Curriculum — and What It Isn’t

Philosophy of Education  

Have you got one? Why should you have one? What are the main areas?

Contrary to my MA in secondary education, I don’t think this has anything to do with constructivism. That’s a pedagogical style, not a philosophy. Instead, I offer you these four contrasting ideas in tension with each other.

  • Utilitarianism: Get a good job. Otherwise known as Margaret Thatcher’s vision of education. You learn so that you get a job so that you can support yourself. With this underlying philosophy, it’s perfectly reasonable to cut out art and music—they don’t directly contribute to jobs, right? Science? Only the kind you get paid for. Etc. I will say that there is virtue in doing a job – we cannot all “do what you love” and so we do need to teach our children skills that will contribute to their future economic success in our society.
  • Citizenship: Become an active member of our democratic society. The logical extension here is the Sudbury style school, where students have equal say with the teachers, and students are responsible for their own education, just as citizens are responsible for their own behavior in a democracy. While I’m not a fan, I must agree that our students do need to know how civics works in our society.
  • Self-Actualization: This is a loose aggregation of ideas that culminate with unschooling. Our job as teachers is to help students develop their own interests, skills, and talents, whatever those may be—for their own use. In this idea, project based inquiry and differentiation pull the teacher in 30 different directions, because the teacher has 30 different students who are all interested in their own thing. To me, this philosophy is actively against the concept of school, where students come together as a group and learn together.
  • Liberal Arts: Truth, beauty, and goodness. Students learn truth by analysis, whether it’s math to be able to double-check mortgage payment amounts using financial equations, science to evaluate claims about the effects of climate change, or reading the fine print on cell phone contracts. But also, students learn about the beauty of literature and the fine arts, because teachers train students’ taste in poetry or painting. And goodness, not just in the religious sense, but also in the goodness of humanity and what it means to be good to teach other. Which can, yes, include an understanding of the justice in social justice.

Content Standards and Objectives

Once you’ve determined your philosophy of education, then you can decide on your content standards and objectives (CSOs). If you don’t value art, then you don’t need a standard for art, do you? If you’re solely in self-actualization, then the only content standards you’re concerned with are the ones that your student is interested in, and so on.

What should your 18 year old know, as a legal adult? What’s the minimum? The maximum? What of that can or should be taught with formal academics? Taught in the school setting? How must these skills be developed over time? What would that look like at 16? 12 years old? 8 years old? 4 years old? How do you build and reinforce the knowledge, skills, and abilities within and across disciplines? Good content standards and objectives are a bit like DNA’s double helix: spiraling from year to year, revisiting the same themes and content, going more in-depth each year, held together by links across subjects.

Is this sufficient for education? No, in the same way that DNA does not an organism make. Do we need CSOs? Absolutely. Is a good CSO set complex and difficult to understand? Mmhmm. Is it excruciatingly specific, with detailed levels of complexity and exemplars at each grade level? Yes. Does it reference how the concepts progress within each standard and grade? Across grades? If not, perhaps you want to look elsewhere.

Scope and Sequence

Finally, drilling down into a single subject, or group of closely related subjects (I’m looking at you, science and social studies), you need to correlate those standards with the actual material you’ll be using in your teaching. It’s taking a 3-D object and spreading it out into a 2-D checklist. That checklist needs to be carefully sequenced, to ensure that prerequisites come first.

Does it cover that standard? Yes? On what page, or text, or unit, or even semester? Good curricula will have this already done for you, but the quality of any given scope and sequences varies widely, because even specific content standards are vague.

For example: “Plan and conduct an investigation to describe and classify different kinds of materials by their observable properties.”

