriented courses, recycling becomes harder.

    2) Project-based learning may be more labor intensive from the teacher point of view. As a university professor, I can “teach” to 1000 students in a given term as long as it is a standard course with linear content and I get some extra help for marking the assignments.

    So, the real question Harold is whether your techno-utopia can scale to thousands of students.

    Oh! It can. Maybe. The problem is that you get a large chunk of the student population who would never think (even in 2008) of looking up something in Google or… wikipedia.

    I hear that in some schools, looking something up on the Web is frowned upon (even in 2008).

  4. Jacques

    “New technologies have condemned us to be intelligent.” (French Philosopher Michel Serres). In his view, new technologies and the Internet in the 21st century will impact on mankind in the likes of the mid-East 2000 years ago and the Renaissance (!). What also stuck o me as I listened to his 1-hour presentation (, is how we now “externalize” our reflection and thinking, just like we are doing here, now.
    A cognitive revolution generated by an information revolution… Will schools and curriculum developers seize this and work to transform education fast enough to diminish the ever-widening gap with 21st century society? Not sure… But we can try 🙂

  5. Peter Scheidler

    My first visit to Harold’s site. Fascinating discussion.

    While the Net’s content has grown in leaps and bounds over the 14 years I have surfed it, I feel like I’m getting thousands of sound bites but relatively little in-depth content. It is a better and more convenient tool than scouring abstracts, but the detailed knowledge is still locked up in paper. And there’s another thing about computer screens, I have a tougher time processing information from a screen than I do holding a piece of paper with the same words.

    I think there is a need for both media – the printing press and the digital search engine. The complement each other.

  6. Gilbert

    Nice post.

    I also like Jacques comment about a cognitive revolution. The invention of the press also led to a cognitive revolution. It took a long time but linear thinking became predominant.
    Here the word “Predominant” is important. I am not sure if what we are seeing is a cognitive revolution. It might just be linear/sequential thinking losing grounds.

    It is not the written word that created the linear man but the book itself. Physically it is hard to write an efficient book that is not linear.
    Some might remember programmed instruction books that use to suggest different pages depending on what answer you gave.
    The book became a predominant medium and linearity then became predominant. Enthalpy/Enthropy principles at work.

    The new predominant medium is non linear. It stills uses words but it is now more economical to use a non linear use of words.
    It is not by accident that our new form of presenting words actually ressembles the underlying medium. Engineers should recognize this as
    impedance matching.

    It doesn’t take much to tip the balance of dominance. Darwin would agree with this one. Small advantages repeated millions of times are usually sufficient.

    It is now often more economical to create non-linear courses than it is to create linear ones.
    This puts a lot of pressure on the traditional curriculum model. So I would say the traditional curriculum is not dead. However it will slowly become less common.


  7. Harold

    Thanks for all the comments, folks.

    Gilbert’s point that it’s easier to make a non-linear course is worth further investigation, since many of the guiding instructional principles (e.g. ADDIE) are rather linear. I had mentioned agile programming as a model for instructional development, but are there any widely used models for non-linear training or educational design? Heck, we still have a limited selection of models on how to design performance support systems.

    Maybe there’s a business opportunity here 😉

  8. Harold

    Thanks for the links, Joan. I’ve read the John Seely Brown article but not the others. I also think I’ll have to try out kwout 🙂

  9. Gilbert

    Here is a story for those who are interested in alternate ways of learning.

    After reading some Marshal McLuhan in the mid 70s I decided to change the way I was learning.
    Mcluhan was saying that electronic communications media would restore to Western civilizations many features expressed by oral cultures. In oral cultures you learn as an apprentice under a master and learning is a lifelong process. Being young (17) and naive I thought that this would happen in less than 10 years so I decided to change the way I was learning and thinking to make me ready for this new world. Learn orally under the masters.

    During this period I remember reading some Plato and a book called the Art of Memory. This was pre-Western world stuff. I started to see that there were other ways of learning. This led me to read books on old East Indian training methods for musicians and all kinds of different approaches in various cultures. One of the last books I read was from Bacon. In a world made up mostly of books I decided to change the way I made use of books for learning. Here are things I did to make me ready for this print to oral change.

    1. I stopped taking notes in the university classroom. Simply decided that I should remember what was being said.

    2. Started to train in old memory and visualization techniques from the Greek period.

    3. Instead of reading modern books I tried to read only original works. I read DesCartes, became a mathematician by reading Newton including hand written manuscripts. Learned my industrial engineering skills by reading original works of Taylor,Gilbreth,etc.

    4.I stopped reading books about books. I threw away all my “Understanding McLuhan” and meditated on the Medium is the Message. Reading originals is very close to learning the oral way. I could hear these people talking to me.

    4. Decided to play blindfolded games instead of visual. I remember playing several chess games simultaneously based on oral communication only. Played blindfolded bingo,tic tac toe, card games too. I was warned that if I screamed bingo when it wasn’t bingo that some old lady would beat me up. Later on I used to write computer programs orally by having someone else type them and myself not being allowed to look at the code.

