Beyond the Event Horizon: Curricular Transformation

by Greg Cooper, Dean of Studies at EXPLO Senior.

The third in a series about how the laws of physics informed my school’s decision to cut APs.

The event horizon of a black hole is a chaotic place, a “point of no return,” the border beyond which even light cannot escape.

That final edge is a swirling mass of all sorts of matter — an accretion of everything torn apart by this incredible force. But beyond that inhospitable border lies the vastness of space. A place where all that chaos can no longer have an impact. A place where what once seemed impossible is now not only possible but awash with opportunity.

As I wrote in a previous post, schools are not black holes, though they can sometimes feel like them. Thus, the question isn’t whether we can escape the forces holding us back but how we chart a path forward.

When my former school began the process of moving away from AP classes in some areas, the task was daunting. The college process, the standardized test world, and the anxieties of parents and students loomed large. But we knew that if only we could get ourselves beyond that event horizon, away from the pull of gravity and through the chaos and noise, the vast space that would open up before us — the opportunities for curricular innovation — would be limited only by our resources and depth of expertise.

After devising a strategy for seeing through those things that were distorting our view of what was possible and after figuring out how to take advantage of the forces at our disposal to plot a plausible path ahead, it was time to plan just how we’d capture that final burst of breakaway speed to get us past the event horizon.

So what did we do, and why did it seem to work?

  • We broke away from the “AP school” or “not AP school” binary. Academic leaders engaged in a series of conversations about where the AP curriculum continued to make sense, where the “college credit” argument held the most sway, and where the persistence of AP courses seemed to be hindering our pedagogical goals. Our math and world language departments, for example, did not see the immediate need for any change.
  • We didn’t eliminate; we replaced. One history and three science courses, followed by three more science courses next year, will be replaced by courses of the faculty’s own creation — carefully-crafted, teacher-driven courses that are a better fit for our school. These will have varying degrees of overlap with the topics in the AP curriculum, though they will also sacrifice some of that content for a more in-depth, project-based, and (in some cases) locally-focused approach. Students will still be encouraged to prepare for the relevant AP exams if they’d like to do so, and our faculty will help direct them to resources and study materials.
  • We combined this initiative with a new course numbering system (which had been in the brainstorming phase for a while) that would allow us to better explain to colleges where many of our more unique classes fell in terms of complexity. Our new system would allow us to show that a certain class was at, approaching, or beyond the “AP” level, thus creating a new proxy for rigor — which we controlled — that used the universally known AP label as a baseline.
  • We didn’t take a siloed approach. Our science-related conversations spilled over into the humanities, and we moved forward with plans to eliminate our 10th-grade AP U.S. History option in favor of an interdisciplinary American Studies course — something we had been talking about for several years. Now, with the flexibility afforded by our course numbering system, we could treat the American Studies class as a truly advanced class, while still allowing our faculty to design a curriculum that was more dynamic.

As I have previously written, engagement with both colleges and our community of parents was critical. As long as we had a clear way of denoting rigor and challenge, most arguments for the importance of having APs on a transcript — just for the sake of having APs — melted away. At the same time, some of the other benefits remained — notably, the potential for future course placement and/or college credit.

This two-year process to phase in a suite of new classes as one-to-one replacements for some of the school’s rather large array of AP offerings is now underway. It’s still early, but initial reports are positive.

As one of my former students — who is now taking a replacement for AP Environmental Science (“Advanced Environmental Science and the South Florida Ecosystem”) — put it, “this year’s class feels way more fulfilling than it probably would have been to take the AP. I’m really excited at the prospect of going out on the boat and taking measurements out on the bay. It became clear within the first few classes that the shift [away from the AP curriculum] was going to make the class way more interesting.”

So many things in the world of education are out of our control as school leaders, but curriculum isn’t one of those things. The constraints on and resources of our schools may all be different, and the choices that made sense for my former school are not as clear-cut for others, but the point is that bold curricular change is possible, even in the face of today’s inhospitable landscape.

Shortly before his death in 2018, physicist Stephen Hawking — one of the foremost experts on black holes and theoretical physics of all sorts — gave a lecture in which he discussed some recent evidence that contrary to what many originally thought, some radiation can possibly escape from the grip of a black hole. He said, “The message of this lecture is that black holes ain’t as black as they are painted. They are not the eternal prisons they were once thought. Things can get out of a black hole, both to the outside, and possibly, to another universe. So, if you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up. There’s a way out.”

Greg Cooper is the Dean of Studies at EXPLO Senior. He was previously the Upper School Dean of Studies and a History & Social Sciences teacher at the Ransom Everglades School in Miami, Florida. This was PART THREE in his series about how we can use the Laws of Physics to reimagine how we tackle the massive obstacles schools face. Be sure to read, PART ONE, Gravitational Lensing and the Educational Universe, and PART TWO, Finding the Escape Velocity for Dramatic Policy Changes.