Twofish's Blog

March 5, 2007

Things I’ve learned about curriculum reform since I’ve left MIT

Filed under: academia, massachusetts institute of technology — twofish @ 5:07 pm

1) The hidden curriculum is not necessarily a bad thing, and is in fact the core of the education.  I remember that during the educational reform discussions at MIT in the 1980’s, the term “hidden curriculum” was used pejoratively.  What I’ve learned since then is that most of the hidden curriculum at MIT is actually pretty good.  The hidden curriculum consists of values, attitudes, and actions, and most of them are consistent with my values.

2) The hidden curriculum is more important than the “overt” curriculum.  The “overt” curriculum listed in the catalog is actually the tip of the iceberg of the “hidden” curriculum, and is almost completely irrelevant.  What is a common situation is that you take a written document like a curriculum or constitution and put it into a different context, and you find that it doesn’t work the same way or may not work at all.  This actually is a good thing for MIT, because the “overt” curriculum is something that is easily copied.  What is hard to copy is the social and cultural infrastructure that underlies the written curriculum.  In fact, “copying” a society or culture is probably the wrong metaphor.  It’s better to think of “growing” or “seeding” a society or culture.

3) The main point of a lecture is not to listen to the lecture.  The model most people have of a lecture is that you go there, you listen to the teacher, and you get enlightened.  This isn’t what is going on at all.  The important thing about a lecture is not that you are listening to the teacher.  That part is almost irrelevant.  The important thing about a lecture is that you are in the same room as other people who are also listening to the teacher.  Once you are in the same room as other like-minded people, social networks start to form, and *those* networks the major teaching and learning takes place.

This model of education explains why things don’t work if you replace a lecturer with a videotape.  The main job of the lecturer is not to lecture but to create a social community.  It also explains how MIT provides a good undergraduate education, despite the fact that formal undergraduate teaching is not a major priority of the institute (let’s be honest, it isn’t), and a lot of the professors are either mediocre or horrible teachers.

4) Consensus is a bad thing.  We want to reform education.  What do we do.  We put together a blue-ribbon committee that issues a report, and declare victory.  That is a bad way of going about it.  The problem with this approach is that people have fundamental disagreements about what it means to have “educational reform” and those fundamental disagreements in some cases are irreconcilable.  What you get when you put together a blue-ribbon committee is a political compromise that in the best case is not harmful, and in the worst case eats up a huge amount of energy and kills any real innovation and creativity.

The problem with consensus is that it uses a design and engineering metaphor for something that should be a nurturing and agricultural metaphor.  Education is not about designing a factory,  it’s about planting seeds.  You plant lots of seeds.  You plant different seeds.  You nurture them carefully and come back in a few years to see how they’ve grown.

The important thing about seeds is that they are easy to plant, and you don’t need a blue-ribbon committee to give you permission to plant them.  Also, once you’ve seen what some tiny seeds can do, you don’t stop thinking about things because they are impractical.

The problem with trying to things with consensus is that consensus prevents you from asking the deep important questions, because people have different views on the deep important questions.  Instead of asking what the requirements should be for the freshman year at MIT, lets ask “why does MIT have a freshman year?”  “what’s a freshman?”

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