Eric Westendorf
Eric Westendorf is the co-founder and CEO of LearnZillion.
Feb 22

The Future of Curriculum: An interview with Richard Culatta

Left to right: LearnZillion CEO and Co-Founder Eric Westendorf; Chief Innovation Officer at the State of Rhode Island and Design Resident at IDEO Richard Culatta

This is the latest installment in a series of podcast interviews we’re calling The Future of Curriculum. LearnZillion CEO Eric Westendorf is sitting down with education thought leaders from across the country to discuss how technology will continue to shape education.

In this episode, he chats with Richard Culatta, the CEO of ISTE and the former Chief Innovation Officer for the State of Rhode Island and an IDEO Design Fellow. Culatta previously served as the Director of the Office of Educational Technology for the US Department of Education, policy advisor to US Senator Patty Murray, and as Chief Technology Officer at CIA University.

A selection of Richard Culatta’s insights on where curriculum development is headed excerpted below:

The future of curriculum needs teacher (and student) input

I think one of the most exciting things will just be the number of teachers engaged in this process of rethinking and redesigning curriculum. Right now, I think very few teachers are involved in a meaningful way. Maybe not very few, but certainly not the level that you need. This is one of those things that as more teachers get involved, it sort of unleashes all kinds of new types of creativity, which is what we need.

It’s why I think we’ve been slow to innovate in education, because the people creating the curriculum have been really a relatively small group sitting over in a corner somewhere. Unleashing and letting all of the teachers and, in some cases where appropriate, students jump in and be part of that process, that’s the thing that I think is most exciting to me.

Teachers want to be chefs, not microwave reheaters

There’s this idea when you become a teacher, [you’re] going to be this sort of creative professional. Imagine if you have somebody who is from chef school. Somebody goes through Culinary Art School and you learn to become a chef, and then after you get to become a chef, you show up at the restaurant and you find out that your job is really just to reheat TV dinners and pass them out.

You‘re sort of like, wait a minute! I went through all of this time and effort to learn how to create and design and be a chef and I’m just reheating TV dinners and that’s not very fun, and it’s also not very helpful for me or for my customers.

In a lot of ways, I feel like that is sort of the model that we’ve taken with educational content. Instead of creating and building these healthy curricular meals, if you will, a truck full of pre-written textbooks essentially comes and dumps these pre-created, frozen curricular meals on the school.

As a teacher, your job is pretty much to just reheat them and serve them to the kids. Sometimes we sprinkle a little bit of cheese on them, a little bit to make it look a little more appetizing, but at the end of the day, you’re really not creating.

I love thinking about how that role is going shift over time, and it is starting to happen now. You know, we’re not going to do that anymore. We’re not going to play that game of just reheating TV dinners. We’re going to actually create healthy meals. That’s what this is all about. It is really empowering teachers to be creators and designers, but not in a way where there is such a burden to do it that every teacher is sort of crushed by creating their own curriculum.

It’s why we have to get everybody involved. Because I want to be able to take something that another teacher has built, I want to tweak it and share it back out. I want to have everybody working together so I’m not on the hook for making all the curricular materials myself, that’s crazy to do. That’s just a waste of time. Is there a way that we can co-create and build much more effective learning materials?

Exciting trends in curriculum

  • There is a shift away from static content, which is really refreshing. So much for so long in education has just been a total one-way kind of dump of content on kids and teachers in a lot of ways. It’s really exciting for me to see that starting to shift and have content that is engaging and reactive and responsive and actually shifts the types of activities that are provided back to students, and the ways it reacts based on their inputs and needs.
  • [A] shift to having content that is much more user-created. So instead of just having a sort of neatly package worksheet or activity, maybe an opportunity where teachers and students could get together and say, ‘Hey, how would you actually create some materials to teach this concept?’ and let the students try to build those. So there are some really fun things starting to happen where you say, ‘What does it look like if teachers and students are as much the creators as a formal publishing company might have been in the past?’
  • Really starting to look at data to figure out whether particular pieces of content or curriculum are effective for specific students. Instead of just publishing content and hoping it works for everybody (which of course it doesn’t), having content that allows for data collection on the back end. So you can start to do some really neat things where you’re predictively, sort of proactively suggesting what types of content make most sense for which students. 

