A new kind of curriculum
First, an apology for the sparseness of writing here. I’ve started a new role at Synthesis and, well, it’s a startup. So I’m not bored!
As part of my work there I am leading an effort to grow our curriculum. Our educational model and mode of engagement is totally unique, which demands we ask of ourselves the question “what is a curriculum in the Synthesis paradigm?”. It looks different than it does in other models — the entire experience of a Synthesis student is the curriculum. It doesn’t start at the beginning of a session, nor cease when a session ends. It is not a sequence of content, but rather a structured space of experiences that students explore and work through, all the time traversing levels of abstraction and bringing lateral connections among particulars to light.
In the following short essay I cover some of the ways we are attacking this project. Rather than various ‘subjects’ we address a stack of aspects that are bound together via direct engagement in (more or less) structured experiences. This is the Synthesis Curriculum Manifesto:
The Synthesis Curriculum we are developing is like nothing that has existed before. Our mission is to help students grow to become supercollaborators. That means having the knowledge and skills to solve hard problems in collaborative settings.
In the future, they will need to address novel challenges that do not have pre-existing solutions. We are preparing students for that future.
The first tenet of the Synthesis Curriculum is:
Experience, not instruction, drives learning
It is a bit unnerving to realize that this is diametrically opposed to the standard modes of industrial education we are most familiar with. In these legacy settings, students are left wondering, “Why am I learning this? What does this have to do with anything?” And those questions are valid. What’s the value of what they’re learning, aside from getting better at school? Even teachers aren’t always sure.
In contrast, students at Synthesis engage in team problem solving and exploration from day one. Everything else is situated within that context. There is always an immediate application of skills and concepts. In fact, the skills and concepts are distilled from the experiences themselves (rather than presented in isolation for some future application).
There is no substitute for an organic ‘aha!’ moment. And that is exactly what we are crafting: experiences that produce ‘aha!’ moments.
The integrated experiences we are developing are designed to build on three essential competencies:
At Synthesis, experiences are driven from the outside in: context is king. We play games and simulations in order to develop better collaborative problem-solving skills that can be applied to real-world problems; we learn problem-solving skills in order to manage the particular situations that arise in the team simulations; and we distill conceptual knowledge that aids us in solving particular kinds of problems.
Traditional education focuses almost exclusively on decontextualized conceptual knowledge, at best. What’s even worse: education is often reduced to memorization and regurgitation.
In the Synthesis paradigm, concepts are embedded in the context of individual and collaborative problem-solving. Alfred North Whitehead famously described the challenge of inert knowledge in education: knowledge that is presented in an isolated fashion and therefore goes unused. We are solving that problem: nothing exists in isolation. Concepts are situated in the context of immediate application and connected to broad real-world applications.
The conceptual knowledge that students acquire will often appear atypical relative to traditional education. They may, for instance, learn about the implications of network topologies on cascade dynamics before they learn long division. We believe giving young people the opportunity to build knowledge and intuition around such wide-ranging concepts is enormously valuable in and of itself: they will be internalizing concepts that have immediate applicability to, e.g., physical, biological, social, and economic systems and beyond.
Moreover, concepts are not isolated entities. They exist in a web of other concepts. Industrial schooling has sought to isolate the various “fields” of knowledge in the interest of instructional efficiency—to the detriment of students. Deep knowledge demands highlighting the connections and relationships among ideas. Again, nothing in isolation.
Concepts alone do not solve problems. Finding solutions in the messiness of the real world demands individuals who can wield them in appropriate ways to make sense of, and take action in, specific contexts. The world does not give us certainty but rather forces us to probe into the unknown and grapple with deep uncertainty. To solve hard problems, we must go beyond “in the box” thinking that leads students to seek the “correct answer”. We are growing students who are doubting and questioning assumptions, reframing problems, fielding and testing possible solutions, and learning to fail in ways that yield progress. Our students do not ask, “what is the right answer?” but rather, “is this the right question?”.
Becoming real-world problem solvers will take students beyond the world of games and simulations. When students demonstrate a capacity to think critically and operate under uncertainty, we invite them to the meta-game. They are already doing things like developing games for other students and helping to design and implement next-gen Synthesis infrastructure. There is no limit to how deep we can go when it comes to confronting the same set of challenges we all face.
In order to be a super collaborator, students need to develop excellent knowledge and problem-solving skills, but that is not enough. The complexity of real-world problems demands the collaboration of many individuals. The kinds of problems that Synthesis is preparing students to solve are BIG. Too big for any individual to do on their own. There are no Elon Musks without a team that can manifest a vision.
When individuals combine their perspectives and abilities together, they can become more than the sum of their parts — they act as one. Synthesis is set up in a deliberate manner to nurture and grow these group-level skills. We consider these to be a primary good as without the ability to execute as a team, a good idea is nothing. This is where the rubber meets the road. This is how knowledge and skills become actualized solutions.
These are not soft skills. Collaborative skills are necessary in real-world execution, and they shape and constrain what is possible from non-technical to highly-technical settings. And they can be learned. We focus on four essential aspects that any strong team must possess:
Harmony - We must get along, even if we don’t agree on everything.
Communication - We must exchange ideas and information with high fidelity.
Decisiveness - We must be able to decide and align as a group in order to execute.
Coordination - We must understand our role in the group, and every individual’s role should play to their strength.
Growing supercollaborators demands significant breadth and depth in the set of experiences available to students. As such, the curriculum will never be something static but rather will be in a constant state of evolution. This is not merely metaphorical: we are building infrastructure that will enable us to literally evolve towards the most compelling educational experiences.
Moreover, a student’s journey will never be prescriptive but rather will embody a unique exploration through the ever-growing space of possible experiences.
The time is right to do something different with education, and the future depends on teams that can navigate complexity. This is our mission, and we hope you will join us.