Tag Archives: learning

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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Sit Down and Play the Drums

“You have to run before you can walk.”

This is good common sense to a lot of people. It’s good common sense in a lot of cases, too. If you’re a toddler, then yes, you’re going to walk first. If you’re learning to drive, learn to drive in a parking lot before flying down I-95 at rush hour. But with learning, there’s a lot to be said for a different adage: “Run! It’s fun! Learn how to walk later!”

Robert Duke shares a great story about teaching kids to play drums. It’s something I can relate to, having learned to drum at a young age– unfortunately for me, it was by using the practice pad he mentions @ 56:00 mark. This video is worth the watch. If you fast forward to the section from 54:00 to 1:02:00, you’ll catch up on Duke’s story about “getting to the good stuff first” in education.

If you didn’t watch the whole video, Duke talks about getting students to fall “in love” with a discipline by introducing them to the good stuff first– the kinds of things that make our subjects fun.  Too often, we as teachers think that we need to start with the essential elements of a discipline, the kind of drudgery that people in relevant jobs do because they have to– it’s part of the job.  Science students are taught the metric system, English students are taught the parts of speech, music students are taught scales.  These building blocks are important for mastery, for sure– but how many well-meaning teachers have driven kids away from loving a subject because they began with the drudgery, the painstaking fundamentals, and the things that need to be practiced and done over and over until you get to have any fun conducting experiments, writing stories, or playing a song?

Duke’s point is that instead, we need to hook students with the fun, then show them the elements they need to perfect their discipline.  And even then, remember to infuse the joy of doing the discipline into it– witness the history teacher who has students research the history of their house or their family first, before introducing the details of the transition from farm life to city life in the 20th century.

I immediately related to this when I watched this video.  As a musician, I’ve taught myself to play several instruments.  Without realizing I was doing it, this is the way I made myself learn– when I learned guitar, I figured out three chords and played along to “Sweet Home Alabama” before I even thought about practicing finger exercises.  I taught myself violin– one of the most technically demanding instruments, I’ve found, and after figuring out how to hold the bow, I learned a few easy fiddle tunes.  They were fun to play, so I that’s what I did.  Later, when I was “hooked” on the fun, I wanted to play scales– so I could learn more and better songs.  And it wasn’t drudgery anymore.  It made me imagine a kid loving the experience of Skyping someone in Montreal for French class, then wanting to learn French grammar and spelling so he could speak better and write better to his friend.

No one wants to play an instrument so he or she can play really great scales– it’s so that you can play a song.  But that same student might tune out and stop playing because scales are what his teacher tells her she must learn before she can experience the joy of playing a song.  Any teacher can take his or her subject and apply that same lesson– figure out what in your discipline is fun, and then let your students sit down and play drums.

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