Module 3: Part 2: Defining Curriculum

I was blown away by Mark Slouka’s article: Dehumanizing. I have had a similar experience as the author when telling my then boyfriend’s uncle what I was studying in university. I told him I was an English major, and he asked, hopefully in jest, if I didn’t already know enough English. I told him English Literature, and he continued to look at me dumbfounded. He even questioned if that was a real degree a person could get. I didn’t know what to say. I mumbled that there were a lot of English majors at my university and it was a rather common degree. I felt like I had to defend myself. I felt judged. “Like the narrator in Mayakovsky’s “Conversation with a Tax Collector About Poetry,” we’re being forced to account for ourselves in the other’s idiom, to argue for “the place of the poet in the workers’ ranks.” It’s not working” (Slouka, 2009).

What about this Mayakovsky?

What do schools Teach?

Schools teach the subjects and topics that as a society we have deemed as important. The curriculum designers use philosophy as a basis for curriculum design which provides the goals of education, the subject content, and the organization. Unfortunately some school boards place a greater emphasis on topics and subjects that certain stakeholders have deemed more important. This is a sort of commodification of education. For example there may be funding from private companies to host a science fair, or to influence policy, like the No Child Left Behind Act in the United States, designed by business leaders to promote higher achievement marks. Curriculum results from a blend of curriculum design and instructional design. This is where a hidden curriculum can occur. Teachers decide what parts of the curriculum to stress and which resources to use. Schools also imply which subjects are important by the subjects they don’t provide. When school boards feel a crunch on time or feel like student scores in math and reading are low, the arts or physical education often suffer. Students may get the message that these subjects are unimportant or optional, by the treatment they sometimes receive.

What should schools teach?

Schools should think about all the skills, knowledge and attitudes they would like students to have when they graduate, and do some backward planning. How will our students get to that place? Schools should also teach students to become life-long learners, by allowing them to manage their own learning. According to Alan November, “We need to help students to design their own questions”  (November, 2014). He also goes on to ask “What kind of culture do we want in our classroom? What is the locus of control? How much do we want students to own their learning? How much do we want students to design their own learning? How much do we want them to be connected globally?” (November, 2014). I think students should be given regular opportunities to delve into what interests them. What are their needs, interests and aspirations? How can we guide them through thoughtful questions to get there? How can we make schooling more than just a means to an end, but a place where their interests, and questions are valued? We need to helping students to find joy and passion in their learning. We need to provide authentic, real world experiences to allow students to know what they are doing matters. We need to up the ante by inviting professionals and parents into the classroom to offer feedback and validate their work. Here are some other important skills or attitudes I think are necessary. 

  1. Financial Skills

When I taught on the reserve I did a little experiment with our classroom portable CD player. I asked the kids how much they thought it was worth. Some said $20, others said as high as $40. I bought an identical one, (the one in the classroom belonged to our school) at Canadian Tire for $42 and took the CD player to the local pawn shop and got $15 dollars for it. I asked the students how much they thought I would need to buy it back. I got a range of answers, but after some negotiation I bought it back for $25. So we lost $10 in order to receive a temporary $15 loan. Is that worth it? What kind of interest is that? When I was teaching on the Reserve, using a pawn shop was as natural as going to the corner store. We also discussed the risk involved, especially if the item was an heirloom or a wedding ring. What if the item was gone when you returned to collect it? Now, you are out more than just the $10, because you no longer have the item. I hope some of my former students remember the lesson of the CD player and think twice about using pawn shops. Students also need to understand the economics of not paying off their credit cards each month and how paying off a house or a car quickly, can drastically reduce the amount of interest they end up paying for those items.

2. Diversity, Ethics and Human Rights

Teaching these topics can foster open-mindedness and respect in the school community. If we want students to be able to interact with people on a daily basis or in a globalized society, we need to be aware of different religions, races, ethnicities, genders and how to relate to people who are different from themselves in one or multiple ways. It’s not enough to discuss diversity and human rights and ethics. We need students to reach a little deeper, by asking questions, researching the issues and coming up with possible solutions on how to enact change, or stand up for what is right.

