Forking the Syllabus (and Three Other Ways to Hack Education This Year)


Students everywhere are returning to school this season. But what kinds of schools are they returning to?

Are their classrooms organized like industrial-era factory floors, built around ideals like mass standardization and tailored for maximum efficiency? Or do they look more like agile, networked learning communities?

Are they acting like passive receptacles for data? Or are they collaboratively shaping what and how they learn—and connecting their lessons to projects and contexts outside the classroom?

In other words: Do their classrooms function the same way they have for roughly 100 years? Or are they becoming more open, preparing students for the more participatory and dynamic world they’re about to enter?

The open organization community at hopes it’s the latter. And they’ve just released a new guide for helping educators realize the benefits of constructing their classrooms, departments, and schools on open principles.

The Open Organization Guide for Educators features dozens of tips for creating more transparent, adaptable, and meritocratic educational organizations. Here are four of them.

1. Ask the class to fork and modify the syllabus

Treating classrooms like open organizations means giving stakeholders some control over the rules structuring how they work. Heidi Ellis, professor and chair of the Computer Science and Information Technology department at Western New England University, wanted her students to feel like co-authors of their educational experiences—and in The Open Organization Guide for Educators, she shares what happened when she asked her students to treat their course’s policy for “late work” as they would an open source software application. What if the syllabus wasn’t an inflexible contract but something more malleable, provisional, and adaptable? Ellis found out. “This exercise was a learning experience for both my students and me,” Ellis writes, “as we clearly had different visions.”

2. Run your faculty meeting like a standup

A faculty meeting that’s organized and efficient, where the best ideas get heard and everyone leaves feeling accountable for the work they discussed? Could it really be possible? Duke University professor Aria Chernik and her former student, Tanner Johnson, explain the dream—and offer step-by-step instructions for making it a reality. Borrowing best practices from open organizations—like CSbyUS, the student-led computer science education initiative Johnson spearheads with Duke undergrads—Chernik and Johnson explain how greater transparency and meritocracy can lead to better faculty working sessions. “We know firsthand that running meetings the open source way is effective,” they write. “What has surprised us most is that running meetings this way is also creative, inspiring, and fun.”

3. Tap teachers to construct the school’s guiding values

When Beth Anderson, executive director of Hill Learning Center in Durham, NC, wanted to formalize a statement about that school’s guiding values, she could have done what so many other leaders do: Head off to a retreat in a remote location, think independently with pencil in hand, and return to the organization ready to push her vision down the organizational chart, hoping it resonated. But Anderson chose a different—and more open—method. She held several working sessions inviting teachers to collaborate on crafting Hill’s core values. The result? “By soliciting ideas and feedback from staff, I could honor what we’d done well in the past while preparing for future transformations,” Anderson says. “What currently hangs on the wall are not the core values I’d have written myself … Some of them raise questions (even concerns). And yet, on the whole, I feel better about them at this point than I might have expected.”

4. Give students a stronger voice

Open organizations can achieve important and enduring changes when their constituents play a role in decision-making processes. At a school built on open values, that means taking student feedback seriously, ensuring it truly impacts how the school is run—maybe even how it’s built. That’s what happened at the Penn Manor school district in Lancaster County, PA, when director of technology Charlie Reisinger helped give students a voice in the process of constructing a new school building. “Too often, students are absent from the decision-making table,” Reisinger writes. “Yet when costs are high and the stakes are huge, schools can’t afford to ignore student feedback.” But for most educators, facing pushback from students (what Reisinger calls “the sting of teenage rejection”) can be an uncomfortable prospect. The Open Organization Guide for Educators features a tested process for getting it right.

Read more

Find all these stories and more in The Open Organization Guide for Educators, released today at Like all books in the Open Organization series, it’s licensed for sharing, remix, and further distribution via a Creative Commons license—and all its source files are available on GitHub. Download your copy now. And if you’re an educator, why not submit your own story of open principles in action at your organization?

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