Repost: 5 Essential Questions About Curriculum

Originally published on July 15th, 2010

We’ve now spent some time in class grappling with some of the major curriculum theorists, with more to come in the next two weeks. As I grapple with some of the more personally challenging ideas that the study of curriculum brings forward, what areas of focus seem important to me and other practitioners in their classrooms? Here’s five:

How do we make curriculum work for us?

This is my question in response to the outright attacks on curriculum. I believe that as a contracted teacher to a school division, have a requirement to attend to curriculum. However, that does not mean that I have a responsibility to teach a curriculum in a certain way. If there are ways through the hidden curriculum (see question three), my own innovation or utilizing student ideas to make the curriculum come to life, I believe we have a responsibility to pursue those avenues. A curriculum may be a static document, but I hope our approach is to make it live in essential ways within our classrooms so that the students in our care get the greatest benefit possible from our connection to it.

How much weight should the explicit curriculum have in the classroom?

I have seen teachers completely ignore the curriculum, use only the parts they value as individuals, even list it off outcome by outcome without attending to those outcomes in meaningful ways. It makes question the value of a curriculum if a significant number of teachers don’t ‘buy in.’ If we live in a democratic society, why are teachers so disaffected by curriculum? I’m answering my question with more questions, but I feel that teachers should be teaching the curriculum, and if there is significant reason to resist the curricular documents, we need to search for a more open and expansive curriculum that teachers can take in the directions their students need and want. Rather than ‘checking up’ or standardizing what happens in classrooms, the real power of education comes from moving in the directions the learners wish to take their experience.

How can we make the ‘hidden curriculum’ draw the best out of formalized curriculum?

Assuming for a moment that we can’t move to a more expansive curriculum for some time, we certainly can use the hidden curriculum (the background tone of the classroom, the materials we present, the assignments we give, etc.) to create a sense of dissonance with the curriculum. I feel this is what I do in my classroom. We of course fulfill the outcomes, but not by formally teaching them. I don’t stand in front of the class rehearsing literary terms, we dig deeply into a piece of writing and ask questions about it, and we fill in the terminology based on what we notice. It becomes a less formal and far more involved method of learning, but it also requires a close connection to the class and students to ensure that everyone ends up with the learning they need. One of the more interesting outcomes of this learning is that students don’t feel the learning in the same way they do explicit teaching, as they internalize the learning in the process. From some students, I hear phrases like ‘we didn’t learn anything this year’ though their test scores and ability to discuss literature would prove otherwise.  Even our students become highly conditioned to expect a certain kind of learning, based on a certain type of testing and drilling; I’m always pleased when they change their perspective.

Would there be value in eliminating the formal curriculum?

I’ve often wondered about this question, and how I would structure my classroom with no curriculum, or even with a fairly open, abstract curriculum.  It would be such a shift to be able to tackle learning based directly on what I value and what I feel is in the best interest of the students I am teaching.  It would certainly cause me to pay closer attention to the needs of my students, as I would have to ensure that I tailored my curriculum around the collective strengths and weaknesses of the group.

Why are some teachers fearful of ‘digging deeper’ in their curriculum?

I love looking closely at curricular documents, and it’s a good thing as I often do just that in my mentoring work.  However, one thing I have noticed is just how quickly some teachers want to get out of those documents and into the ‘next steps’ in educational planning.  It’s as if they are in competition with the outcomes, or feel that their professional abilities are being challenged by the pages.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I believe many curricula are deeply flawed.  What I am getting at here is the fact that I would rather know my curriculum VERY well in order to cogently consider the implications of it for my students.  If we do not know our curricula well, we risk throwing out the bad with the good, and there is some good in there.  We just have to look, if we can break through our fear.

Curriculum is one of the touchiest subjects there is in education, because nothing else cuts so deeply into our pedagogy and the decisions we make daily in our classrooms.

As always, Thanks for reading, and have a great night!

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