Saturday, March 07, 2009

What is great curriculum?

Ever since Jerome Bruner and his followers at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and elsewhere began thinking about curriculum in new ways half a century ago, the word "curriculum" has meant something more than a an orderly collection of facts to be learned in order. Most educational leaders have embraced constructivist principles, refined over time to include a host of concepts from "planning backwards" to authentic assessment and experiential learning. The Big Topics of our day--multiculturalism, sustainability, globalization--have become interwoven with traditional subject areas, and concepts like "teaching for understanding" and "habits of mind" are part of the argot of good teaching, whether in New Progressivist schools or traditional ones.

But the question remains: What makes great curriculum? What separates excellent curriculum (and assessment) and the outstanding, lasting learning that it generates from ho-hum, average or poor quality learning designs and experiences?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote here about the Independent Curriculum Group and its efforts to support schools that want to create their own high-level curricula and separate themselves from the College Board's Advanced Placement program. In yesterday's Washington Post, columnist Jay Mathews, an AP enthusiast, let loose a surprisingly shrill--for Mathews, who is usually pretty measured even when standing up for his favorite ideas--critique of some of the ICG's assertions in a spirited defense of AP curricula.

The issue, whether for Mathews or the ICG or any thoughtful educator, is the nature of quality curriculum. Educators have done a wonderful job of designing curriculum, and we've disseminated a world of terrific ideas among ourselves, but we have done a lousy job of engaging the public at large in understanding what quality means. For most people, "excellent curriculum" means lots of homework, the mastery of plenty of facts--the more obscure the better--and standardized tests to measure the result.

It's poor stuff, and we owe it to the students that we teach and to generations yet to come to explain ourselves better.

So often curriculum, and education in general, is seen as a succession of either/or issues: factual mastery or fluffy opinionating, bubble tests or fatuous essays, old math or New, phonics or whole language.

We know, however, that our work is all about complexity--the many kinds of minds in our classrooms, the material we teach, and the ways that we must teach it. Complexity, as well know, doesn't sell newspapers or broadcast media advertising time, and it almost never, alas, wins elections.

So we need to agree on some basic principles of excellent curriculum, and we need to make the story simple, and I'd like to propose a start.

Excellent curriculum, to borrow and reapply some terms from Tony Wagner's work, must be rigorous (although I like the term "intellectually challenging" a whole lot more, because it doesn't sound like a form of torture or the stiffening of a corpse's joints) and relevant.

We've also been reading lately about so-called "21st-century" skills that need to be included in excellent curriculum: collaboration, creativity, problem-solving, and all the skills required to make use of current and emerging technologies. Good teaching has included these elements forever, I think--back to Socrates, who wasn't exactly a slouch when it came to getting his entourage to think in new ways about difficult matters and whose dialogues are almost all group discussions. Collaboration as part of learning isn't exactly a new idea, any more than the application of the latest technology. Whatever the provenance of these ideas, though, they must be included, I think, under the rubric of "relevance."

Contextual relevance seems to bother many people when the concept is applied to curriculum. It's as if authenticity is somehow antithetical to actual learning, that problems or questions stripped of any relationship to the real world are somehow more real, harder, more about learning than others. No matter if every other aspect of human experience and endeavor is anchored in real life, "real-life" curriculum is suspect--perhaps the more so if it's connected to those 21st-century skills. Nevertheless, it must be regarded as an essential characteristic of excellent curriculum.

The Independent Curriculum Group can earn its salt, I think, by becoming a locus for serious discussions of serious curriculum. There's a lot of good stuff around, but what's missing are some benchmarks for excellence--not just for top-level courses equivalent to the aspirations of, say, Advanced Placement or the International Baccalaureate, but for every discipline at every level.

Intellectually challenging and relevant--to the individual needs as well as the lives of students--seem fundamental to me as characteristics of excellent curriculum.

These sound simple enough, but the next steps, adding detail to flesh out benchmarks by discipline and level, are of course much harder--more complex.

What do readers think?


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