Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Re-thinking Curriculum

What are the real issues that compromise U.S. and school curriculum?

Scenario #1: An Over-Crowded Curriculum
Robert Marzano has told us that it would take about 16 years for teachers to merely cover the U.S. standards recommended by the various national subject area organizations for a K-12 education of students. This obviously does not provide time for depth of learning or application. 

Scenario #2: Passion and Advocacy for Different Subject Areas
Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins offer the solution to identify what is most important within the curriculum, and I believe this is something most curriculum directors try to do in collaboration with teachers. The problem with this, however, is that usually the great teachers who want to be on curriculum writing teams are passionate about their subject areas and may not be ready to "lean the curriculum." This becomes further complicated on the high school level when courses may be recommended and designed by great teachers who have a passion for specialized areas of personal interest. 

Scenario #3: Lack of Curricular Balance
When passionate educators see particular subject areas as more important than others and there is not overall agreement on a sense of balance or proportion, then what remains is advocacy. Also national standards within different subject areas frequently advocate for their own allocations of time, resources, and facilities, and cumulatively this is not possible. The job of a curriculum director is to seek a sense of balance or proportion across the subject areas, but the fact is that curriculum is frequently a collaborative venture on a multi-year curriculum cycle. Therefore this sense of balance is not always simultaneously pursued across subject areas as new curriculum is being developed or upgraded. 

Scenario #4: A Reductionist Curriculum
Because schools and districts function within systems, there is often a belief that detailed content and skills need to be identified so that they can be consistently delivered by different teachers, so that learning results can be accurately determined, and so that teacher evaluations can be appropriately applied.

What is the fundamental problem with all four of these scenarios? The foremost problem is the asking of the wrong leading question: What are the real issues that compromise U.S. and school curriculum? The fundamental problem here is that the student is not dynamically a part of any of these conversations. Instead, the curriculum is being planned for the student as though learning occurs in a logical, concrete, and sequential manner. 

If we believe, however, that deep and profound learning is messy and requires a willingness to venture into the unfamiliar or unknown, then curriculum design needs to be approached differently. What are the starting points?

1. How do we really know each learner? What are his/her areas of passion, interest, talent, curiosity? What are his/her areas of prior knowledge and readiness for learning? What is his/her learning profile? Do we see these questions as token markers within differentiated instruction, or are we genuinely interested and curious about our learners and what is important to them?

2. What are the big ideas or concepts that are most important for students to understand in a K-12 education? How can we collectively "see the forest for the trees" in these big ideas and concepts, and how is this unpacked and deeply understood by educators? Do we error on the side of over-simplification of what is truly complex because we believe a lock-step education outweighs the value of density and inquiry?

3. What if complexity was further reinforced through appropriately challenging levels of problem-based and project-based learning where knowledge and skills are inherent within authentic work? In this way long curriculum lists of knowledge and skills could be replaced by robust problems and projects that fully engage students in real life learning and applications of learning. 

4. How do we authentically invite students to be co-designers in their own learning so that students and teachers are fully engaged in a journey of inquiry and discovery together?

5. What are various ways that students can demonstrate their understanding of big ideas and concepts in ways that are not necessarily sequential or according to "pacing guidelines?" How can students further apply their learning to different real life situations and connect with others in the world?

6. How can learning become more about dispositions for learning, so that the student becomes increasingly self-aware of his/her own goal-setting and progress?  And how can assessments become more internally driven by students than externally driven?

In short, how can the entire system of education become more respectful of the learner in creating a trusting, inviting, asynchronous, and collaborative environment where learning is authentic, exciting, and meaningful for them?  For curriculum, I believe we need to meet our students in the middle. As educators, we bring forward those essential areas of learning that also create openings and opportunities for new and unplanned areas of learning. As educators, we engage in this enterprise because we believe our students are also our teachers. 

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