Heidi Hayes Jacobs, president of Curriculum21, has served as an education consultant to thousands of schools nationally and internationally. She works with schools and districts on issues and practices pertaining to curriculum reform, assessment analysis, and strategic planning. This interview focuses on how she is inspiring schools around the world to revolutionize how they are designing learning environments to honor the new literacies.
- Zmuda: You made a bold, yet profound statement that American schools are still preparing kids for 1982. Walk us through the logic of that assertion.
- Hayes Jacobs: Often when I’m speaking with groups of educators, I will pose the question if you were to consider your school day, your curriculum, your assessments as artifacts; if you were to visit your own school as an cultural anthropologist, what year would you be able to say you’re preparing your kids for? When we look at this array of artifacts, I find that most schools are preparing kids probably roughly for the 1980s, perhaps 1990; the actual content that is taught in the majority of our schools is very much the same as was it was in the latter part of the last century.
- When I went through tests from the 1970s, multiple-choice exams, and I compared them to the items we have now, they’re the same. I posted a blog on this very subject entitled Time Traveling Through Testing: Preparing Our Kids For 1982. And it’s a concern because the evidence points to a 19th-century set of programmatic features, our schedule, our length of year, how we group our kids very rigidly according to so-called grade levels, how we group ourselves in departments and grade-level teams.
- All of those structures are not even the last century, they’re the century before. So, here we are with 19th-century structures and a 20th-century curriculum and 21st-century learners, and we’ve got a clash. It’s a real problem.
- Zmuda: Many students are frustrated with what Jay McTighe called “a diet of test prep curriculum” that trains them for a test rather than training them for life outside of school. When does that growing frustration start to translate into a revolution?
Hayes Jacobs: Recently, in a conference where I was doing a keynote, I showed a clip from the film Norma Rae, and it’s poignant. Norma Rae stands on the table and she holds up a sign demanding that they have a union in their factory, where the shop is filled with workers all working hard, all focused, all tired, all run down and no representation. And I posed the question because I really believe that we better hold on to our hats because I think it’s going to be students standing on their table, students standing on their desks clamoring for the future, and maybe that’s what would be on the card they held. Who’s standing up for them? And they’re going to organize. They already are starting to protest.
- I found a pineapple-gate episode of the debacle in New York with the test — the state test — to be fascinating because students were saying, “enough already. You work us, we see our teachers not happy about having to prepare for these exams, and then you give us exams that don’t even make sense.”
- To me, it’s the height of irrationality, and they know it. The kids know it. So I’m concerned … but I’m also heartened by the fact that there are student voices speaking out, and I really like so much of what you’re doing here with (Learning Personalized) because I think your focus is empowering learners in a constructive way to have sensible actions, but imaginative opportunities, too; to share and create their own learning and to collaborate with their teachers on creating more worthwhile and engaging learning environments. They need it. They know it. We do, too. And I think it requires great courage to make this happen.
- Zmuda: So, let’s delve into the problems first and then talk about actions. Can you talk about the work you do with schools throughout the United States and the world to re-imagine their curriculum documents?
- Hayes Jacobs: There are two areas on which we need to take action. First, we need to re-engage learners. Tap into what motivates them, use their forms of communication (which are ours, too, by the way). Second, we also have a structural problem because it’s very difficult for me to have my learners engaged in the three new literacies, which I’m doing a lot of thinking and writing about right now — digital, media and global — and impose that kind of experience in an old‑style structure.
- In my work right now, the focus for our learners is to try to deal on both levels. One is the immediate need to update, upgrade, strategically replace dated practices with more contemporary engaging ones that can be customized to match learner needs. Concurrently, we need to start to make some transitions and shifts in the way we deal with new school versions.
- Zmuda: How can we create a more “customized” experience for every learner — one that is challenging, possible, and worthy of the attempt?
- Hayes Jacobs: I think in terms of this notion of customization that Web 2.0 apps, Web 2.0 applications, and, eventually, Web 3.0, where we’ll see more and more students working through gaming technologies, avatars, representations of themselves in imagined environments. So many interesting possibilities are ahead of us, and I think we, in a sense, are going to allow for our kids to be “self-navigators,” which is a phrase I like to use a lot. But we do need to help them learn how to steer the wheel and deal well with practical realities of choosing, which tool makes sense, which direction to go in, how do you trust the media source or a web site.
- So, some of the best of our classic teaching can inform customization, too. We also need to decide where it makes sense for learners to be in a learning environment. When do they need to sit around a circle with the teacher and other kids? When do we step back and let them take off? And I think those questions are going to be even more pressing with the incredible surge in virtual learning opportunities. It almost feels like we’re being dragged along as educators, and we need to play catch up because it’s all happening so fast.
- At the same time, we do have to stop and reflect and ask those hard questions, where is virtual learning best, again, and where is it best to have our kids in a room, and how do we group them, and how do we use these tools? So, the challenges are tremendous for teachers, but I think they’re even more challenging for learners because, in some ways, they’re trapped in the past. They know it and they are clamoring for more engagement, and they’re clamoring for more realistic types of experiences to prepare them for the future. There is a lot going on right now. It’s a huge transition.
- Zmuda: So what does this “brave new world” look like? What are the key attributes of a revolutionized curriculum that is customized for the learner and prepares them for post-secondary opportunities?
- Hayes Jacobs: The attributes of a contemporary curriculum might include a content focus on interdisciplinary future issues such as sustainability, urban communities, global economic trends, world language translation. It would need to shift the older type “skills” to the three new literacies: digital, media, and global, which rest on the shoulders of traditional print literacies. Assessments in a modern curriculum should logically reflect modern genre: podcasts, video casts, web creation and web curation, app creation. It is, indeed, an opportunity for all of us become more dynamic innovators in the field of curriculum design by using the very literacies our learners will need.
For more information and insights into Heidi Hayes Jacobs view on modernizing curriculum, employing new literacies, and engaging students in the global world, please visit Curriculum 21.