Tag Archives: problem-solving

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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The Three Steps to Problem-Solving

Every day, I see school problem-solving efforts started and stopped, and started again and stopped again. Or they meander, with no one being sure exactly what should be done first.  Or one person burns out after carrying too much of the load.  Or projects fizzle out because they lose shape and the people involved lose track of who’s supposed to be doing what.  The English teacher in me wants to quote Yeats:

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”

That’s one of the most ominous lines of poetry ever written.

There are so many good ideas for solving what-seem-to-be-intractable problems whizzing around schools, but so few turn into anything actionable.  I see good projects implode at three times: the start-up phase, the refinement phase, and after it’s been running for a bit– the “loss of inertia” phase. I’ve found that there are three steps that need to be taken when problem-solving.  Following them, I think, can turn a good idea into action, and keep it up beyond the honeymoon, when everyone’s excited over what’s new.

1) Collaborate

We as a society are miles beyond the need to address our problems on our own.  We work in schools with dozens of professionals, and hundreds or thousands of kids.  We can connect to other teachers and school leaders through email, Twitter, Diigo, wikis, Facebook, and an endless list of educational journals.  There is great wisdom in crowds, as James Surowiecki and Francis Galton know, and solving problems together harnesses the brainpower of everyone involved.  I had been a life-long individual problem-solver, and until recently I wasn’t convinced about the wisdom of crowds.  But after working on deep, entrenched problems like achievement gaps, outdated curricula, and ineffective, teacher-centered instruction, I’m convinced that one person can’t do it all, can’t see every possible solution, and can’t have every experience on which to draw.  There are giants on whose shoulders we can stand, and there is great power in collaboration, networking, and teamwork.

2) Articulate

Teaching vocabulary and literary devices made me see the power of articulation.  My students could always read definitions, but not until I forced them to put things in their own words did they truly grasp what an unusual or complex word meant.  The dictionary definition for irony always fell flat, for instance– but try articulating it in your own words, and it becomes understandable to you.  Or try poetry.  Or metaphor— and you can’t use the phrase “without like or as.”

Until you can articulate exactly what’s wrong and exactly how you think it should be, you can’t effectively work on a solution.  Putting things into words has power– witness anyone who’s ever written down their thoughts in order to see how they really felt about something (Author’s note to himself– insert mirror here).  Articulation lets collaborators define the problem, map out specific solutions, and be on the same page in their efforts.  This might be the hardest of the three steps, but it’s the fulcrum on which the others hinge.

3) Sustain

Good problem-solving efforts are only as good as they can be sustained.  If you’ve created a wonderful student rewards program that has students reading like never before in exchange for points they can redeem for more books, you’ve created every educator’s dream.  What you haven’t done is make sure that the program continues once you leave the school to become an administrator, or a writer, or a teacher somewhere else.

So how do you ensure sustainability?  The best way is to find ways so that more people have a stake in the project.  If it’s just you, you are the project.  If a group is responsible for the work, there’s more structure and stability.  If everyone is invested in the solution– here’s why school-wide buy-in is so essential– the solution can be more intractable than the problem once was.

Another provocative line from Yeats’s poem is

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

If that’s not enough to motivate you, what will?  Problem-solving is never easy; every school has unique challenges and roadblocks to get through before success.  But we must be up to the challenge, and find not just the necessary passionate intensity, but the kind of systematic collaborating, planning, and following through that changes the unchangeable.

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