Co-Constructing the Curriculum

Education is essentially a transaction. Yet, there are many kinds of transaction. Consider, for instance, the transaction between a diner and a waitress about a potential tip. This is a master-servant transaction; the waitress begs for favour and the diner holds the power. If the tip is unsatisfactory to the waitress then all that she can do is express her dissatisfaction through her behaviours. If that diner calls again then perhaps the waitress will perform her role less effectively than before. The power dynamic has the potential to set up a negative spiral of decline that actually encourages the waitress to perform worse.

Now, consider the example of two nomadic tribesmen bartering over a goat. Traditional, nomadic societies are more egalitarian and democratic and so we are effectively considering a transaction between equals. If these noble men cannot agree a suitable trade then no trade will take place. They are equal partners.

The concept of insisting on Making Learners Extraordinary™ is not a concept of imperatives and commands.  In order for rich, authentic and deep learning to occur the students absolutely must be engaged in every aspect of the learning from the outset! Rather than seeing the role of the student as that of responding on cue with lists of facts that have been defined to be of value by the ‘expert’ teacher, we should see students as fundamental to the creation of learning. Students will then develop the skills that they need for the 21st century in a context that is relevant to them.

Principle Five: Co-Constructing the Curriculum

Jason Pargeter of New School, Auckland used to have a detailed plan. “I would have schedules and timetables; lists all colour-coded. I could tell you in May what I’d be teaching on June the 12th!” He says with an embarrassed smile as he brushes his rich, auburn hair from his face, “How could that possibly be responsive? How could that in any way be an authentic learning experience for my students?”

I am in New Zealand on one of my regular trips to offer guidance and support to schools that work closely with the Extraordinary Learning Foundation™. Jason understands the nature of enriching educational transactions. He realises that deep understanding can only be constructed though a relationship between equals.


“We had to do a lot of work with the administration team at the start,” Says Jason. “Deep learning doesn’t show up on simple tests of factual knowledge and so part of our problem was how to assess the students when the students are feeding into the curriculum”.

That’s where we offered our expertise. Clearly, if students were selecting authentic contexts relative to their own needs then testing information recall would entirely miss the point. For a start, what information would we want them to recall and why, given that the answer to virtually any question is now accessible 24-7 to anyone with a mobile phone!

The solution was to focus on the key, transferable, 21st century skills that the students should develop, whatever the context. “We now have rubrics for the skills of argument, critical thinking, taxonomy, deep observation, meta-active thinking, ordinalisation… and we can assess these skills whatever the agreed context.”

It is important to stress that Co-Constructing the Curriculum is not about students simply doing whatever they please. There has to be discipline and rigour. This is a negotiation between two parties and the teacher does have relevance. As Jason says, “Suppose Josh comes to me with a context about wrestling, I might say that that’s cool but how is he going to demonstrate the skill of deep observation that’s up next in his portfolio. So we work it out like that.”



Every educator has heard of Lev Vygotsky and his ideas about social learning and the zone of proximal development. However, few have heard about his compatriot and near contemporary, Dmitri Tsiolkovsky (1900-1941).

Tsiolkovsky was an early proponent of verbalisation theory. In the 1930s, Tsiolkovsky was working at the Leningrad Institute for Psychological Research on a model for verbalisation that the Institute had developed. The model proposed four stages in the formation of speech:

1. Precognition – ideas are forming and coalescing in the subconscious but are not yet available to the conscious mind

2. Recognition – the passage of a unified concept from the subconscious into the conscious mind

3. Cognition – the manipulation of the concept in the conscious mind

4. Verbalisation – the final step where the concept is encoded as words which are then communicated

Drawing on behaviorist theories, Tsiolkovsky’s insight was that this was effectively a chain of stimulus-and-response. The stimulus for precognition would often be auditory e.g. the subject was listening to someone else and this stimulated the precognition response.

Tsiolkovsky further reasoned that a subject’s own verbalisation could also supply this stimulus, creating a closed loop of stimulus and response and that this could be utilised by army instructors (the Institute mainly sought military applications). However, Tsiolkovsky fell out of favour with the Soviet authorities after his death – his ideas began to be viewed as in opposition to collectivism – and so much of his thinking was never put into practice.

Principle Four: Talk-it-out™

Drawing on the work of Tsiolkovsky, Dale Romario and other verbalisation theorists who brought Tsiolkovsky’s work to prominence in the West, The Extraordinary Learning Foundation™ has developed the principle of Talk-it-out™: an archimedian lever for leveraging huge gains in thinking in the classroom.

Cognition is pictured as a self-reinforcing cycle as thought passes through each of the four stages on its journey into manifest verbalisation.


Though seemingly complex, the practical implications are surprisingly simple. Rather than attempting to fill students brains as if they were empty vessels, we can use this cycle to release the learning ability of the individual. Rather than endless teacher talk, it requires stimulating student talk; talk that will reinforce and crystalise the innate abilities of the learner in a developmentally appropriate way.

Whereas traditional approaches are akin to watering and feeding plants in a greenhouse without windows, the technique of Talk-it-out™ enables the learning to grow in the natural light of day.

Since the first steps in implementing the approach, we have learnt a great deal here at the Extraordinary Learning Foundation™. Initially, we believed that the focus should be on as much student talk as possible without focusing too much on the content of this talk. The main role of this talk, we reasoned, was as a stimulus.

However, pilot studies did suggest that some talk was more effective at stimulating thinking. We therefore decided to avoid the use of nonsense words altogether and focus more on words associated with the context that we wanted the students to think about. We found that a variation of free-association provided a good balance between being overly prescriptive and still allowing students’ creativity to flourish.

Amy Bartot describes the use of this approach in her Grade 8 classroom in Cooper, IL,”Say we are looking at women’s rights issues; I might write the words ‘women’s rights’ on the board and get students to riff around that. They come up with words that associate with the words I’ve written and then they Talk-it-out™, usually for about 20 minutes.”

The key, explains Amy, is not to impose the teacher’s ideas on the students, “I remember hearing Gary repeating, ‘women aren’t always right’ over and over. I wanted to intervene; to correct him. I wanted to tell him that he misunderstood the topic. But then I realised; the power of the process is that it allows students to construct their own meaning. Sometimes, we just need to get the hell out of the way!”