Curriculum in the post-Gutenberg era


When Johannes Gutenberg went to school as a young boy, his teacher used a curriculum that was a thousand years old.

It was published by the Holy Roman Empire and promoted the church’s beliefs. His teacher dictated each lesson in Latin while Johannes and his classmates transcribed it into notebooks. Thirty years later, Gutenberg invented a printing press that combined a grape press used for winemaking with movable type. Until then, it took a whole day to copy a dozen pages. Suddenly, close to 4,000 pages could be printed in a single day. 

Credit: The Graphic, June 30, 1877, p617. Retrieved from old-print.com

The technology caught on quickly. Within a few decades, over two hundred cities in a dozen European countries had printing presses. Its rise caught both institutions and individuals off guard.

Martin Luther was one of those individuals. His Ninety-Five Theses — a critique of the church — unexpectedly went viral. Luther’s friend Friedrich Myconius wrote that “hardly 14 days had passed when these propositions were known throughout Germany and within four weeks almost all of Christendom was familiar with them.” The Protestant Reformation was underway and the scientific revolution soon followed. 

Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The printing press changed the way information traveled and disrupted the power of the church to control it. But the press still had limitations. Printing and distribution weren’t cheap, so only well-funded institutions could afford to do it.

Back in the schoolhouse, this meant that the church’s curriculum was displaced by textbooks produced by large companies. The source of the information changed; the top-down distribution of content didn’t.

We are now living through a post-Gutenberg moment.

The advent of the world wide web has made it possible for individuals to publish and distribute their ideas at a cost that is quickly moving toward zero.

And in this new world of social media, the channels or nodes of information are no longer institutions. Information travels from individual to individual through social networks that allow individuals to share content, express opinions, and solve problems.

So what does this mean for schools today?

First, it means a change in the way school districts think about curriculum. Why should they continue paying publishers for textbooks when teachers can access content for free? This is particularly true now with the rise of open curriculum. The scarce resource is no longer what the publishers are selling.

It also means a potential shift in the role of school districts. In the past, the district controlled the distribution of content. When a district purchased a textbook, that decision standardized learning across classrooms, ensuring that there was continuity between what a second grader learned and what a third grader learned. Teachers might make adaptations (and good teachers almost always did), but without access to unlimited content, adaptations were constrained.

Now the potential for adaptations is unlimited. As a result, districts face an important choice: to resist or not to resist. Some will resist. They will choose a curriculum — free or paid — and tell their teachers not to make adaptations. Teacher evaluations will be used to enforce this mandate.

But other districts will embrace the moment. Instead of sticking to a top-down, one-way relationship with teachers, they will focus on supporting and enabling communities of teachers to identify real student needs, adapt the curriculum, and share what works.

The scarce resource is no longer content, it’s community.

Fortunately, there are emerging models of what this looks like. This year, DC Public Schools launched an initiative called Cornerstones.

Cornerstones are high-quality, in-depth lessons taught by teachers across the district. This past summer, the district invited educators in every grade and subject to find and refine the best, most engaging lessons. Now these cornerstone lessons are at the heart of the district’s professional development efforts. Fifth grade math teachers, for example, collaborate to prepare for their cornerstone lessons. Afterwards, they examine student work, share what worked, and refine the lessons.

Initiatives like Cornerstones not only embrace the post-Gutenberg moment, they recognize that the institutional wisdom of a school district has never lived in its downtown offices; it lives in the classrooms where teachers interact with students and develop insights from what happens during learning moments. When districts support social networks of teachers in sharing these insights across classrooms, they build institutional wisdom from the bottom up and the curriculum adapts and responds to the needs of their students.

We’ve come a long way since Gutenberg went to school.

Curriculum