Open educational resources are just building blocks—an education requires an architect

Lisa Hansel

If there were just one thing I could say to fans of open educational resources (OER) and personalized learning, it would be this: “Atomized units of knowledge don’t build anything.” That quote comes from an education reformer who used to teach in a high-powered classical school. She and her colleagues delivered the type of rigorous, well-rounded, and carefully sequenced education that has produced thoughtful leaders and scholars for thousands of years; schooling of that sort is often dismissed as too hard for most kids or too twentieth-century for today.

Sadly, in dismissing the classical or liberal arts approach, we’ve also unintentionally thwarted our most sacred goal: that all students become strong readers. As the last several decades of literacy research clearly demonstrate, reading comprehension requires a very broad base of academic knowledge and a massive vocabulary. In short, to be a good reader, you have to know all of the terms and ideas that writers will use without providing definitions or explanations (e.g., Supreme Court, solar system, David and Goliath, etc.). This base of knowledge, which literate adults are assumed to have and children therefore need to accumulate, is enormous. We must be highly efficient in order to give them all they need in just twelve or thirteen years of schooling—especially children with limited access to academic knowledge outside of school.

Advocates of OER and personalized learning typically believe that they are increasing efficiency, but they tend to underestimate the breadth of knowledge necessary for true comprehension. With a well-meaning emphasis on increasing student engagement—and a mindset that seems to value the economic aspects of education over the civic aspects—they seek means for youth to pursue their passions.

Thomas Arnett fell into this all-too-common trap recently in Education Nextwriting,

A major benefit of OER content is that it gives schools and teachers instructional “Legos” that they can organize, revise, and combine more easily to create custom learning solutions that meet their students’ needs. Before the advent of the internet…it was a labor-intensive process for a teacher to provide his students with custom resources aligned to their particular context, interests, and learning needs….Fortunately, pioneering schools…are pushing the OER ecosystem to make it easier to create customized learning solutions that address students’ personalized learning needs.

As I’ve explained before (as have others), the danger here is in students ending up with a narrow and haphazard base of knowledge on which it is very hard to build. And as Robert Pondiscio has noted, we expect far too much from teachers when we force them to both design and deliver curricula.

The fundamental point is one that few in education seem ready to address: Great lessons may not add up to a great education. A great education is carefully mapped out. The topics to be taught are intentionally sequenced grade by grade so that students acquire the broad, sturdy foundation they need to be literate adults capable of pursuing their own interests. Teachers do need to customize their instruction to ensure that all children are mastering essential content, but “custom resources aligned to their particular context, interests, and learning needs” is a siren song drawing us away from the foundation of shared knowledge on which comprehension stands. While Arnett points to a variety of tools, I’d like to see him embrace a tool like Build Your Own Curriculum. This innovative company’s tagline says it all: “Tools for Collaborative, Consistent Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment.”

So yes, let’s develop OER and pursue personalized learning. But let’s also accept the fact that a solid education depends on a blueprint for how all the pieces go together—across all subjects and grades. Even Lego realizes that the best work emerges from well-designed plans created by “Master Builders.” Teachers already have too much to do; as the curriculum landscape changes, they deserve more than a database of resources and a mandate to personalize. Like the most amazing Lego kits, OER providers should organize their building blocks into brilliant blueprints so that teachers have the resources they need to give all children a well-built, beautiful education.

Lisa Hansel is director of Knowledge Matters, a new campaign to restore wonder and excitement to the classroom by building broad knowledge in science, social studies, and the arts.