I know this post may make some folks angry, but I am worried. If this makes you mad, please hear me out. I would love to hear the other side of the argument. I think it's vital that we start a conversation about what I think is ed tech's silent killer: pre-built boxed curriculum.
To start, I think it's important that we talk about what this is. To me, there are two versions. Version number 1 could be described as assessment/practice platforms that are especially prevalent at the elementary school level. These platforms are passed off as personalized learning platforms, but the only reason they can is that they have enough boxed curriculum that students don't have to be in the same place in the curriculum. They aren't even close to personalized as its still teaching every student in the exact same way.
Version Number 2 is all the companies that say they have the lesson for you, and that's all you need. When you think of these, think about the textbook companies and all the "digital resources" that come with them. Textbook companies aren't the only offenders, but they are the worst offenders. When you see this type of boxed curriculum, just think about how hard it would be to put out great pre-built content for every state standard. State standards are all different, so these curriculum offerings tend to be bland, generalized versions that they align to standards after the fact. There is no creativity in that.
I think it's also important to talk about what I don't fit in the boxed curriculum category as well, and that is teacher and thought leader authored digital resources. Teachers can author meaningful content online, but through that authorship, they have more control in blending it with creative and innovative learning practices. The digital content offered becomes more of a tool to get the kids to the needed knowledge for creative activities rather than the entirety of knowledge you want the student to learn. It becomes a cog in a wheel that flows together.
I also don't lump curriculum that is needed to teach future-ready skills that teachers are not experts in with the pre-built stuff. A perfect example of this is Common Sense Media's digital citizenship curriculum. To get this vital topic covered, we have to give teachers a ton of resources to provide them with both content knowledge and to make the lesson possible. Teachers just don't have the time or base of knowledge to focus on this and their core teaching content at the same time. The awesome folks at Common Sense Media do a great job of giving us lots of options and avenues to teach internet safety and digital citizenship, and without them, it would be almost impossible to get this vital content to students.
Why is all this boxed content so dangerous? To start, it takes all the creativity out of teaching. The best classrooms are the ones where the teacher has the room to take a risk and try something new. In that classroom, the kids have the room to create, make, and funnel content through avenues that interest them.
Both channels of boxed curriculum don't allow that to happen. The leveled assessment platforms just force kids to work through questions and assessments. The teacher is putting in no creative input to what the students are doing, and the kids are just sitting at a computer passively working through those questions and activities. The textbook style curriculum makes every kid the same, and the content is filled with bland presentations and what they term to be "learning activities." Those learning activities are typically things like worksheets. They are not opportunities for students to create and make within that content area.
Taking creativity out of the classroom should be enough to move away from these boxed curriculums, but I think it is also the predominant reason some researchers are finding an insignificant effect from school technology initiatives. Schools are terming these types of programs and resources "personalized learning" when often it is just a digital substitution for presentations and worksheets. In these situations, instructional practices remain unchanged. The only difference is it's on a device. I believe the impact data we need to prove that modern tools allow us to do so much with students become significant if we take boxed curriculum learning out of it.
If we don't do a better job of messaging why these pre-built boxed curriculums are not compelling learning experiences, then they could ruin the opportunities that technology does present. Districts spend a whole lot of money on pre-built boxed curriculums, and the results are at best mixed. Getting mixed results builds a perception in all stakeholders that the technology may not be working. If that perception continues, the access to technology may soon be gone because districts are just not getting the needed results.
The other issue that could ruin things is that education technology companies start seeing pre-built boxed curriculum as a way to make money. It's easy to upsell a district on it even though the district might not need it. It becomes the lowest hanging fruit. I recognize the ed tech business is hard, but I challenge any education technology company who is moving to this route to think innovatively. Don't abandon the creative stuff you are doing that can make a difference in the classroom just to upsell a district. We need you to add to the classroom not just be a substitute for the traditional things we already do.
From a teacher's standpoint, I understand that using this content is sometimes the easiest road and that it is also many times a district/school requirement. When teachers get this content, the district/school requirement usually comes from a place of the money spent on the boxed curriculum. That is not a reason to use it, and hopefully, leaders can come to a point where they challenge teachers to think differently rather than giving them an easy crutch to fall back on.
If you are the teacher using the content for ease, it usually comes from a place of lack of time. If this is you, I challenge you to shift away from that. I think the best teachers already don't lean on the boxed curriculum. They are the teachers that plan during the summer, and they create time to bring that creativity to the classroom. Sometimes doing that is still really hard though. I think many teachers need all the other things they have to do simplified, and if we can simplify all that extra stuff, a teacher would have that time to pump creativity into their classroom. They won't need the boxed stuff anymore. Again, hopefully, leaders can get to that point.
If things like the assessment/practice platforms are a requirement, do what you have to do, but just try to think differently about it. One of the worst practices that is widespread today is putting kids on one of the assessment/practice platforms for a certain amount of time. Where is the learning in that? Kids all learn at different paces so one student's "20 mins" is not even close to other students. If it's a requirement, you could always shift the focus of these platforms to being a broader data point for you to make decisions, and with that kids would naturally need different time guidelines. If you use it that way, students could actually benefit somewhat from boxed curriculum use!
If your a school leader, don't fall for the upsell. When you look at curriculum and resources, all you need is something for the teacher to check their understandings of standards, and all that would have to be is a simple book that gives the base knowledge a student needs for each standard. You don't need all of the extra lessons, worksheets, and presentations that come with things. Challenge your teachers! Force their hand in creating experiences and encourage them to add their creative spin to their classrooms. If they are struggling with that, support it with coaching.
If you're a leader, you also have to simplify what you are asking teachers to do so they have time to create their stuff rather than using the boxed curriculum. Simplify PD, cut down on the extras, and let teachers focus on what matters: their lessons. If you want teachers to move to that creative side quickly, heavily support them with coaching and figure out a way to incentivize the summer. If you can, I think you will see a drastic improvement in what learning looks like in your school/district.
As an ed tech community, I think we need to continue to fight the push into the pre-built boxed curriculum. It does nothing to help the case for technology in the classroom because many don't see the more profound things technology makes possible. The fight starts at the teacher and district/school level because of the purchase they make, but I think there are other things we can do as an education technology community to make it hard for this stuff to take hold. We have to act!
The first thing that comes to mind is to freeze these types of companies out. Don't support them, and don't visit their booth's at conferences. Conference organizers could even take a major stand and tell these companies that they don't relate to the mission of the organization so they can't be on the conference floor. We have to send a message that we are ok without them.
I think we also need to do a much better job connecting teachers all over the world. We hear stories of great teachers doing things differently all the time, but we need to prove the success of higher level technology use around things like creating, making, and connecting to the real world. Hopefully, if districts take the money they are spending out of the pre-boxed stuff, we can grow a significant network of coaches. From that network, teachers can pull tips and tricks of how others are creating the time needed to ditch the boxed stuff. It would be amazing to see how a huge network of coaches could swing the conversation quickly.
This curriculum has all grown out of something that is a bit outdated: textbooks. Textbook companies saw the move to digital, and districts asked them to build resources to go with it. Then other companies saw that there was money there. They see curriculum platforms as a way to get rich. We have to stop that and put ed tech's focus back on where it matters most: the kids. It's time to put the foot down.