Curriculum is Not the Answer

February 9, 2018

Before you start freaking out and telling me how important curriculum is in a school, let me preface this whole article by saying that yes, curriculum is a very important part of a school’s program. The purpose of the article is to clarify what purpose curriculum should serve, expound on my experiences using curriculum as a panacea, and explain why schools are still, at their core, a people business.

What Should Curriculum Do?

Curriculum, in its ideal state, should define the learning and pedagogical priorities of a school. There is a vast difference between offering a course called Basic English and Female Superheroes in Literature. Which one would you rather take? The content of any curriculum should teach kids technical skills in the context of ideas and material that is interesting to them. Sorry to all you “purists” out there, but I just don’t see much use for teaching Shakespeare to a bunch of middle school students. If you want students to learn how to read more difficult and complex material, why not give them options that focus on material that they can identify with and relate to? Additionally, curriculum should reflect the pedagogical preferences of a teacher, school, or district. If a curriculum guide is filled with worksheets, pages in textbooks, and amorphous ideas about concepts, then you can readily imagine what that particular classroom will look and feel like. If, however, you have a dynamic curriculum that includes ideas for project based learning, multiple means of assessment, is technology rich, and incorporates collaborative learning, then you can easily imagine an engaged and eager student body.

Are You an Expert or Something?

For four years I led the technology department at a technology magnet school with, more or less, the singular focus that if I could only find or write the perfect curriculum then that would solve every conceivable problem out there. Robby and I wrote a grant proposal that ended up getting funded for $20,000 a year for three years to write and develop a class called Innovative Minds, whose focus was solely on having middle school students use technology to solve real world problems. We added courses where students learned to code by developing their own videos games; students built robots and programmed them to perform any number of actions; and students designed their own products using a computer aided design program that they saw come to fruition via a 3D printer. All of these were exceptionally cool ideas for curricula focused on having students learn difficult concepts in the guise of fun and interesting byproducts (games, 3D objects, apps, etc.) We were able to boost the demand for the school and become a model for how to use technology to enhance learning.

Teaching is Still a People Business

After four years of pursuing the curriculum path, however, we still continued to have gaps in achievement that were predictable by race. We continued to have periodic disruptions to learning from students who were not engaged or interested in the course content (although to a much lesser extent). After several years ruminating on this I came to the conclusion that curriculum is not the answer. Yes, we had much better course offerings and content within those courses than just about any other school out there. Yes, we figured out ways to make courses relevant to student lives and gave them choices about what and how they learned. At its heart, however, teaching is still a people business. And I say this with the knowledge that there were excellent teachers instructing students in the aforementioned technology magnet program. The quality of the individual that the students see every day makes a greater difference in student engagement then the content of what they learn. Students will learn about dramatically less intrinsically interesting subjects if they believe in the adult in their classroom, and know that the adult in their classroom believes in them. I can write the best curriculum in the world but if there is not a skilled instructor who can shape those ideas to the specifics of each of their students on a daily basis, then I can already predict the results in that classroom.

As schools continue to look for ways to engage students as 21st century learners, by all means examine curriculum and get the best of what’s available. Don’t forget, however, that curriculum alone will not magically improve a school. The deft hands of a teacher are needed to mold that curriculum to the needs of the students in their classroom.

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