Last year Google CEO Eric Schmidt made a big splash by telling us that more information is created every two days than was created from the dawn of time until 2003. This is an alarming find, even if the numbers are fudged quite a bit. The quote wasn't aimed at educators, but many in the EdTech community took this quote and ran with it. The message Schmidt delivered fit very neatly into the narrative many radical educators subscribe to-- that teaching specific factual knowledge is "20th century" and we should be teaching "how to find knowledge" in real time or whatever.
It doesn't take an expert critical thinker to see the huge hole in this line of reasoning. The reason this is a somewhat meaningless factoid is that there has always been more knowledge in the world than we could possibly teach to students. I can remember sitting in the library on SUNY Stony Brook's campus and looking around at the over-stuffed shelves of books on just one bookshelf on one floor and thinking "I will never be able to read even a respectable fraction of the books in here."
This should be obvious prima facie to any objective person, yet that quote gets passed around, re-tweeted, quoted, time and again in EdTech circles. Why?
My theory is that many educators would rather teach their own curriculum or let students design their own curriculum than deliver content designed, sequenced and scaffolded by others. I can understand this sentiment and relate. Having autonomy is a wonderful feeling for teachers and students alike. Just because it feels great and makes you look forward to learning doesn't mean it is the best way to educate an individual, however.
I sat on a curriculum planning team and got to see firsthand that the sequence and scaffolding of the concepts were well thought-out. The age-appropriate lessons for 4th grade were extensions and expansions of the lessons for 3rd grade. The lessons for 3rd grade were extensions and expansions of the lessons for 2nd grade and so on up and down the line. I once had a discussion with Clay Shirky about Math curriculum and he unequivocally told me that the current progression is about as good as he can imagine.
Curriculum is about giving people a foundation to learn more. Cognitive science teaches us that people learn things that build on previous knowledge. This latticework of previous knowledge is called a schema. In other words, skipping steps or zig-zagging around a well-planned sequence of lessons makes learning more difficult.
A curriculum is not meant to be a complete information dump of an all-encompassing human knowledge base. It is meant to provide a broad enough schema for people to absorb and internalize new understandings as they encounter them. Information that does not connect to our existing schema is either ignored or quickly forgotten. Once we understand this fact about how we learn we can see how off the rails the conclusions we draw about exponential information can be.
So let's translate conclusions people draw from Schmidt's quote into the language of cognitive science:
"We need to spend less time building the schemata vital to acquiring new understandings and spend more time teaching people how to do keyword searches on Google for things they won't understand once they read them."
Okay, maybe that's a bit snarky, but it is also accurate.
Curriculum designers are knowledge cartographers- they have been down the road we want our students to travel and they share their experience. We don't need to re-invent the wheel ourselves because we have the benefit of the wisdom of experienced designers.
There is a counter-lesson in here though. Maps get updated because roads and rivers change course. I am a firm believer that curriculum needs to be examined and tweaked on a regular basis, but to discard acquired knowledge as "mere facts" is to deeply misunderstand curriculum design. Is there a kernel of truth in Schmidt's statement? Yes, I think there is more than a kernel in fact. What this means for us as educators is that curriculum design is more important now than ever because it is becoming more difficult to build a broad enough general schema.