How ‘Open Pedagogy’ Connects Curriculum to Teacher Professional Learning

Blog Post
Oct. 6, 2017

Over the past five years, education leaders and researchers have become more focused on the need for quality, standards-aligned curricula. Now the question is: Where will these curricula come from? Will education continue to rely on traditional publishers, buying whatever is available in the curriculum marketplace, or is there another way? This blog series spotlights a growing trend: states and districts are turning to open educational resources, or OER, for curriculum in core subject areas. Today’s post discusses the connection between curriculum and teacher professional development, highlighting how OER is enabling a new ‘open pedagogy’ in districts. Check out the first post, which highlights several new reports on state curriculum reform efforts and the role of OER, as well as the third post, which explores the role states are playing to drive innovation and improve quality in the curriculum marketplace.  

“To improve teaching and advance student learning requires weaving together the curriculum that students engage with every day with the professional learning of teachers,” Ross Wiener and Susan Pimentel write in the introduction of their recent Aspen Institute report, Practice What You Teach. The authors make a strong case for connecting curriculum to ongoing teacher professional development, summarizing academic research and highlighting emerging best practices in the field, including a case study focused on the state of Louisiana.

The Aspen Institute isn’t the only organization trying to figure out what’s exactly is going on down in the Bayou State. Researchers and writers have been flocking there in droves, ever since RAND Corporation published a report that found that Louisiana’s teachers were more clear than teachers in other states about what and how they should teach in order to help their students master the state’s academic standards. A look at how teachers throughout Louisiana are collaborating around curriculum to improve their teaching reveals one of the unique benefits of open educational resources, or OER.

It’s not just about using OER to change what they teach—as teachers are using OER, they are changing how they teach. Having the permission to use, adapt, and share curricular materials has allowed Louisiana’s teachers to deeply engage with one another around the content they use with their students every day. Teachers are working together to adapt lessons and assignments, testing this remixed content out in their classrooms, and coming together afterward to talk through how it went and how they might improve. In short, teachers are practicing “open pedagogy.”

In the first post of this series I define OER as freely available materials shared under an open content license, which allows anyone accessing the content to download, use, and update it. When it comes to ‘pedagogy,’ education experts define the term in a number of ways, but the simplest might be to say that it has to do with how teachers teach. If pedagogy is how teachers teach, imagine ‘open pedagogy’ as the ways in which teachers might change the way they teach when using OER. As David Wiley, a leading proponent of OER and the chief executive officer of Lumen Learning, puts it,  “open pedagogy is that set of teaching and learning practices only possible in the context of the free access and...permissions characteristic of open educational resources.”

What does open pedagogy look like in practice? Again, it starts with OER. In the case of Louisiana, the state did not require districts to adopt OER or to use any specific curriculum—instead, as the Aspen Institute report describes, in 2012 the state began working with teachers to evaluate hundreds of resources using a rigorous evaluation rubric, posting the reviews on its website. The idea was that with better information about what they had to choose from, districts would make better decisions. OER quickly rose to the top—one of the highest rated mathematics curricula was the state of New York’s PreK-12 OER math curriculum. But Louisiana could not find any comprehensive ELA curriculum that measured up to its standards. The state began to work with teachers to develop its own, resulting in Louisiana’s Guidebooks 2.0, a curriculum for grades 3-12 that the state also shared under an open content license.

One Louisiana teacher who helped to develop these resources is Meredith Starks, a third-grade teacher at Bellaire Elementary. Education Week reporter Madeline Will visited her classroom this past March, observing her as she taught a lesson from on Treasure Island—it was part of a unit that Starks had authored for the Guidebooks. As Will reported, teachers across the state have reached out to Starks about the OER she developed, thanking her and sharing how they are using these materials as they teach the novel in their own classrooms. Starks also helps to lead professional development sessions on the Guidebooks, sharing her strategies and tips with teachers as they explore the materials. (This echoes what recent research from New America’s educator quality team shows: “The most effective PD content is focused on specific strategies and relevant to teachers’ daily professional lives.”)

Of course, Treasure Island and other novels are copyrighted materials—in Louisiana, schools are still purchasing classroom sets of these books for students to read. The Guidebooks provide the the kinds of supports that teachers need in order to engage deeply in whole-text instruction and teach the skills highlighted in state academic standards. For example, the materials Starks wrote for the unit on Treasure Island focuses on helping students learn to provide text-based answers to questions, determine the meaning of words in a story, and clearly describe characters—three skills that the state expects students to learn by the end of third grade. It contains lessons, writing tasks, and assessments with clear rubrics. These are the kinds of resources contained in the Guidebooks that teachers are free to use, modify, and share.

In Will’s reporting, she also uncovers some gaps in the Guidebook resources that teachers have identified. Specifically, principals and teachers said that while excellent for high-achieving students, the materials need more supports for students who are behind grade level, as well as for English-language learners and students with disabilities. To address these limitations, teams of teachers are working together to adapt the OER to meet the needs of these students. Other teams of teachers, like the ones at Bellaire, have rearranged the ordering of the lessons. And individual teachers continue to supplement what they are teaching by creating and sharing additional lessons.

Much of this would be impossible if the materials in these Guidebooks were copyrighted. Teachers would not be able to openly share copyrighted materials, nor could they freely exchange and discuss examples of how they adapted the materials to best use them with their students. While teachers can use and make changes to copyrighted materials under the so-called ‘fair use’ exception, there are limits—and there are clear restrictions on widely sharing copyrighted materials online. (For more on copyright and fair use, see these great lessons from Media Education Lab).

Unlike working with a textbook, a curriculum like Louisiana’s Guidebooks 2.0 is what Ryan Merkley calls the “tip of the pyramid.” In a recent interview, Merkley, chief executive officer of Creative Commons, described what makes OER different in this way: “OER are very different because we imagine a model where the pyramid’s inverted,” he said. If the Guidebooks are the smallest point on the bottom, each layer of updates, teacher modifications, and adaptations build on top of those foundational texts. Now on the top level, Merkley said, “the best content is tailored to the needs of the learner.”

Having the ability to use, change, and exchange content in this way—being able to practice open pedagogy—shouldn’t be restricted to teachers who happen to live in Louisiana. And as states pursuing curriculum reform turn to OER, teachers are able to engage in these kinds of open practices. The pieces of curriculum, daily instruction, and ongoing teacher professional development fit together when built around open content.

But states aren’t doing this work alone. The next blog post will describe some of the ways that states have partnered with education nonprofits, companies, and other vendors—it will show how, through this work, states are driving innovation and improving the quality of content in the curriculum marketplace.

Related Topics
Open Curriculum in PreK-12