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Thursday, January 28, 2016

School as bricolage: a response to Matt Candler's "OS" proposal

At the 4.0 Schools community conference in New Orleans last week, 4.0 founder Matt Candler gave a presentation where he articulated a vision of schools of all shapes and sizes--from traditional schools to homeschoolers to afterschools to micro-schools--that would form their curricular, pedagogical and administrative tools by assembling sets of modular components from a common ocean of options.

He called this a sort of "OS", or operating system; at other points he referred to it as a common "fabric". It was a rough vision, far from worked out in its details or terminology, but that's part of what makes it exciting.

Discussing the proposal with another attendee afterwards, I realized that we had interpreted the proposal differently. He heard "OS" as indicating a technological system or structure, which I didn't, at least not completely.

My interpretation of the operating system metaphor was that it wasn't necessarily technological, but rather a replicable system that had built into it mechanisms for discovering, adapting and using learning modules. So it could include technology platforms for sharing curricula, could include digital or physical catalog, could include videos and digital or physical worksheets, and could include procedures that you repeat for whichever modules you are incorporating.

A similar category of concept might be design thinking. There is certainly design thinking software, but you absolutely don't need it to do design thinking; it's an approach, which comes with certain common activities and core concepts, in different variations as appropriate.

I know the term "bricolage" already refers to a specific school (Bricolage Academy in New Orleans, not to be confused with Amon Tobin's excellent album or the restaurant in Park Slope, Brooklyn), but that seems like the best word I can think of to encapsulate my understanding of the operating system metaphor, or at least what popped up in my imagination when listening to Matt's presentation!

It's the idea of systematically borrowing and adapting many different learning modules that seems like the key, and bricolage captures this idea of collecting and remixing whatever is useful.

As with other large concepts in systems organization, it can be underwhelming to hear it articulated as a grand vision. I often hear articulations like this and think, isn't this something that every decent system already does to some extent?

But I think translating an idea from a low-priority ingredient to the main course can have unexpected added value, because doing so changes its role qualitatively, not just quantitatively. The added value is in the dynamic effects you get by adapting the concept more centrally, more aggressively and more strategically then you would if it wasn't a core concept to your organization. With that deeper role, it can encourage and bring along all sorts of related shifts.

One side effect or dynamic effect for this operating system bricolage, in my mind, is the broader model of learning and growth it provides for students and other participants in the system. The process of exploring, selecting and adapting learning modules is one that presupposes and reinforces a particular belief about knowledge: that it grows out of our being a multivocal community with a complex landscape of valuable ideas, rather than a monolithic set of knowledge to be delivered and absorbed. To fully embrace this nature of the operating system/bricolage model seems like a natural progression to involve students in the selection and adaptation process itself, as both observers and decision makers.

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