Standards aren’t holding teachers back; their curriculum is

A lot of people assume that it’s standards that are holding us into this sort of very rigid construct that we’re in. I actually think it’s not that way at all. I think the standards are a shot at liberating [us] from it.

You don’t want certain kids to fall behind because the teachers decided not to teach something they needed for the next year. If we didn’t have common standards, the only way to keep alignment [would be] if everybody did the exact same thing and the exact same chapter all at the same time.

But now there are all kinds of ways that you can approach teaching, because whatever you are doing, as long as you can reference back to what standards you’re teaching, we’re good to go. I think that’s a big shift.

When I was first teaching, I remember there was a time where I took some materials and I edited them. I changed them because they didn’t really fit what I felt like my students needed. I was told never to do that again because I just broke an International Copyright Law. I thought, that’s interesting. The message you’re sending to your teachers, professionals that you’ve hired, is to not touch anything because you’ll violate copyright laws.

I don’t think that’s a world I want to teach in.

Looking to other industries for inspiration

I spend a lot of time looking at how other industries have tackled similar problems. One of the things that we’ve seen in almost every other part of our lives is that the experience is very tailored to our individual needs, right? Certainly retail is this way. If I go to Amazon, my homepage is very different than yours, based on what my interests are. Certainly the entertainment industry is like this; looking at Netflix, I have many more options.

Some people dislike this idea, but it doesn’t take options away from me. It’s not like Netflix just decides what I’m going to watch every night and I don’t have any choice in the matter. No, it just tees it up some movies that it thinks I would like better based on what it knows about me. So we see all kinds of ways that different industries have learned to tailor to our needs. Education virtually has not.

In learning environments, typically we’re still just saying everybody gets what they get based on the day of the week it is, right? Think about how problematic that is.

Sometimes I compare it to the medical profession. Imagine if somebody walked into a doctor’s office, and on Tuesday everybody got the white pills, regardless of whether they were there for a cold or heart failure. Like that’s what you get, then Wednesday you get the green pills regardless of why you’re there. That’s essentially what we often do in education, and we have to break out of that.

How should a district start down this path?

The advice that I give routinely is that we just need to get better at doing small cycle pilots in education.

We just have a really hard time biting off a small piece in education. We want to just boil the ocean.

We want to have this huge school-wide or system-wide or nation-wide new approach to doing something and then when we get into it, we find that that’s hard to do and sometimes you just can’t move that much all at once. Oftentimes it leads to people saying, ‘you can never change anything in education, that’s why I’m just going to give up.’

I would get much more out of picking a tool, picking a class with the teacher, testing it out in one part of the class, and then coming back and sharing whether that’s working. If it is, then scale it. If it isn’t, then do something else. I think we would get much further down the road [this way] than if we had this big long planning process and a year later we tried to launch this thing with this big clunky piece of software that never quite gets built the right way. We just have to become much more comfortable with these sort of rapid-cycle experiments.

Just try something. Nothing is going to break. Be open about it.

We just need to be much more comfortable experimenting in small ways so that we’re not going to do some big giant crazy experiment that we learn afterwards failed all the kids.

Just try little small pieces and then share out what’s working. I think it’s exciting because then you actually get to see results quicker too.

Just take the next step. I just really believe and I’ve seen it over and over again: you just get down the road much faster through lots of small steps than by trying to take one giant step that may or may not ever happen.


Richard Culatta is the the Chief Innovation Officer for the State of Rhode Island and an IDEO Design Fellow.

Eric Westendorf is the CEO and Co-Founder at LearnZillion.

Curriculum Future of Curriculum