    5. Totally neglected my university classes for many years to concentrate on mental training techniques. Went through concentration training, visualisation training, visual thinking training, lateral thinking, synectics, observation training, yoga, shorthand, logical thinking, illogical thinking, and many others.

    6. I decided that I would learn how to play classical guitar. I added the rule that I should never take a lesson, not ever even look at someones fingers as they played. The learning would have to come from the soul or simply from playing pieces. By that time I was into so much mental training that sight reading was mmediate. Took me about 2 minutes to figure out what the symbols meant. I started playing fifteenth century pieces and worked my way to about 1920. Much of the learning was simply done by hitting notes and simply listening. I did use sheet music to learn. At the age of forty I decided to use the fiddle and did so without lessons and did not allow myself to look at any sheet music. Listen and learn or just invent pieces.

    7. After a few years I kind a missed reading the newspaper and magazines so I went to the library and read the news of one hundred years ago and all their copies of Scientific American preceding 1970. Sure gave me a different understanding of politics and propaganda.

    8. I listened to a lot of radio.

    During this period I was still reading but only original works. And then I discovered Buckminster Fuller….

    I actually decided to study his mathematical work (Synergetics) and forced myself to think in terms of tetragons. Buckminster Fuller’s story of how he relived the history of tool making led me to reinvent many things around me. (Things like inventing my own alphabet and a different arithmetic than what other people used. Gave up on inventing a oral language because my friends were ready to have me interned.) I never read books about Fuller written by other people but I did meet someone who had met him and drank a lot of beer with the guy.

    Pretty weird stuff! Did give me an insight into non-curriculum driven learning and also in some McLuanistic thinking.

    So for those interested in alternate ways of learning. Give it a try. Take a new subject and try to learn it in a completely different way.
    Do it like a caveman would if it suits your personality. It will give you a different perspective about learning.

    PS. Learning from blogs is contrary to my learning style because it somewhat similar to reading books about books. The Blog process itself however is reflective and fits in well with this philosophy. Now that I am old it is also entertaining. I never really learned how to watch TV yet. I find playing with the remote quite interesting. Also find watching without sound quite interesting.

  10. Clark Quinn

    I guess my point would be that “ensuing that students have mastered the important processes. Some of the processes that readily come to mind are critical thinking; analysing data; researching; communicating ideas; creating new things; etc.” is a curriculum, no? And it’s the one I want to focus on. (If it’s not, what do you want to call it? 🙂

    I do believe there needs to be a bit of awareness of cultural references (Hirsch’s cultural literacy went too far, but there’s *something* there), too, but basically it’s about some sound foundations and self-learning skills.

    • Harold Jarche

      The value of a process-based “curriculum” is that it can be more readily adapted to the context of the community, the learning environment, the time, the culture, the teacher and most importantly, the student. I could have said, “first we kill the industrial, subject-defined, content-based, culturally-insensitive curriculum”, but I figured that was a bit wordy.

  11. Koreen Olbrish

    Clark, you mentioned Hirsch and my stomach turned 🙂

    But your previous point is dead on: More important than *any* content we teach is whether or not we are teaching students how to think. Are we fostering critical analysis? Are we teaching media literacy? Are we providing opportunities for students to interpret and discuss and explore and investigate?

    I’m an English teacher by training, so I think everyone should have the opportunity to read Shakespeare. But much more important to me than if someone can interpret a sonnet is whether or not they think to question the source of a news story, or know how to research its origins. I’d argue that a “Research” class would be much more valuable than an “English” class.

    That’s the kind of content agnostic curriculum that can stand the test of time.

  12. Ken Allan

    Kia ora e Harold!

    I agree wholeheartedly with your stance. The age of ‘the subject’ is fast disappearing, and thank goodness! Society has lived through the fundamental, the tribal, the national and is now venturing on the I-don’t-know-what-al. But one thing is for sure, discrimination is not cutting the mustard – on any front. And why stop at racism?

    In answer to Koreen’s point, I’d say that there’s nothing wrong with interpreting a sonnet. There’s nothing wrong with questioning the source of a news story either. The postmodern renaissance individual is just as likely to be able to do both and needs to be able to do both. If ‘we’ foster critical analysis there would be no discrimination.

    I took my 15 year old to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the weekend. That’s right. By William S. She stood in the foyer during the interval, texting her pals. When we were belled back in she was quick to take her seat. She was rapt with the whole performance and raved about it all the way home! This was no postmodern claptrap. We ended up reading the script from The Complete Works Of, so close was the play to the book.

    Catchya later

  13. Sreya Dutta

    Hi Harold,

    Great thoughts and very aptly put. You seem to have triggered a fantastic discussion on this subject. Some recent events in India made me write up this article and I would love to hear your thoughts.



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