3. Environmental Education

Students need to become stewards of the Earth. They need to know about fast-fashion, the impact of fossil fuels and living sustainably. I am originally from Alberta and my husband’s widowed aunt just bought a Porsche Cayenne as a 74 year-old woman. I wonder how she justifies needing an engine of that size and horse power, the gas it requires, and all that room, for just one person. This thread of environmental education that is woven through the curriculum, to be clear, isn’t about judging others, but looking at the environment from a variety of view points and rethinking wants over needs.

4. Nutrition

Nutrition should be included without propaganda from various industries. I watched a Jamie Oliver show in which he asked young students to name a variety of vegetables and they were unable to do so. Many children do not know where their food comes and what it looks like in its natural form. I remember going on holidays as a kid, and I was confused when I saw shrimp fully in the shell, with eyes, antenna and heads. I could have benefitted from that type of education myself. I was used to the deveined, de-headed, ready to cook version my family bought, or you would see in a restaurant.

5. The Habit of considering alternatives

Newkirk’s article really spoke to me in considering what is important to keep in a curriculum. I like the idea of seeing arguments, issues and even people through a process of wearing a variety of hats. I like The Six Thinking Hats approach. Students need to be able to question their point of view and begin to see an argument from another person’s side. Were you able to separate facts from feelings? Did your opinion change, or do you still feel the same way? Can you see now how others might disagree with your way of thinking? Why?

Beyond these particular ideas, I was impressed with the educational principles that guide Eagle Rock School in Colorado. The curriculum sounds like a utopia. If I had one wish, it would be for schools to focus on quality over quantity. I don’t like the idea that a Social Studies teacher would have three days to teach World War II, as mentioned in Newkirk’s article. I’m not sure how I feel about the school being funded by Honda, but the curriculum sounds progressive, compact, and yet robust at the same time. It seems to include all the key features of an innovative school. I looked at their website and the whole place looks pretty amazing.

6. Interdisciplinary Studies

This is more of a “how” than a “what,” but I think schools should focus more on teaching in an interdisciplinary way. Students need to know that everything is connected. We shouldn’t be learning in vacuum. I would like to see teachers working together to create cross-curricular units that emphasize integrative learning, critical thinking and creative problem solving. 

Who Should Decide?

I think there should be a multitude of stakeholders involved in developing the curriculum. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to have people from a variety of perspectives come together and find common ground. This is exactly why we need a variety of views to ensure not only one view point is represented. We need students, parents, educators, principals, superintendents and school board trustees. We need to gather the data about what is important to each group. We need to look at advantages and disadvantages as well as well as the school population and environment. Ask if some of these ideas are possible and what is the cost, scheduling, and ask important questions such as, has balanced been achieved? Once some sort of loose framework has been developed, we need to present it to the community and look for feedback on the areas where we don’t have consensus and meet back to reflect on the ideas. Designing a new curriculum is not easy, but a diverse number of opinions need to be represented to ensure the curriculum better reflects the students who will use it.

How Do Students Learn?

Students learn by connecting new knowledge with knowledge they already know. Students learn formally with carefully planned out lessons and students learn informally. Students passively watch their teacher put on safety goggles and show students a safe way to smell an unknown substance by waving their hand over the beaker towards their nose, for example. Students learn best, when they are actively learning. When they are asking the questions, when they are seeking out answers, or experimenting with materials. Students learn through reflection. “We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience” (Dewey). Reflection is a key skill to possess, as it allows us to judge and question our own beliefs and think about ways to improve in the future. Students also learn about the world from the people in their world. 

