It’s easy for teachers and schools to create a curriculum. This comment was made in a recent Modern Learners book chat on Timeless Learning. It’s easy, really? I’ve spent a lot of time creating curriculum and codifying objectives. Literally, I’ve spent years creating, reflecting, and fine-tuning. It’s difficult to figure out how the learning will take place and find a logical plan for content to be explored. It was hard to create it. So, that comment made me pause. And, I know many of you would argue with that point, too.
But, if I am being honest with myself, they were right. By creating a curriculum, teachers plan all of the learning that will take place. We create tasks, write tests, and develop daily lesson plans ahead of time. In doing so, we put a limit on what we teach; therefore, we put a limit on what students learn. It gives us an out. When a student asks why they need to learn this, we can come back with authority, “It’s part of the curriculum.” Or, if a student is curious about a topic, we can tell them that topic will be covered later or next year or in a more specific course. We essentially take most of the thinking and student voice out of the learning. A curriculum that is planned out asks kids to be compliant instead of curious. In the end, that’s easy.
So, what’s an alternative?
We come up with questions that will lead to inquiry. We create conditions to tap into what they are curious about and show them how the content is present in what they already want to learn. We push their thinking through different lines of questioning and give them resources that will challenge them. We get them to research. We force them to make their thinking visible. We ask them to collaborate with others and share their learning. We get them to reflect on what they learned, how they learned, and what they should do next.
I know what you’re thinking. What about standardized tests? Who are these magical kids that are self-directed? Students who are learning for themselves will read, write, explore, and think more than those who are forced into learning. If they do the four things, they will excel on standardized exams because they will be learning for themselves. As for the magical kids, all students are curious. They might not be curious about what we are teaching, but they are curious because all people are curious. So, the “magical kids” are all kids. The barrier is the learning conditions. If you allow kids to learn the way they learn best, they will.
What does that mean for your class?
Start with a question. One that is open-ended and allows for multiple paths and potential answers. I quit concerning myself with the summative assessment and how it will go in the grade book. Quit concerning yourself with summative assessments and how it will go in the grade book. Let students learn. Let them debate the question and come up with the way to present their new understandings. Let the assessment be created by the students, monitored by the students, and for the students to make sense of the questions they asked and the content they explored. It’s hard to let go and be that free. But, try it for a few days, reflect on it, then try it again.
It’s not our fault. We have been trained to do this. I’m not throwing anyone under the bus. Teacher training, our own experiences, and professional development are largely geared towards the traditional model of school. Even American culture wants more accountability in schools, which would continue to favor the traditional model.
The American values put pressure of what the traditional, rigorous classroom looks like. Imagine a guardian of a student walking into two different classrooms. One where students have a book out, filling in a packet, taking diligent notes with a clear content objective to cover a particular topic by the end of the period. Or another, where students are talking about individual projects and are at all different places with the teacher bouncing around the room to engage with as many of the students as possible. We have to overcome the historical legacy of the traditional classroom and the easier metrics of learning. It’s easier to collect learning data on students for content acquisition, rather than the more difficult task of collecting data on engagement, questioning, writing, reading, and critical thinking.
Now I get why they said it was easy.
It’s easier to create the final assessment that allows you to ignore the students’ interests along the way. It gives you an out and a reason to shut down the things kids want to explore when they want because it’s not in the curriculum. It becomes the students’ fault for not learning the things you wanted them to learn at the pace you predicted they would learn. You told the students explicitly what you wanted them to know and some still couldn’t get it. Furthermore, a teacher can be blamed for not having the right curriculum. If only the teacher would find the elusive right book, right scope and sequence, or the right material, they could be better. Finally, a school can be blamed that their kids are not being as successful as others. They can be fixed by having someone with THE MAGIC CURRICULUM that is PROVEN to work.
In the end, that’s a lot easier than learning together with your students, tapping into what they are interested in, being flexible in the learning environment that allows for choice and agency. That is an art. It takes immense skill to give the freedom to learn in a classroom. There isn’t a silver bullet. It takes a lifetime to continually work at because each year new kids with different interests and ideas come into your learning network. That. Is. Hard.
A huge thank you to Kim Miklusak for editing this post and her constant willingness to debate me on pretty much everything.
One of the best parts about being a member of the Change School/Modern learners community is the ability to interact and get to know people like you Mark. I was excited by the number of teachers who reacted to your post yesterday and who demonstrated a desire to learn more and that desire to learn more is what I want to comment on.
When I look back at my own schooling experience I sometimes wonder why I am the kind of learner that I am. What was it about my schooling experiences that made me so curious, prepared to challenge the status quo, always looking for creative solutions to better serve the students I worked with? Upon reflection I put it down to a few educators I was fortunate enough to have in my educational journey. Teachers who allowed me to read books that I selected and was curious about. Teachers who allowed me to write plays and perform them with my fellow students. Principals who would stop to ask me about what I was writing and what I was thinking about. History teachers who would start off each class with some kind of outrageous statement or opinion that immediately incited the class to argue, debate and question. And history teachers who stopped everything we were doing and allowed us to watch the Watergate proceedings so we could debate the meaning of democracy and what it meant to move towards impeachment proceeding. It wasn't on the curriculum.
What I think many of us don't realize is that when we are wedded to the curriculum, the person who works the hardest is the teacher. All that marking, all that lesson planning, all those lectures, and the person who learns the most, the teacher. We have to do the research, the planning and the developing. It is why we become so competent in our particular subject or area. We did all the work but is that what we want learning to be?
In a recent TedTalk Sugata Mitra said he felt the biggest threat to the 21st Century was the growth of dogma. I think he might be right. We don't want a factory approach to education in the current world climate. We need our students to find their voices, we need them to challenge, to question, to be passionate and to be prepared to challenge the status quo. We need to create the citizens of the future who are going to champion the issues so critical to the survival of our globe. That won't happen when the hardest working person in the classroom is the teacher. We need to change our stance to being an activator and head learner in the classroom. How do we create a curriculum for that?
A teacher in my building was reading your comment about the hardest working person in the room is the teacher. It struck ancord with him and many others in my building. It spoke to him and he appreciated your comment. I think voice is key. How do you get kids or people to say what they want to the people they want? The world has problems but we have a generation that could solve them if we don’t drive compliant, status quoted thinking into them. As always, thank you for sharing.
Mark, early on in my career our athletic conference hired Harry Wong as a presenter. I remember him saying that at the end of a school day he was ready to go out and play 18 holes as he was full of energy and all of his colleague were too tired because they had been doing all the work that day! I remember our principal purchased his cassette(yeah, a cassette, it was that long ago!) and I borrowed it and listened to it repeatedly as I drove to and from a conference several hours away.
Now, I know it worked as I have a colleague who had three daughters all of whom were my students. She loves telling this story to me about her youngest; "Mr. Feurer is a horrible teacher, he expects us to do all the work!" BTW that daughter is now a pharmacist!
They should be doing the work!