  • How much planning is required? What kind of detail is required in the plan?
  • Conduct how, exactly? What kind of documentation is required for the conduction? What about lab safety? How do you do this in a classroom?
  • What qualifies as an “investigation”? Can I just send kids to the park and ask them to come back with different things? Or bring random objects from home? Are these grad students working with unknown samples from a comet? How much guidance should I be giving here?
  • How much detail should be on that description? What keywords am I looking for? Are they to write it in complete sentences? Paragraphs? Maybe we should record a video. 
  • What kind of classification structure (or structures) should we be using? Are we going to talk about the states of matter? How should we describe gasses to our students? If we talk about states of matter, are we going to phase-change the material? Isn’t that kind of dangerous in a classroom?
  • Are we going to test the materials? If we talk about hardness, are we going to bring up the Mohs scale?

All this, and we haven’t even talked about what an “observable property” is, much less with students who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing, or blind or visually impaired.

What grade level would you assign this standard to? Would you be surprised to learn it’s a second-grade standard in the Next Generation Science Standards?

So, a scope and sequence that says we cover that standard in Chapter 3, or Lesson 27, or with Unit 5 is necessary, but again, vagueness works against the quality of the underlying match, which in turn is crucial for good implementation of the standards. A checked box on a list doesn’t tell you whether the material considered all these questions and answered them. I have a feeling that major publishers hire this out to grad students in garrets, when the fidelity of the match, checking off concept coverage, is actually vitally important.

Curriculum

Now that we’ve decided our philosophy of education, created a set of content standards and objectives, correlated those with a given set of material via a scope and sequence, we get to look at curriculum. A good curriculum will be written by instructional designers and subject matter experts. It won’t necessarily be designed to meet specific content standards and objectives (that’s what the scope and sequence ensures). But, the inclusion of an instructional designer offers the promise that someone has thought about the proper sequences of material for best learning, designed activities for learning that work with a given age and skill level of students, and created standardized assessments.

A good curriculum will come with a pacing guide, which is a tool, not a prison. How long does it typically take a class of students to grasp adding like fractions? A day? A week? A month? Given an experienced estimate, you begin to see the limitations inherent in your school year. You can only cover so much material. You can also use it to judge your teaching—if your students always take longer than the pacing guide, maybe it’s not them. Maybe it’s you.

A good curriculum will also come with questions with sample answers. It’s easy to create a question, but it’s much more difficult to create a set of realistic answers. You need to know the standard to which your students will be held by others. You need to know what a grade level answer to that specific question looks like, so that you can help your student reach that standard. CSOs sometimes have proficiency guides for various standards, but that doesn’t help you on page 17 of Frankenstein.

A good curriculum will also have prompts for you, the teacher. “Don’t forget to mention the theme of ____ on page 26. Note the literary allusion _____ on pg. 27.”  Or, in another subject, it might look like an already created problem set with 80/20 old/new questions, with interleaved, interval spaced, varied question sets, complete with tips about common errors to warn students against.  This sort of thing is like having a mentor in the text, someone who’s got your back when the baby was up at 3 a.m., and your coffee machine broke.

Finally, a good curriculum will have regular assessments that are professionally designed (a psychometrician is a real job), and useful to both you and the student. Remember, formative assessment forms your teaching, and summative assessment sums up what your student has learned. You need both for good teaching. These are different from learning activities, such as drills, rehearsals, or other exercises.

A good curriculum will have all of this as a group in a unit, that is itself set within a thematic sequence, which is then placed within a year, or grade band. Then, in that curriculum, the next year will have picked up on the material that you covered last year, and go back into it, in more depth and with greater expectations for your students, in accordance with your philosophy of education. A utilitarian won’t ask the same questions or assign the same problems as someone devoted to self-actualization, or someone interested in the liberal arts. That’s OK! But you need to know what you’re dealing with.

 Teaching

You may have noticed that none of this actually talks about how you run your class, or your pedagogy. These are all just tools in your toolbox. In the classroom, you’re the one who gets to decide whether to skip that bellringer provided in the curriculum, or whether you want to switch curricula because it doesn’t conform with your philosophy of education, or even to use the scope and sequence to switch around units, because X isn’t really a prerequisite of of Y.

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