Module 3: A Simpler Curriculum

If I had the ability to simplify the curriculum, I would choose to include life-long skills to help students succeed and thrive in the future. It seems that more and more we are hearing about students suffering from anxiety and depression. If someone is going to have a fulfilling life, they need to know how to regulate their emotions, gain strategies to help them cope in stressful situations, and how to life more mindfully. I think as well as providing students with these strategies we need to model this behaviour for our students. I have been guilty of not modelling the best strategies with my students. For example, after coming in from recess supervision, I have run in, put away my coat, apologized for being late and breathlessly started teaching. What I should have done, is come into the classroom, let my students know that I need to calm my body and ask them to join me. I could have said, “My heart is racing and I ran all the way in from the far fence. Would you like to join me in closing your eyes and taking a couple of deep breaths? I will put on some music to help us relax.” Students need to see that we are not going to be at our best when we are stressed, gasping for air and frazzled. There is always time to take a few calming breaths to bring us back to our optimal state. I could then ask them how they feel and if they are ready to start.

I think I could also model better ways of being in the moment for my son. I am a planner and I like to over-plan my life. These days, there is not much to plan, due to the pandemic, but I am generally thinking about the future all the time. I would like to model the art of being in the moment. Taking time to observe our surroundings and appreciating the present. One way that helps me is to get out in nature. I read a book by Johann Hari called: Lost Connections. Hari believes that getting out in nature can have healing properties on our body. He claims it doesn’t need to be in a forest, but simply a green space in the middle of a city will do. He believes that our disconnection from nature is one of the reasons we have such high rates of depression in our society. So walking in nature with my family and taking my class outside to connect with nature is important. When I take my students out I ask them to feel the air, to look at the trees, to listen for sounds, and to recognize how they are feeling. The more insight kids have into their inner experience, the more they are able to choose appropriate responses.

Another way to achieve mindfulness is to teach students meditation. By teaching students meditation at a young age, we can build on this and help nature their mind development and make meditation simple and accessible when needed.

The next big overarching skill I would teach students is collaboration. I have learned so much about myself through collaboration with others. Collaboration is one of the skills you will need for the rest of your life. Students need great partners, terrible partners and every type in-between to reflect on a range of experiences. I remember being on our first ever graduation committee in our school’s history. There had never been a graduate on my reserve school until 2000. Students could attend primary school on the reserve, but they had to go to the neighbouring towns for secondary school. The year I arrived, we had our first graduate and another student who graduated from the Education for Living Program. This was a huge deal for these students, their families, and the community. We needed to do a great job to show all the students and families in attendance how significant this is. The graduation committee members I felt, were not as invested as I was. I remember I had tears at one point because not everyone was doing their job. I knew we couldn’t fail at this extra special event. When I reflect on this experience now, I realize that I needed something from my group members that I could not get. You cannot make someone care more. You need to communicate your feelings and see if the group can agree on certain concrete steps they will take and establish an effective time line. Students need to know they will face situations in which they are the only ones doing the work, and they will face situations in which some group members will want to take on a big part of the project and they may feel guilty for the lack of effort they put in. It is only through repeated exposure that students will gain the skills to help them overcome obstacles when working with others. Every collaborative experience allows us to reflect on ourselves, and see ways we can improve, or help us gain the skills necessary in negotiation.

Another skill I believe is key is service learning. Students need to see that helping others can have the result of helping them as well. Service learning can be taught across the curriculum and can help develop civic engagement skills, problem solving and critical thinking skills as well as empathy. Students can be involved in a needs assessment and help develop a plan of action. Collaboration will be essential during these projects both with classmates and teachers, but with the organizations or community groups themselves. Students will need to use communication skills, decision making skills and creative thinking. At one of my former schools, the older students volunteered at a local nursing home. The students developed strong relationships with the seniors as well as the staff. The stories they would share showed how special this relationship had become and it was a chance for students who did not excel academically to take on a greater role. They felt real connection and saw how important their contributions were to others. What an authentic, real-life contribution these students made. It is hard to know just how many skills students needed to use to make this project happen and the number of lives they touched along the way. I think service learning should be distinguished from volunteerism. I think students should be involved in a learning project every step of the way, and be responsible for the implementation and daily communication. I think if students volunteer at a nursing home for credits or to add to their resume, they may not feel any ownership over the outcomes of the experience. Not to say that volunteerism is bad, just often not as authentic of an experience.

