Tony Gurr

The Mother of all Curriculum “Myths”

In Curriculum on 20/02/2012 at 10:20 pm

While “cruising blogland” this week (not sure if that little phrase is as suitable as it could be but my daughter is still telling me I have to stop saying “surfing the web”as it “shows my age”), I saw that a number of bloggers had “discovered” the work of those really sensible folks at ICG (Independent Curriculum Group).

I’ve been following the schools that make up ICG for some time – impressed by the fact that all of them are really walking-their-talk with regards “teacher-generated curriculum”.

Come on…who is not going to be impressed by a bunch of schools that know their stuff with regards student LEARNing and who put that stuff at the heart of their decision-making?

Apparently, quite a few of us!

 

What got the blogosphere buzzing this week was that the ICG schools had boiled their thinking down to a series of neat “sound bites” (sadly, sound bites still seem to get more attention than the serious thinking that underpins them these days) – and created a set of “myths”:

  • Basic Facts Come Before Deep Learning – This one translates roughly as, “Students must do the boring stuff before they can do the interesting stuff.” Or, “Students must memorize before they can be allowed to think.” In truth, students are most likely to achieve long-term mastery of basic facts in the context of engaging, student-directed learning. 
  • Rigorous Education Means a Teacher Talking – Teachers have knowledge to impart, but durable learning is more likely when students talk, create, and integrate knowledge into meaningful projects. The art of a teacher is to construct ways for students to discover. 
  • Covering It Means Teaching It – Teachers are often seduced by the idea that if they talk about a concept in class, they have taught it. At best, students get tentative ideas that will be quickly forgotten if not reinforced by a student-centred activity. 
  • Teaching to Student Interests Means Dumbing It Down – If we could somehow see inside a student’s brain, its circuitry would correspond to its knowledge. Since new learning always builds on what is already in the brain, teachers must relate classroom teaching to what students already know. Teachers who fail to do so, whether due to ignorance or in pursuit of a false idea of rigor, are running afoul of a biological reality. 
  • Acceleration Means Rigor – Some schools accelerate strong students so that they can cover more material. ICG schools are more likely to ask such students to delve deeper into important topics. Deep knowledge lays a stronger foundation for later learning. 
  • A Quiet Classroom Means Good Learning – Students sitting quietly may simply be zoned out, if not immediately, then within 15 minutes. A loud classroom, if properly controlled, included the voices of many students who are actively engaged. 
  • Traditional Schooling Prepares Students for Life – Listening to teachers and studying for tests has little to do with life in the world of work. People in the work world create, manage, evaluate, communicate, and collaborate, like students in ICG schools.

Now, lots of you might think that these myths are “pretty obvious” – but the fact that we still have so many “soft spots” in our schools and education systems (around the globe) tells me that these “myths” are, in fact, based on the “underlying assumptions” that guide the decision-making of many teachers, their administrators and schools and the ministries that (all too sadly) hold the reins of our educational systems – and that these assumptions remain “invisible” to many.

 

What was interesting for me was that the ICG myths were not, in the traditional sense, directly linked to the what we believe “curriculum” is all about – despite the very name of the group that produced them. However, the fact that so few of the myths might be viewed as “curriculum issues” shows the quality of thinking that these schools are engaged in…IMHO!

I have to say, however, that I felt the list was missing “something”…not just a few other myths that we could all probably add to the list…something “bigger”!

For me, there is a more sizeable myth that underpins the set suggested by ICG. This “mother” of all myths lies at the work of veteran educators like Harry and Rosemary Wong and has been most effectively hinted at (or “sound bitten”) by people like Ann Parker:

The myth is essentially this:

Curriculum is best conceptualised as “content” – arranged as “a teaching plan”

 

Now, I’m not sure where this “mother of all myths” came from – but we can feel its omnipresence in almost every corner of education. We find it in universities and the way (far too many) lecturers see their own curricular as being the “topics” they will “cover” and the “order” in which these topics are to be “delivered” to learners.

Wikipedia has also helped to promote this “understanding” through its “definition” of what curriculum is all about:

There are still many teachers in our primary and secondary schools that begin their lessons with utterances like “What page were we on last time”? – and then instruct students to turn to the next one for today’s lesson… It is this type of approach to LEARNing and TEACHing that has led many a teacher to believe that they could not possibly survive without the “textbook” – and has created the even more cynical and insipid version of this myth: 

Curriculum is best conceptualised as the content pages of our “textbooks”!

