The Two Realms of Curriculum

Since my last post about curriculum was well-received, I figured it might be good to write more on the subject.  A little on my background– I’m working my way through a doctorate in a program that deals with curriculum and instruction, and my job involves thinking about curriculum a great deal.  I created an independent study for myself in general curriculum theory and practice because I found that though I was mostly done my course work, I still didn’t really know what I wanted to know about the topic– namely the most fundamental question of all– what should a good curriculum have?  I found that a lot of others had the same problem– curriculum studies remained kind of a mysterious, amorphous area.  Everyone knew what is was… kinda, but it was hard to talk about in concrete terms.  So I’d like to share in Show All Your Work as much as possible what I’ve learned about curriculum through study and experience.

There’s a lot of debate over “the future of education” everywhere you look.  Look no farther than Youtube to find hundreds of videos that show the future of education as a place where students will be surrounded by slick, exciting technologies that make learning fun, instant, entertaining– basically everything that the internet is.   But there’s a whole other camp that calls for a return to “basics” such as reading, writing, and math.  Facts, to this group, are not challengeable, and learning is not “constructed.”  Students are in school to learn about the world as it is, and to learn self-control, discipline, and the things that educated people need to know.

And whichever side of the fence you’re on, there’s research to back you up.  If you’re convinced that technology will open wide the doors of the world’s information for students, and let them become quick-thinking, problem-solving, multitasking, knowledge-creating whizzes who are never more than a mobile device away from instant and continuous learning, you’re not alone.  Don Tapscott believes so, too– his books Growing Up Digital and Grown Up Digital tell us how young people are learning to lead, think, and create in ways that most adults didn’t ever get to do in their lifetimes.  Steven Johnson tells us that everything we think is bad for us— TV, too much internet time, video games– actually makes us smarter by engaging us in cognitive tasks.

Or, you might think that our reliance on technology is the beginning of the end of civilization, and that students and young people are being turned into mush-brained zombies that can only speak in short, dissociated, self-indulgent chirps about what they’re doing at any given moment.  Or that the only thing they learn from YouTube, iLife, and MySpace is that the first person is the first– and only– person that matters (you English teachers and grammar fans will appreciate that one).   You’ll be in good company, too.  E.D. Hirsch’s Dictionary of Cultural Literacy tries to convince us that the best of art, culture, and history is important for students to know and not just be able to Google.  Mark Bauerlein, whom I’ve written about here before, admonishes us not to trust anyone under 30‘s insect-like attention spans, and Nicholas Carr ominously wonders whether the internet is re-wiring our brains to avoid deep, sustained concentration.

At the center of these debates are, of course, the students that expect schools to prepare them for a world that no one– not experts, writers, leaders, politicians, and not their teachers, either– can really predict.  The role that curriculum can play in these debates is to ensure that students experience as much of both sides of the “two realms” as possible.

What that means is that in the first realm, students will need to learn skills and habits of mind.  They will need to have experiences where what they know doesn’t matter so much– it’s what they do with information that matters.  For their math class, they can have all the formulas they want handed to them on a laminated index card.  But how they apply the formulas is what will matter, and what will show their teachers that they’ve learned.  What good is knowing anything if there’s nothing to be done with the knowledge?  I might know Trigonometry forwards and back, but without creative vision, the problem-solving capacity to work around obstacles, and the ability to empathize and negotiate with local neighbors and residents, the building isn’t getting built.

It also means that students still need to be expected to learn things by heart.  What I mean is that they need to internalize information, know it, hold it, and keep it ready for use when it’s needed.  Knowing things has taken a hit in the past 10 years or so.  Why bother remembering anything when you can get your answer from Google in .8 seconds?   But the key here is that the knowledge and skill realms don’t work against each other– they work with each other.  A student with a deep, broad knowledge base from which to draw becomes a more-skilled problem-solver, critical-thinker, or empathizer.  Students who possess knowledge aren’t slowed down and disrupted by having to look up everything– no matter how instantaneous the search.  They are like musicians who are in a state of flow as they play a complex, improvised solo.  Imagine if a musician didn’t know any scales, but instead relied on looking them up as needed.  That solo isn’t getting played, people aren’t being moved, and music isn’t happening.  It’s the knowledge of musical theory, the instrument, even the music’s historical precedents that feed the creative and technical skills– those are what makes the music.

When extremist sides are taken, the dogmatism and stifling debate can sometimes miss the real point.  To endow students with the background and the ability, curriculum needs to be a balance of both skills and knowledge.  School isn’t a place to come to memorize discrete, unrelated, useless factlets, but it’s not a place to pretend that knowing things doesn’t matter anymore, either.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “The Two Realms of Curriculum

  1. When will even have to stop arguing the point of technology? I am a 2nd year doc student in education. I’m not reading that it is a question of one or the other ( thinking or tech) in research. However, in my classroom, it is a choice my county is making with the budget. They also choose one mode over another. For instance, they want smart boards for instruction, but I pay for my classblog so students can have extras not available on Blackboard. I am frustrated in how teachers have to fit their students into one box for the classroom when their digital lives are far expanded. My ELLs need it all!

  2. sara layton

    Thank you! I will use this post and your linked resources to encourage my students to research and debate this topic. Since they are online students, their opinions may be biased, but I think it will lead to an excellent discussion. Thanks again!

  3. Mike Carty

    Marc,
    I’m a teacher, a TV junkie, and I follow your blog. A few thoughts on “The Two Realms of Curriculum,” technological skill, knowledge, and Sherlock Holmes (it’s all related):
    A few days before reading your post, I watched the first two episodes of “Sherlock,” BBC’s modern adaptation of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (which is brilliant by the way –much better/ smarter than Hollywood’s recent movie). In the series, Holmes, is a master of technology (as he was in the original incarnation –always sending cables, pioneering forensic science, etc.). The new Holmes works quickly, moving from knowledge to technology to more knowledge.
    In the pilot, Holmes examines a woman lying dead in an abandoned flat. He deduces that she is from out of town, and has been dead for less than a few hours. He observes that although it hasn’t been raining in London, her coat is slightly damp, even under her collar, suggesting that she had turned it up to avoid the wind and rain, and flipped it back down again once she had escaped the elements. Her umbrella is dry -she probably took a cab. He uses his cell phone to pull up a map of the surrounding area (within driving distance) and the most-recent weather pattern. He deduces that the woman had come from ————–, the only place with a recent windy rainstorm within the appropriate radius. All of this within a minute.
    The writers of the show are sensitive to Holmes’s interaction with technology; they capture it on film better than anyone –overlaying text on the screen, Watson’s Blog, Holmes’s website, etc. The new Holmes applies technology faster and better than anybody –constantly texting, snapping photos, searching the web, etc. while remaining rooted in the actual world. Holmes knows so many things “by heart,” he can work with technology at lightning speed. His queries are ultra-specific. Because he has memorized the map, for example, he may use technology to search a small feature within it –whereas a less knowledgeable person will have to search the general in order to (eventually) get to the specific. Meantime, Holmes has already moved on to his next seven or eight conclusions and solved the case …all before Scotland Yard has put its pants on. Holmes’s knowledge accelerates his skills, and his skills increase his knowledge. He knows all of the scales. He “makes music. ”

    Let us encourage our students to be like Sherlock Holmes: to know things, to be masters of technology, to make music.

    Inspired by your posts,

    -M.C.

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