I talked about this in my former post, but I think ecological education and sustainable living needs to be part of any education. I think about the commencement speech by Doctor David Orr, in which he states “All education is environmental education. By what is included or excluded we teach students that they are part of or apart from the natural world” (Orr, 1991). We need students to discover that everything is connected and your decisions have consequence. For some students living sustainably is a way of life, for others, they have more work to do. I think back to an interesting story about a girl in my son’s Grade 3 class who is from Sweden and takes environmental stewardship very seriously. The class was measuring mould on a variety of fruit. In order to control the variables, the teacher announced the lights would be left on for 24 hours. This student was not pleased about this announcement. She thought it was too irresponsible to leave the lights on. The teacher explained that if the conditions were different, it may account for the rate of mould growth on the fruit. They came to a compromise that the next day, they would leave the lights off for the entire day. This seemed to please her, and the experiment continued. At eight years old, some students have already been conditioned to understand the importance of doing their part for the environment. From my experience in schools, the student who are actively involved in ecological units are cognizant of how to make the school more sustainable, but that interest seems to wane after their units are over. I think we in Canada can do a much better job of showing students what they can do beyond the basics of recycling, reusing, and reducing. We started that campaign decades ago, and we need to move beyond the basics.

How does your simple curriculum align with your everyday role as a teacher?

I liked the way Newkirk uses the image of Gulliver being tied down by thousands of tiny ropes to compare our lives as a teacher. It can be true. I’ve worked for some inspiring people and I’ve worked for some controlling people who would rather be tough than fair. When I think of my “simple” curriculum, it can easily be dismissed by a school or school board that buys into the idea of grade books that spit out a regular flow of numbers to please parents, as Newkirk suggests. I think that is unlikely, but it is possible. One challenge I see in adopting my “simple” curriculum is COVID. I’m sure there are work arounds, but my idea of going to nursing homes or having students engage in other forms of service learning will have to be postponed, but perhaps Zoom, Skype or FaceTime could be used to reach out to seniors who need to be able to communicate with the outside world right now. The logistics could be tough, but it is possible. Another option is to actively work on a plan with students and we can carry it out once it is safe to meet again in person.

One area I realized I am lacking in after watching Sir Ken Robertson is the Arts. I am a big proponent of the arts, but unfortunately I don’t have a lot of experience teaching the Arts. I have taught Art and Music to my Grade 1/2 class, but not Drama, Dance or Visual Arts. I absolutely know the value of arts, but since it is not an area of strength for me, I did not think to include it in my “simple” curriculum. I think one of the reasons that Art feels intimidating to people like me is the rise of singing, and dancing competitions, like American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance. I have heard it said that most people used to sing and dance in the past, but since value has been placed on these skills professionally, many people have stopped engaging in these activities for fun or as a social activity. Now you are expected to be good, or to step aside. I should certainly add arts to my curriculum. The Arts can lead to an improvement in so many skills like perseverance, motor skills and confidence to name a few.

Resources

Newkirk, T. (2009) Holding onto Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones. Six Literacy Principles Worth Fighting For.

November, Alan (2014). Who Owns the Learning? Preparing Students for Success in the Digital Age. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NOAIxIBeT90.

Orr, D. (1991). What is Education for? Six Myths about the Foundation of Modern Education, and Six New Principles to Replace them.

Slouka, M. (2009, September). Dehumanized. Harper’s Magazine (38-40). https://harpers.org/archive/2009/09/dehumanized/

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