Wouldn’t publishers and their textbook writers just love this understanding of curriculum to win out?

 

The thing is that it wasn’t always like this – and the solutions to this “challenge” do not seem to be available on our present or future “list” of how to “fix” things in education. As we look at commentary on the “future of education” in today’s blogosphere and the solutions to many of the challenges we currently face in education, we keep coming back to one word – technology!

Sorry, that is just “dumb”

Technology is not going to “save” education – the quality of thinking from those involved in educational decision-making is going to do that. And, the starting point is challenging the underlying assumptions and myths that all too often dominate our decision-making.

 

The Greeks and Romans had nowhere near the technology that the average family home or teachers’ room has access to today – but they had a far superior conceptualisation of what curriculum is mean to be all about:

Far from being about “delivering the content on the course outline“ or “covering the textbook”, this understanding of curriculum got it “right” with its emphasis on purposeful progression and a predetermined goal. Yes, the Ancient Greeks and Romans knew that curriculum needs to begin where it ends – with the LEARNing of individual students and with the thinking of teachers and educators about how this can best be realised.

If we look closer at what the great teachers of the time “did” with what they “knew” about curriculum, we also see many things that are missing in more modern conceptualisations of what curriculum is all about:

  • A curriculum should answer the question “what are we here to do for our students” – it is the fundamental expression of our purposes, aims and convictions (as educators and institutions).
  • Curriculum thinking cannot be “divorced” from the values and beliefs of those involved in creating it. A great curriculum uncovers the underlying assumptions and aspirations that educators have for their learners and themselves – it is more than “content”, it is a “conscious educational philosophy” given “form” and “substance”.
  • Just as a curriculum needs to be seen as an expression of an educational philosophy, it also needs to be viewed as a framework of educational values that informs problem-solving on a day-to-day basis. A curriculum needs to “scream” this is who we are and this is how we do business – not simply list a series of dry topics to be presented by an equally dry teacher.
  • A curriculum has to be centred on LEARNers, their LEARNing and what they can do with that LEARNing…!
  • Effective curricular need to be more than about what we are TEACHing today (or Monday morning). Curriculum needs to move beyond “now” into the “future LEARNing” of students and graduates – and is only as good as the way it prepares learners to keep on learning after the experience of “formal education” is over and done with.
  • When teachers and learners only conceive of curriculum as a “document”, we might as well pack up and go home (these words are a “rough translation” of what Aristotle said). A real, breathing curriculum is one that teachers and learners see as an “on-going process of questioning” of what ought to happen and an “on-going process of problem-solving” with regards how to make that happen “in practice”.
  • Curriculum is a process, a process that gives us a way to imagine, explore, and critique ways of thinking about the purposes and practices of a curriculum. This very process helps teachers and educators “grow” as much as their learners – it allows them to revitalise their subjects and disciplines and look for more ways to cross traditional boundaries so as prioritise making a real difference to the real lives of their very real learners.
  • Assessment and curriculum are the “currency” used by teachers and students and they should embody the very nature of the relationships we hope to build in and out of the classroom. As such, teachers and educators need to have a central role in designing not only the learning opportunities and assessment activities – but also the curriculum itself. Before students can “own” a curriculum, teachers have to be invested in and believe in it.
  • Curriculum also needs to be viewed as interactive process of designing, experiencing, evaluating and improving what learners can do with what they know – this cannot be done by teachers alone, it is (or should be) a true process of “co-creation”.
  • If a “poor” curriculum is one that looks more like a “tick-box checklist” of things to be poured into the heads of students, a “great” curriculum is one that has at its heart a meaningful sequence and structure that involves iterative revisiting and expansion over time – and one that makes room for co-creation by students. Concepts, themes and topic areas need to be revisited with greater sophistication, learners need to be given opportunities to demonstrate earlier understandings and also be presented with newer challenges and projects imagineered to lead them to higher ability levels – challenges and projects that also explore their evolving view of both learning and the world they are building through that learning.

Perhaps, it is no coincidence that these ancient teachers did not have “textbooks” (or iPads) – neither did they have publishers, textbook writers and software developers constantly hawking their wares back then!

In a nutshell, we need to start viewing:

Yes, it is true that in today’s world content, textbooks and course outlines need to be factored in - but if we limit ourselves to these “components”, we are actually preparing the ground work for all of the myths that ICG have outlined for us.

