This post is among the first in what will be a series of posts about curricular design, and, just to be upfront, I will begin with the admission that I am rather fond of curriculum guides that spell out standards and outcomes and what not. I enjoy reading things like the Common Core standards or any number of subject specific guides in the various states in the US or the Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland or the National Curriculum in England. I find them comforting in much the same way that, when I vacuum a rug or cut my grass, I truly enjoy those few minutes of pleasure in seeing my universe structured in neat lines and in proper order before it devolves back into the chaos of life as lived. I know that this admission could be a huge turn off for readers, so I had better explain.
For the most part, I will admit that curriculum guides (in both the United States and the United Kingdom) are written in a style that always strikes me as if the people producing them are divinely inspired and are writing in collaboration with medieval monks who have been channeled up for rhetorical guidance. I get the logic of a “Standard” divided into “Strands”. I like to think of myself and others devoted to a “rigorous” curriculum. “Rigor” probably would make this a better world. It certainly makes my life seem less sedentary. And structure appeals to me. I am not in the least put off by that. The world can be a pretty random and chaotic place, and these documents give me solace. For example, when I read that, according to Common Core Reading standards, students in Grades 11 and 12 should be able to “Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain” ( http://www.corestandards.org/assets/CCSSI_ELA%20Standards.pdf ), I could almost whisper “Amen.” It makes me feel like Nick Carraway standing on Gatsby’s lawn and wishing “… the world to be in uniform and at a sort of moral attention forever”.
Yet, personal reservations aside, the establishment of standards for students (as most curriculum guides do) seems to be a necessary and logical thing for schools to accept. There is nothing wrong with students being told that there are expectations for them to meet. Such is life. I also believe that teachers do have serious professional responsibilities for instruction. We need to design engaging, purposeful and effective lessons for our students that guide them in the acquisition of the knowledge, skills and dispositions that they must possess to meet those standards. We ought to begin planning with some productive end in mind. For too long, educators have abdicated the curricular design responsibility to commercial publishers, as if the outsourcing of this responsibility were not a threat to students, teachers and schools alike. I would go further and suggest that the outsourcing of curricular design has diminished teachers as professionals. It has led us to a point where (in New York State, at least) private companies are writing the textbooks for students to use in meeting those standards. Then, the same private companies are developing and publishing the standardized tests used to assess how well students meet those standards. Then, the same private companies are publishing the teacher evaluation rubrics used to assess the professional performances of teachers in our schools. Then, same private companies are training the administrators who go into our classrooms to assess the teachers themselves. Finally, in the end, the same private companies can produce slick little summative assessments to tell us all how we did. I do not know about the rest of you, but, whenever I think of this, it leaves me humming, “But I don’t know why she swallowed the fly — perhaps she’ll die.”
I can only speak for myself. I am rather tired of the endless quibbling in educational debates these days because, as we debate, real damage is being done. No curricular guides are perfect. They are not the result of divine inspiration. They are probably all the net product of committees dedicated to doing something that they honestly believe to be good for themselves and others. I may disagree with some of the things that are emphasized or said in those guides. Something vital always seems to be left out or to be ambiguously phrased or repeated. And, yes, these standards require resources that might well be in short supply in schools everywhere (such as time, space, and money, to name three off the top of my head). I would readily admit that all curriculum guides (no matter what country or state) could always be more concise or more precise or more comprehensive. Nonetheless, I feel like saying, “Let’s just get on with it!” I do not control the universe, and not many people are likely to show up at my door on a Tuesday morning and say, “Hey, Pete, can you help us save the United States (or Scotland or Wales or England) by helping us to clarify how students might demonstrate their mastery of this or that?” There does come a time when we just have to play the game. Life was meant to be lived. And we ought to do that with courage, competence and confidence. We have the creativity and imagination to live life now no matter what life throws at us or our students. We must engage now.
So here is what I intend to do about it. I am going to accept the existence of curriculum guides such as they are. I am going to put aside the “politics” of education (and believe me when I say that is not an easy thing for me to do). I am going to move past that, and I am going to look at a different aspect of the educational debate. I am going to explore how we might, even within the context of imperfect curriculum guides, still make this a better world for students and teachers. While we have been debating politics and policy, real people/ real students have been standing at the classroom door waiting for us all to stop swallowing flies so that they can get on with the real business of education — learning. This debate could continue for years, but the bottom line is that the students currently in the system are looking for us to do the kinds of things that will nurture their learning now. They cannot wait. They want us to get on with it. Life was meant to be lived. It is time for teachers to take back our profession. One place to begin is with a look at how we might creatively approach curriculum design. Such is our mission.