The Seven Principles of Living Curriculum
and Bill Wilmot
Students in middle school teacher Irene Jackson’s class are all busily engaged in their own work. One student explains he’s working on math now because, “I think about math best at this time of the day.” Another student is investigating the movement of leeches and the physics behind how they manage to move so quickly. A third student sits with Jackson to develop her learning contract for the week.
Some students are in the classroom while others are across the hall. It’s common to find students at Tremont School (MA) working all over the building, which has designated areas where students can enter a deep flow state and not be disturbed by movements and loud noises. Others might be pacing the hall as they think in order to stay focused and to regulate their energy levels. When the school was founded seven years ago, a key decision was made to afford learners considerable control for their learning processes and self-regulation, thus freeing teachers to support them.
The Living Curriculum pedagogy, which is currently being developed at Tremont and a small set of schools, aims to help today’s learners develop the abilities they will need tomorrow. It discards structures long assumed to be important and demands flexibility in rethinking the process of learning. Living Curriculum puts learners at the center of their own learning as active designers and implementers of their learning trajectory. Developing learning skills is prioritized over content; a focus is placed on the ability to gain information instead of the specific information gained. The Living Curriculum consists of seven principles.
The Living Curriculum pedagogy consists of seven principles. Living Curriculum:
1. focuses on developing adaptive expertise instead of classical expertise;
2. views the learner as curious, motivated, and planful;
3. centers on the epistemic (or finding out) emotions;
4. assumes that social-emotional learning is critical to all learning;
5. is developed by the one living it;
6. views expertise as distributed across members of the school community and beyond; and
7. is dynamic, changeable, and responds to what is relevant at that time.
1. Develop adaptive expertise instead of classical expertise.
Living Curriculum focuses on developing adaptive expertise, the ability to gain new understandings and to apply what was learned in previous learning journeys to current ones. Most curricula seek to develop classical expertise, which focuses on deeply knowing a domain and its inherent content.
Adaptive experts know how to develop deep understanding of a domain. They tend to work at the edge of their competence, engage in progressive problem-solving, and view failure or errors as steps in a process toward success. In a Living Curriculum school, students still learn content as the “stuff to think with,” but how they learn, and their learning about learning, is elevated over the specifics of content.
At a time when vast resources are available at our fingertips, knowing how to gain deep understanding is critical. Living Curriculum helps learners assess what they do and do not yet know, and how to pursue learning goals in the face of the inevitable difficulty and frustration that are part of lifelong learning.
2. View the learner as curious, motivated, and planful.
The Reggio Emilia approach asks, “What is your vision of the learner?” All pedagogy has central tenets about who learners are and what they are capable of. Living Curriculum adopts a vision of the learner as self-actualizing and agentive. The learner is competent, planful, collaborative, able to develop expertise, and motivated to figure things out.
Agency is critical to becoming an adaptive expert. Harvard psychology professor and cognitive scientist Susan Carey refers to learning from and through agency as core to human cognition. When learners push toward expertise, they find their learning edges and engage in progressive problem-solving. This is what cognitive science and neuroscience research show about deep learning; it is typically the result of self-directed flow experiences in which learners work at the edge of their comfort zone and push themselves toward deeper understanding and skill.
Flow experiences, according to psychologist Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, have an immersive quality in which people are so engaged in what they are doing that they lose track of time and are guided by the internal features of the problem space they are exploring. This creates an autotelic quality in which reaching deeper understanding fuels the desire to reach in even more deeply.
Schools that honor this deep engagement have flexible schedules that bend with or explicitly invite students’ deep and extended intellectual investment. They avoid having the schedule dictate when learning opportunities end.
Schools that honor agency and flow also use space flexibly. Managing one’s own motivational and attentional state is an important aspect of how learners use the spaces around them. At Olin College of Engineering (MA), students have access to most workspaces around the clock so that they can immerse themselves as they are ready.
Putting students at the center of their learning means helping them gauge their own progress. At Parker Charter Essential School (MA), students decide, with support from their teachers, when they are ready to “gateway” from one division to another. In lieu of grade levels, the school has three divisions. A student recently told one of us that he had decided not to “gateway” in May when most of his peers did because he realized that he still felt fuzzy on the science concepts.
