Hansel and Gretel
Curriculum is . . .
Formal Education is Three Things: Curriculum. Instruction. Assessment. Always, those three components exist within ever-shifting political, social, and economic contexts. And — whew — those contexts have multiple layers which are often in conflict with one another: the classroom, the academic subject, the school, the community, the city/town, the state, American society… Every school day, each learner and teacher implicitly or explicitly negotiates (or not) those three educational ingredients, their contexts and contextual layers;
Curriculum is a Forest of Trees. Understood within this blog’s controlling metaphor, the leaf (tinier and necessary discrete skill) is related to the branch (topic) is related to the tree (subject or discipline) is related to the forest (the interrelation of all subjects or disciplines, much like an ecosystem);
A Powerful School Curriculum Devotes Itself to the Cognitive, Social/Emotional, and Physical Development of the Learner. Schools must own, fully, powerfully, those three kinds of curriculum. On the classroom-level, the most limiting, and common, understanding is to see curriculum as only the development of the learner’s brain. The best classroom-level curriculum appears to almost invisibly interweave the cognitive development with the social/emotional development;
Interdisciplinary Curriculum, When Possible, is Richer. Our schools, like our brains, create boundaries between things we perceive as different, such as grades (e.g., 6th, 7th, freshmen, junior) or subjects/disciplines (e.g., math, science, language arts, history, reading, English). While these boundaries provide helpful, maybe even necessary, categories for our learning to slot itself within our brains, these categories can also limit, at times providing unnecessary cognitive separation. Representing one form of interdisciplinary learning, joining American History and American Literature into one course is somewhat common and very sensible; another popular form includes creating question-driven, theme-based, skill-shared units which all subjects/disciplines co-develop in a thoughtful, planned way, such as “What impact will solar energy have on our use of fossil fuels over the next ten years?”;
Curriculum, Not Assessment, Must Drive the Transformation of Public Education;
Curriculum precedes Assessment, in Value to the Learning Process. Assessment is different than curriculum, and subsequent. Assessment is the professional judgment of how well the learner understands and engages the forest;
The Learner requires that Important Discrete Skills have a Larger Relevance. Learners forever ask, “Why should I know this?” This is not a great question – this is the great question! Understanding the variety of adverbials or the relevance of converting fractions to percentages or the influence of the Harlem Renaissance or the theories of Darwin, as examples, need context to the learner, continually provided by teacher, school, family, and society;
Education Needs a Common Critical Thinking Paradigm. “Critical thinking” is our society’s most commonly agreed upon, although vague, notion of a forest-level skill that the high school graduate should possess. So what is the definition of critical thinking? Many public education and for-profit curricula define that term, with some degree of conceptual overlap but little consistency of terminology and paradigm. Educators are left to infer what critical thinking means while implying to society that the learners have been taught it. The meaning and paradigm of “critical thinking” must be explicit and common. Presently, for example, most secondary school teachers, borrowing from state-level 12th grade exit exams, Advanced Placement or college entrance exams, and/or vague notions of what “colleges want,” construct our society’s critical thinking paradigm. This is not sufficient. In the high-stakes world of education, indeed of our society’s future, what common forest-level critical thinking capacities do we agree our high school graduates must have? What do the terminology and paradigm for that capacity look like? Such commonality would begin a sensible basis for school accountability and for the essential K-12 alignment of discrete critical thinking skills;
The Creative Part of Cognitive Development is as Important as the Analytic Part. The vast majority of American curriculum bends itself toward logical reasoning and problem-solving, increasingly so as the learner moves toward twelfth grade. In and of themselves, logical reasoning and problem-solving are important, necessary skills. But, it’s a matter of greater curricular balance: our learners learn too little how to create artistically and express themselves aesthetically. Our learners are required so little time to express themselves through the visual, cinematic, performing, dance, music, and literary arts. Paradoxically, stretching the creative part of the brain amplifies and intensifies the ability of the analytic part;
Some Curriculum, by its Nature, will be Controversial. In American society, we hold widely different perspectives on certain national and world historical and current events, some scientific and technological achievements, the value of particular literary and cinematic texts, some new curricular approaches to mathematics, and what should be taught in a middle or high school health class, all as examples. These sorts of curricular topics, due to our various perspectives on them, will be controversial. That’s a good thing. Controversy helps us to understand that the potential curriculum may in the middle of an important, albeit tension-filled, learning topic. Curriculum must be vibrant and pertinent, not removed, from the world in which young people will live — to the forces that compel that world toward change: the world’s variety of social, political, economic, environmental, and religious forces. Those wisely vetting such controversies in public education’s curriculum should use one criterion, which is not the degree of the curriculum’s controversy: given the intended age of the learner for the curriculum, what is the relevance of the curriculum to an as-objective-as-possible perception of the contemporary world?; and
Great Co-curricular Programs Reflect Great Curricular Programs. A school whose clubs and activities — such as student council, newspaper, yearbook, literary arts magazine, drama club, math club, environmental club, and debate — consistently do well, either alone or in competition with other schools, do so because the school’s curriculum creates the foundation for that. Co-curricular activities build upon that strong foundation.