How Modern is your Curriculum?

When I was started teaching (quite a few years ago,) I was told “the curriculum stops at the classroom door,” inferring of course that what happens inside the classroom can often be very different to what is ‘meant’ to be happening. The extent to which you believed this was a good thing or not depended on your views around professional freedom, and your confidence and trust in the professionals who have that freedom.

To some, it’s quite a trite saying, but when you dig a bit deeper I think that in some ways it summarises the dilemma many teachers face today. On one level, many hold a strong sense of responsibility to ‘get through the curriculum’, and in quite a number of Asian, French and some southern US schools in particular the adherence and reverence held for prescriptive curriculum is on the one hand most respectful, while on the other somewhat worrying.

In saying that, it’s not quite in mould of French school in the ‘50s when the Minister of Education could stand up in parliament, look at his watch and proudly announce “Its 9.45am and all Grade 3 students across France are doing spelling,” but in some cases, sadly not too far away from that.

On the other hand we have countries like New Zealand and Finland who pride themselves on the autonomy and professional freedom they grant their teachers, a ‘high-trust model’ as Richard Wells refers to it in his book A Learner’s Paradise.

“…you may be curious about how education works when teachers are trusted to choose exactly what, when, and how to learn with their students.

I use the word learn in the previous sentence quite consciously. A curriculum that does not state topics also does the very important job of promoting learning as an ongoing process rather than a fixed-term, predetermined experience that is somehow over when you complete your school exams.

New Zealand’s curriculum dedicates pages to how teachers should best maintain their own learning in an inquiry and collaborative model. The way it is written, our curriculum pushes teachers to model learning for students because doing so is one of the most effective ways to encourage lifelong learning in young people.”

This was further supported by a recent post from Tony Grey who is principal of a school in Hamilton NZ in our changeleader community, who said his school…

“…has undergone significant changes over the last few years into a more responsive environment based strongly on our beliefs around teaching and learning.

NZ has a wonderful curriculum document that encourages schools to embrace key competencies (21st C skills), rather than “content”. Many NZ schools are also doing exciting things regarding ILEs (innovative learning environments) and collaborative teaching.”

Such models should give us the incentive to rethink the purpose and possibilities of what we call curriculum, and take a fresh look at the role that it too often had in the past in inhibiting teaching potential and innovative practice. It doesn’t matter whether such limits were real or perceived, too often they became an innovation or change scapegoat and I think it’s time for us to challenge some of the assumptions on which traditional curriculums have been based.

To repeat what Ryan McClintock of the Mosaic Collective said in his excellent post on our changeleader community last week,

We must question each and every method and reason involved in education. Rigid school schedules (despite whatever magic happens inside a class and classroom) and a concept of “core” subjects are dated and completely unnatural to the ways of our modern connected world.

How much guidance should a modern curriculum provide around content, and/or skills or competencies, or should it in fact be seen as more of a strategic document, which provides a guide to delivering on a vision? It’s encouraging to see the developments in parts of the UK,  British Columbia and some other parts of Canada, where a more learner-centered perspective has been the basis for a comprehensive curriculum review, but unfortunately I continue to quote exceptions rather than the rule.

At the same time it’s no use lamenting the constraints of a traditional curriculum inevitably aligned with narrowly-focused high-stakes tests, when underneath is the reality that such compliance can at times be both convenient and comforting for teachers who lack the ambition to expect more from their students and the courage to make it happen. In lagging behind the shifts in the world around us, many legacy curriculum documents sadly show limited awareness of the scope and reach that technology-richness now offers students, and paradoxically they lower expectations because they ignore the almost unlimited learning opportunities our students now have.

It might seem unfair, but I think this dependency on outdated legacy curriculum is in fact unbecoming of the teaching profession. It’s not that we should be seeking a scope and sequence free-for-all, or the randomness of Summerhill; rather the development of a modern curriculum must start with shared beliefs around how our young people are learning today, together with the rigorous development of new pedagogies that liberate our learners to explore powerful ideas that were once never thought possible within the constraints of a traditional curriculum. It should be both provocative and challenging, based on principles, big ideas and essential concepts that open doors to learning far beyond what can be defined in any single document.

How modern is your curriculum? As a changeleader we’d love to hear your thoughts, and examples of what’s happening in your school.  Join us in our global community on facebook today.

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1 thought on “How Modern is your Curriculum?”

  1. Mark T

    kia ora (greetings) from New Zeland – your comments on New Zealand and their approach to our 46-page curriculum are correct, although there is a spectrum of variance in how this educator-learners implement this and how effective it is. We have been working with schools here and in Australia, and Dubai in developing an implementation sequence beginning with the competencies (we have experimented with, and revised these), as competence underpins the capacity for a learner-educator to take agency over their learning processes. This capacity then allows a realistic chance for learners to experience a personalised learning experience, that is moulded primarily by the learner themselves. The second phase is to ensure that learner-educators understand and can apply the Learning Process. Knowing how to learn requires a precise language surrounding learning, an understanding of their mindset and the learner recognising what stage they are working on at any given time within that process.

    The Learning Process is based on an emerging model for how the brain learns and what we now are beginning to understand is that our four+1 learning systems that are carried out in the brain are not all equitable. The notable exception here is the lack of equity surrounding learning via rote. By keeping this to a minimum (knowledge is introduced Just in Time), we have been able to substantially reduce the variance in outcomes for learners. What this model also shows us is the equity there is in building understanding based on a conceptual approach to learning. By using this approach, we have considerably reduced the time it takes for learners to understand concepts. Conceptual Frameworks are now beginning to replace the traditional thematic topics that were dominated by learning knowledge, something we can now access from the phone in our pocket. Knowledge is important and you cannot learn without this, but as stated it must be introduced Just in Time.

    If you are interested in this process, I can send you through a sample of the first of the resources that we will release in six weeks time. The total of three resources will define curricula globally, by creating a conceptual frameowrk curriculum that defines the competencies, the pedagogical processes surrounding learning and the concepts that sit within each of the learning areas/subjects.

    ka kite ano (farewell) http://www.MarkTreadwell.com ; mark@work.co.nz

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