3. Put epistemic emotions at the center.
Learning in K–12 classrooms is typically dictated by people other than the learner. But outside the classroom, learning is typically driven by the learner’s interest, curiosity, intrigue, and awe. Epistemic emotions are the “finding out” emotions that motivate passion for learning. If we want to develop lifelong learners, then we need to put these epistemic emotions back where they belong—central to the learning process and the experiences that learners have in school. We need to help learners recognize these emotions and develop the skills to pursue them.
4. Assume social-emotional learning is at the core of all learning.
Similarly, the Living Curriculum approach recognizes the inseparability of emotion and cognition, which Antonio Damasio and Mary Helen Immordino-Yang have studied. It places a primary value on developing emotional and cognitive skills to understand oneself as a learner to then develop learning paths and master new content.
Learners are encouraged to self-regulate and develop awareness of their affective and cognitive needs. Teachers might help students recognize when they are avoiding learning because they fear it will be too hard and then help them to develop strategies to take the first steps. Or they might help students set up a workspace where they won’t be distracted by talkative classmates. Developing the means to moderate and support one’s attentional capacity is an important part of learning. Doing so puts students in control of their attention and focus.
5. Embrace the learner as a curriculum developer.
Living Curriculum learners play a key role in developing their curriculum and setting their learning paths, mimicking what lifelong learners do. The learner negotiates what he or she learns with mentors and other supporters. Educators are the interested and interesting adults who help learners figure out how to find resources and locate expertise. This method contrasts with other forms of curriculum personalization in which students are pawns rather than agents—where, positively, there are high expectations, but the means for reaching them can be paternalistic and controlling with content broken down into small chunks with externalized rewards.
The negotiated process of Living Curriculum also differs from the instructional approach of “backward design,” which has been considered a gold standard of instruction development in recent decades. Backward design focuses on forms of understanding that are well aligned with concepts of classical expertise, and topics are chosen for their potential to go beyond the specific learning opportunities. Curriculum designers articulate “understanding goals,” explicit statements of what the learner is expected to come to understand, and develops instruction aimed at those goals. Backward design has helped instruction focus on meaningful learning outcomes; it addresses what Heidi Hayes Jacobs, renowned educator and curriculum developer, called the “potpourri problem”—when curriculum has a little of this and a little of that, but it doesn’t add up to much. Rightfully so, backward design was considered a major advance in the field. However, backward design also has its conundrums. It avoids aimless learning, but preordained learning can disenfranchise learners from the learning process. It loses the autotelic quality of a flow experience and the learner’s agency. Further, it values what is specifiable in advance, missing out on intangibles and individualized outcomes. As one Tremont student remarked, “Sometimes you can’t see your learning path till you look back. I had a goal, but it got better along the way.” A strict focus on understanding goals as outcomes can also preempt important learning about learning—setting a path, figuring out how to pursue it, and so on.
So how does a Living Curriculum approach help learners gain societally important knowledge while helping them learn how to learn in an executive, self-authoring sense? Living Curriculum is not unscaffolded, but the types of scaffolds are different. Educators support learners in figuring out how to operationalize their questions, how to find resources and locate expertise. Students play a key role in identifying scaffolds, expert mentors, and engaging learning paths. Relationships between teachers and students are highly respectful—teachers hold expertise in the nature of learning and are critical participants in the learning process. Important, however, teachers are also considered learners and are afforded the opportunity to be novices, to experience and display vulnerability, and to learn from their students.
6. See expertise as distributed across the community.
Developing, having, and sharing expertise among the members of the school community is an essential aspect of a Living Curriculum approach. Students respect each other, feel confident in their special forms of expertise, and enjoy sharing their knowledge. Students work hard to hone their areas of expertise and invite others into them.
At Olin College, this concept is formalized as NINJAs, which stands for “need information now, just ask.” NINJAs are students with specific areas of expertise, who have formal recognition from the college and to whom others go for information. Often, distributed expertise exists more informally, but the concept of NINJAs communicates to students the value of developing and sharing expertise.
