Eric Westendorf
Eric Westendorf is the co-founder and CEO of LearnZillion.
Oct 7

The Future of Curriculum: Interview with Tom Vander Ark


Left to right: LearnZillion CEO and Co-Founder Eric Westendorf; Education advocate, advisor, and author Tom Vander Ark

This is the first installment in a series of 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 and shifts in the way we learn will continue to shape public school education.

We kick things off with Tom Vander Ark, education advocate, advisor, and author of Getting Smart: How Personal Digital Learning is Changing the World. Tom is the founder and Executive Editor of Getting Smart and a partner in Learn Capital. Interview highlights are excerpted below.


We’re living in a platform age.

Digital platforms have changed the way we live, the way we transport ourselves, the way we stay connected to each other, and it’s beginning to change the way we learn.

I don’t even like to use [the word ‘curriculum’] anymore. I don’t know what it means!

I find that when I engage in a conversation with someone about curriculum, most of the time they have a different mental model of what that means. I now talk about powerful learning experiences, and then a sequence of learning experiences.

There are four actors in this play. There’s the learner, there’s the teacher, there’s the organization, and then there’s the set of tools.

Twenty years ago, the tool was the textbook. That was the content management system. There was some assumption, particularly by school board members, that we would use that content and we would use it sequentially.

In 2016, we’re right at the full mix and match curriculum, where core and supplement aren’t meaningful anymore.

“The curriculum” has become a very rich set of high-mix content and experiences that’s usually supported by a platform.

We’ve reached a period of maximum complexity.

It’s really challenging to construct a learning model and sequence of experiences and then to support it with technology. It’s still very hard to integrate all of this stuff.

Schools should not pay for anything unless it’s smart. By smart content, I mean it has embedded assessments, is adaptive, or is uniquely interactive.

We have weird extremes where teachers have no voice and choice.

We just came out of a 20-year period of standards-based reform … which created aligned instructional systems and that had lesson plans and pacing guides.

The good news is it they aligned instruction, assessment, and PD. The bad news is it sucked the joy out of teaching.

It reduced voice and choice. But at the other end of the spectrum, it’s free for all. It’s Sunday night [on] Pinterest, where teachers are looking for something to do the next day. So both of those extremes suck. I think neither one is very effective.

[New teachers] should be focusing much more on developing their knowledge and skills as a teacher instead of spending Sunday night on Pinterest looking for lessons.

The way we think and act around personalization is very primitive today.

It’s very one-dimensional. I’m excited about the fact that [in the future] it won’t be individual students sort of off on their own screens, but we’ll see these student days that are really interesting mixtures of individual work, of team work, of large cohorts where kids are moving dynamically between heterogenous groups and homogeneous groups and where we’ve got some really smart tools that help manage all of that in terms of learning progressions, resource allocation, and time management. Wondering what's next? Check out our new book: The Future of Curriculum.

Download The Future of Curriculum ebook


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

Education Curriculum Future of Curriculum