Why open curriculum wikis won’t work

Magical thinkingWe’ve all heard calls for various kinds of open curriculum wikis. Districts, states and foundations are designing portals, wikis and other online databases so that educators can upload their lesson plans and activities, learning modules, or other bits and pieces of what they do in their classrooms. The idea is that as more educators upload content, the collection becomes a free, shareable curriculum.

Sounds good, right? The problem is that this reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of curriculum.

Curriculum is a statement of opinion – it reflects the author’s beliefs about the nature of teaching and learning. Curriculum is pedagogy in action, the day-to-day plan for how to teach a subject, based on what we think students should learn and how we believe students learn best.

Curriculum is not just a collection of content. It is more than disconnected lesson plans attached to a list of standards. It reflects a person’s or group’s belief about what order to approach topics and what kinds of activities work best for most students. The pacing, depth, and order are all based on these beliefs, which can differ widely between authors. Curriculum authors have to think long and hard about their philosophy regarding the subject area and presentation of the material. Directions for the teacher reflect a belief of how much scripting a teacher needs to deliver the lesson as envisioned. They have to create consistent assessment plans that support and complement the lessons and activities. The pieces — lesson plans, activities, and assessment– hang on this superstructure. Without the structure of a consistent philosophy, these pieces are useless.

Unfortunately, beliefs and philosophy don’t make good subjects for open wikis, at least not the cast-of-thousands Wikipedia kind of success we all imagine. That’s why the calls for open curriculum wikis, free portals, and lesson plan collections that depend on large numbers of independent educators producing bits of curriculum are doomed to failure.

Without a guiding hand and point of view, anything added to a curriculum wiki will have no anchor in a common belief about the nature of teaching and learning. Even hiring editors doesn’t solve the problem. Sure, editors might be able to clean up things like grammar or level of detail. But how will editors collaboratively decide whether to favor student-centered teaching or direct instruction? It will be useless to a teacher who finds that one lesson calls for student collaboration on a long-term project and the next is a 30 minute lecture with downloadable worksheets for students to silently complete.

I’m all for breaking down the monopoly that textbook publishers have on schools worldwide. I’m completely in favor of people using the collaborative power of wikis to build reference and teaching materials that reflect their views about learning and teaching. I have nothing but praise for people who decide to freely share the results of their hard work in public, like the MIT Open Courseware.

But hoping random lesson plans can knit themselves into a coherent curriculum is just magical thinking. At best, teachers may find a few nuggets they can adapt for their own classrooms. At worst, these pipe dreams soak up time, energy and money.