Tag Archives: curriculum

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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Some Thoughts and Three Questions About Curricular Experiences

Part of my job involves writing curriculum.  For a long time I found it really hard to wrap my mind around exactly what that means.  Was it just thinking up some neat courses for students to take?  Was it reading through pages of complicated standards, and making sure that some class everyone took covered every one of them?  Was it even something that you could do well— and if so, how?

As I kept teaching, and then became a curriculum director, I saw that deciding a curriculum meant thinking about two things: first, what was it that students should know or be able to do; and second, what should students have to do in pursuit of that knowledge and those skills?

Depending on your school, the word “curriculum” is tinged with either freedom and excitement or restriction and rules.  It might be about learning, or it might be about coverage.  It might be a flexible, living set of ideas that can grow and shift to include new ideas, or it might be doctrine, a set of laws as immutable as the periodic table– which, maybe some chemist will tell me, actually can be mut-ed.  My hope is that when thinking about where students need to be and what they should do to get there, a few things will happen.

First, get the students’ input.  One thing that looking at 20th-century curriculum history tells us is that using a series of outside agencies, think-tanks, and other groups to decide what students to learn might be a good way to increase rigorous content, but it leads to a lot of back-and-forth.  Any time you have one group saying we need more math and science, there’s another saying that we need more art instead.  It’s the back-and-forth that’s behind the “reform wars” that prevent a whole lot from getting done.  It’s not to say that all outside agencies are bad; the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, for instance, does a great job of figuring out exactly what those skills are.  But an agency that says its agenda is the secret to improving schools is necessarily short-sighted.  Schools don’t need just more math or just more art– they need more everything.   Asking students what they might want to learn about sounds simple enough, but as the professionals, it’s easy to get caught up in fighting our own battles, and lose sight of what the students in question might want to learn.

Second, involve the teachers in writing curriculum.  Curriculum specialists are all well and good, but since the teachers’ job is to enact the curriculum, they can’t be treated as soldiers who simply carry out orders.  Maybe the most leaderly thing a curriculum director can do, paradoxically, is give leadership away to those who will bring the curriculum to the students directly.  Treat the teachers like professionals, and give them their say.  That’s what leads to buy-in– a whole-school effort and everyone on the same page.

Maybe the most important, and final consideration when thinking about a curriculum is to ask these three questions:
1) Does the experience ensure the best opportunity for mastery of the subject matter?
2) Is the experience provided in a way that fosters the development of 21st-century skills and habits of mind in students?
3) Is the experience grounded in relevance and real-world application?

If a new curricular experience– a new course, an assessment, a trip, a collaboration– fulfills these three requirements, then it’s probably worthwhile.

Thanks to all my readers out there– I wish you all a wonderful holiday and a very happy new year!

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