If we do not include a vision of the type of “graduate” we are working to create (and not just a version for “wall decoration”), “teacher talk” will remain at the heart of the teaching processand covering “it” will still be equated with teaching “it”.

We need to see curriculum for what it really is – not a document (or table of contents from a textbook) but what we “do” with what we “believe” it is all about:

Curriculum needs to be about choice and principles (I “stole” that from Covey) – and those principles need to be:

Now, tell me if that ain’t better than the “myths” and their “mother”!

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  1. As usual, I appreciate this reflection. My students were shocked yesterday (the first day of the new semester) when I told them that they would learn more and better if I talked less and they talked more. Your blog addresses an ethos of teaching. There are other blogs that fill the need for good practices. At the same time… could you suggest some specific activities of your own that embody your ideas, or suggest a few websites that correspond to your idea of an effective curriculum? I don’t expect “CELTA in a nutshell,” but I do wonder what you think are specific, concrete examples of student-centered learning activities/exercises.

    • Hi Shawnda,

      Great to hear from you again (all good?) – And, you ask the “mother of all questions” – for blogs like mine ;-) Yes, I agree – lots of the things I post are more about “ethos” (another Greek word of “old”) and getting people (perhaps) to challenge their own thinking (or assumptions) and try something a bit different. The thing is that when we get to “concrete” examples for teachers, we’d probably end up writing a “Non-CELTA Book”.

      There’s lots of talk these days of “flipping” our classrooms – and one of the things I often suggest to people is to try “flipping” what you do in the classroom. Let’s take some of the myths. If you “feel” that the little myth about “teacher talking” might have more than a grain of truth, then try to run a lesson “without talking” – you can still run even the most traditional of lesson formats but simply “play dumb”. This is one of the toughest things for many teachers to do but the impact of a “silent teacher” does something wonderful to the level of “student talk” (and engagement).

      This “flipping” process has really turned up in the sights of teachers because of technology – uploading your “stuff” into the “clouds” and assigning it as “homework” that, in effect, “replaces” the class you were going to teach and “frees up” time to focus on the “good stuff” – talking to students and doing real-problem solving with them (see – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/businessclub/7996379/Daniel-Pinks-Think-Tank-Flip-thinking-the-new-buzz-word-sweeping-the-US.html) – but any teacher can ask themselves the question that Dan Pink poses at the end of this paper.

      For example, if a teacher “sees” that much of her teaching is about “telling” – she might try to flip that “process” by experimenting with “teaching by asking instead of telling”. The first step here might be to explore the type of questions she is asking (many teachers quickly realise that they do, in fact, ask mostly “demonstration questions”) – and then design lessons around the “real” questions that students actually have. This, in turn, requires a teacher to “find out” what questions students typically have – and use these to “design” or plan lessons.

      In the post, I said – “curriculum also needs to be viewed as interactive process of designing, experiencing, evaluating and improving what learners can do with what they know – this cannot be done by teachers alone, it is (or should be) a true process of “co-creation”. This also suggests another type of “flip”! Many teachers keep the curriculum they are using in the teachers’ room and use their lessons to serve up bite-sized bits of it. Actually, bringing it (wholesale) into the classroom, getting students to self-assess (self-reflect) where they are (by using the more popular “can-do” statements) – and asking students to “add” things that they really want to do (with what they are learning) is a great way to “co-create” the curriculum. This way “teaching” or “regular lessons”can be replaced by sessions that prioritise the immediate (and “explicit”) needs of students – this type of ownership and control works wonders for motivation.

      The challenge here is whether institutions actually “have” a curriculum that they can breathe life into with students – sadly, many do not – or if they do, it is largely “ignored” and replaced by a watered-down, textbook-based version.

      I think this is why I like many of the things that supporters of the so-called “Dogme Movement” (see – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dogme_language_teaching and http://www.thornburyscott.com/tu/Dogma%20article.htm) – while I am not a “Dogme convert” per se, I just know how well “Dogme moments” work and help promote authentic learning in the here-and-now.

      I could probably ramble on for pages – so I’ll stop. I have tried to share a couple of more concrete ideas – but guess I’ll need a few more posts to get to that “Non-CELTA Book” off-the-ground.

      Thank you for making me think ;-)

      T..

    • Shawnda,

      Just found this – a really good explanation of the suggestion I made earlier (DNT) – http://theotherthingsmatter.blogspot.com/2012/02/dnt-as-in-do-no-talking-can-ya-dig-it.html

      Take care,

      T..

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