Organizing Your School As A List Of Courses Doesn’t Work for Learners

March 11, 2019

by Tom Vander Ark

Are there new buildings going up in your city? There are in Seattle–cranes are everywhere you look. They help to erect to steel I beams and concrete elevator shafts that frame the buildings. It’s the infrastructure that has been around for 150 years that you forget about when the exterior finishes go on and the drywall goes up.

Ever drive by a port and see stacks of shipping containers? You’ve seen them on the back of trucks going down the highway. The standard for those containers was developed 90 years and they have been a useful organizing construct for the transportation industry ever since.

Courses have been the organizing framework of secondary and postsecondary education for two centuries. The Committee of Ten in 1892 set some standards for courses. With a strong equity impulse, the committee recommended that “every subject which is taught at all in a secondary school should be taught in the same way and to the same extent to every pupil so long as he pursues it, no matter what the probable destination of the pupil may be, or at what point his education is to cease.”

That list of required courses has driven the master schedule of almost every high school in the world ever since. And, as a result, students have been shuffling from one unrelated course to another every 55 minutes for more than a century.

While containers continue to be a useful construct in shipping, and concrete cores and I beams remain a useful skeleton in commercial construction, courses have outlived their usefulness as the primary architectural unit in education because they do not represent consistent units of learning. It will be, however, as hard to shift away from courses in education as it would be to introduce an entirely new construct into global transportation or construction.

There are four problems with continuing to organize school as a list of courses:

  • Measurement: courses are primarily a measure of time rather than learning.
  • Inflexibility: courses typically lock a cohort into the same
    learner experience for 180 days with limited divergence in modality or path.
  • Discipline-based: courses inhibit authentic, community-connected
    and integrated approaches to real problems.
  • Idiosyncratic: course content and grading is locally defined and
    may or may not contribute to growth toward important learner goals.

Despite serving students with a distribution of skills, grade levels are the dominant architecture of K-8 schools and for the last 20 years, there has been a particular fixation with grade level proficiencies which has reinforced whole group learning in grade cohorts. Learners keep moving up in age groups in high school with some differences in course taking.

Some districts and networks have imposed a common curriculum—often complete with lesson plans, instructional materials and pacing guides—to gain consistency within the course structure. This deals with only one of the four problems with courses and may decrease the attractiveness of teaching.

The other way to force course consistency is common end-of-course assessments like IB and AP. The problem with this approach is that you get what you test.

Discipline-based courses are a relic of education as knowledge transmission. Today, knowledge is freely available and what’s important is how you combine it with skills to deliver value. A list of courses will not help young people (in high school or college) find and begin to make their unique contribution.

What’s the alternative to courses?

The most innovative course replacements are competency frameworks withunits of study that students use to develop and demonstrate multidimensional competencies. Chugach School District was doing this 20 years ago. Recently developed higher education examples include    Minerva and College for America. Khan Academy and LRNG are out of school examples of resources where learners can accumulate badges.

Micro-credentials (and badges) are a similar strategy with units of study and embedded or associated assessments. Harmony Public Schools use micro-credentials to organize their professional learning system. One can imagine defining high school diploma requirements similarly as a series of badges.

A few cutting edge schools, like Purdue Polytechnic, are building dynamic progress models where each learner has a unique pathway and schedule combining a mixture of tasks (long/short, individual/team, discipline/integrated, school/community). However, learning platforms and scheduling systems are not ready for this level of complexity.

In K-8 schools, we’re seeing more competency-based skill progressions with fluid movement through individual study and dynamic skill groups in personalized multiage grouping from Virginia (Albemarle County Pubic Schools in Charlottesville) to California (Lindsay USD south of Sacramento). Success For All has been supporting skill based literacy progressions for 30 years.

Most of the 500 schools in the Hewlett-sponsored Deeper Learning networks use project-based learning with exhibitions of students work. They are good at asking students to show what they can do (half of the competency-based learning framework) but students still largely progress in cohorts.

In the New Tech Network, projects are organized in double block team-taught integrated courses. Teachers use a common framework to author and assess projects. These adaptations mitigate many of the downsides to courses.

When it comes to killing courses, there are two problems: invention and recognition. Despite courses being a bad measure of learning, we haven’t invented reliable alternatives that can be adopted and recognized at scale. As a result, schools will often need to protect students by translating alternative experiences back into something that looks traditional on a transcript.

Foundational Ideas  

While considering the consequential elements of school designs, we’ve noticed that good schools share a common intellectual mission (that waslesson #3 from recent visits). These foundational ideas can be shared succinctly or explored at depth and form a shared sense of purpose and priority.

There’s not a magic formula to foundational ideas. Some schools focus on pedagogical frames (like design thinking) or underserved groups (like over-aged under-credited students). Some focus on bargains (like early collegeor P-tech), or attractive job clusters (like robotics or biotech).

The point is that all good schools stake a claim, they stand for something, they pick a lane and go hard. They don’t accept what they inherited as a given.

Don’t be trapped by historical structures and practices. Like the problems we face, we need to name and frame the structures that shape learner experience. This is especially true when there is the opportunity to create a new school (and there’s always that opportunity).

Closing thought: How would school be structured if we really wanted to cultivate youth leadership? If we wanted young people to display entrepreneurial mindset, attack problems with design thinking, and work on diverse teams to deliver value, would we ask them to attend a series of disconnected courses? Or, would we co-construct a different experience, one connected to the community, engaged in extended challenges and supportive of individual needs? Don’t let courses get in the way of doing the right thing for kids.