This notion of distributed expertise mimics the ecosystem of online gaming communities. Arizona State University professor and cognitive scientist James Paul Gee has found that gaming communities typically form formal and informal affinity groups that share information, scaffold each other’s performance, and push each other to higher levels of engagement. Researcher Debbie Liu, currently Apple’s education content and iTunes editorial project manager, studied the most expert gamers in the world and found that even at these levels, gamers looked to the community to push their own performance.
Living Curriculum schools develop rich and engaged communities. It is common to see affinity groups coalesce in which students engage each other’s talents to pursue a common thread of inquiry. Well-established affinity groups may work together long enough that the members develop a form of group flow that has similar autotelic properties as individual flow states. Affinity groups may persist for long periods or just until their purposes have
Tremont students have formed groups to learn about machine learning, digital currencies, advanced physics, and space travel. Olin students can request funds for a group that then exists as long as there is interest. Affinity groups also invite social contagion, drawing in students who otherwise might not have explored a certain topic. Keith Sawyer, who studies collaboration and group flow, argues that the notion of the “lone genius” is outdated for the improvisational innovation of the future.
With support from adults, students reach for mentors online or in person and well beyond the walls of the school building. Tremont students consulted an acoustical engineer as they sought ways to soundproof their music studio. Students studied the science, figured out the budgetary requirements, and developed a proposal for funding.
7. Support curriculum as dynamic, changeable, and relevant.
Finally, Living Curriculum is about real-world, authentic learning—about what one needs to know to live in the world, now and into the future. Minuteman Regional Technical High School (MA) has expert boards that advise the school on the types of problem-based inquiry, resources, and supports that students need to pursue problems at the cutting edge of technical fields.
The changing nature of Living Curriculum precludes just “going through the motions,” which can
happen when teachers have taught a topic too many times. Living Curriculum schools build scaffolds
so students can become expert learners rather than information collectors. The focus of learning is typically relevant, timely, and on learners’ minds. This leads, for example, to choosing
to learn the math and science of acoustical engineering or what it means to have an impact in the world over isolated facts such as when Columbus sailed.
This is not to say that history does not have a home in Living Curriculum; it can be a rich source of information about the world and its past patterns. Tore Kapstad, a high school teacher at Tremont School, has engaged students in thinking about whether the world’s religions are more similar or different or what the sources of conflict are in today’s world. These are generative topics, as in the Teaching for Understanding framework and similar frameworks that were developed to help teachers create curriculum that focuses on developing deep and meaningful understanding. But when explored with the students’ questions as a primary focus, they find new leverage as a “living curriculum” that students find relevant and care deeply about.
Such relevancy is one of the most important aspects of Living Curriculum. After all, the entire enterprise of school requires an incredible leap of faith—a pact between generations—that what students are taught today will serve them well tomorrow. This means we must not only radically rethink the content we are teaching, but the pedagogy as well. Living Curriculum promises to honor the pact between generations in ways that are generative and powerful—in ways that help students own their tomorrows.
Living It at Your School
Are you considering the idea of adopting a Living Curriculum pedagogy at your school? These questions can help you explore and prepare.
- Are there areas of the curriculum in which you could start to invite students to negotiate/develop learning paths?
- What initial steps would you take to share control of the curriculum?
- What are some ways you can help students identify areas of interest/curiosity?
- What support will you offer students in developing learning paths and identifying experts to engage with?
- What are some skills students need to gain in order to self-regulate and assume executive control over their learning?
- How would the teacher’s role change if they are no longer focused on delivering specific content?
Tina Grotzer is a senior researcher at Project Zero and a faculty member at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is a cognitive scientist who works closely with schools to innovate and support learning and spent 15 years as a classroom teacher and district-level administrator.
David Vaughn is a founder of the Tremont School in Weston, Massachusetts. He has helped start a number of educational institutions and advises others interested in starting schools.
Bill Wilmot, a founding headmaster of the Tremont School, consults with schools on issues related to pedagogy and Living Curriculum.