Tuesday 15 April 2003

Story-centered curriculum

Ran across this abstract of a talk by Roger Shank of Carnegie Mellon University. Thought it was interesting food for thought...

In our culture we have a conception of an Educated Mind that comes from what one might call the tyranny of the academic elite. Although the academic elite love to read and teach and cite scholars like Plato, Plato actually thought that an educated mind was one that could get into a good argument and defend a point of view. Instead, facts, formulas, and test scores are the currency of modern education We are in a major crisis in education in this country that few understand. Tests have begun to dominate education. But no one asks: "Why is it reasonable to teach what we test?" or "How do people learn what they will need to know how to do?"

Aristotle, Galileo, Einstein, Dewey, to name a few, have all noted that people learn by doing, not by listening. Experience is what matters and schooling must provide experiences. Learning is about practice. School needs to provide the right things for students to practice. School has been out of touch with what students need for a long time. "I'm sure the reason such young nitwits are produced in our schools is because they have no contact with anything of any use in everyday life." Petronius (d. circa 66 AD) The Satyricon The current K-12 curriculum was designed in 1892 by the President of Harvard and some colleagues. They were not concerned with producing people who could function well in the world of work. They had other issues about scholarship and academia that might have been germane to those who went to Harvard in 1892, but are of little relevance now. We need to ask hard questions about what students should be learning and how technology can help?

CMU is providing the opportunity to try out new educational ideas at its Silicon Valley campus. At CMU West all degree programs are available on line as well in a form that is identical with the on campus version. At CMU West there are no classes, no tests, and no lectures or reading (except just in time.) For this reason it is possible for students who are located far away from campus to get the same first rate education that is provided on campus. In fact, many of our on campus students only work on line. We use an idea called web mentoring within in a story centered curriculum (SCC) meant to simulate a real work environment.

In the SCC, projects dominate learning, each leading to another within a cohesive year long story. Students do not take courses, they simply participate in projects meant to reflect the realities of the work place including an emphasis on teamwork, communication, and real world skills. To help students experience things that enable them to practice important skills we need to create situations for them that require those skills. The idea behind the story-centered curriculum (SCC) is that a student lives within a story. The curriculum is intended to teach the student how to do something for which the material to be learned is instrumental. While the student is engaged in a story that provides a variety of tasks for him or her to accomplish, the student has constant access to on line mentors who evaluates his work iteratively and provides pointers to material and suggestions on how to approach a problem.

The SCC will work in any complex learning environment as long as there are mentors available and realistic roles to learn. A great deal of work is required to build a realistic environment. This environment is entirely on the web. Mentors do the teaching one on one, on an as needed basis. Work is evaluated by mentors. What mentors don't do is stand up and talk, nor do they tell people how to do things before they try to do them. Instead they point students towards help (written or with tutors). CMU West currently offers masters degree programs, using the SCC in software engineering, e-business technology, learning sciences, networking and security, and management of software development. We also offer a pre-masters program meant to get students ready to enter a masters program in computer science.

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