This is the second in a series of mini blogs with attention to priorities in the not-so post pandemic world. In the first blog post, Nancy Doda nudged us all to consider how we might slow down in all aspects of school life. This second post examines curriculum and how the pandemic invites us to rethink what we teach.
Lesson Two: Rethink What We Teach
All of a sudden, the pandemic challenged us to think about so many aspects of our lives in new ways. The world is no longer the predictable place we took for granted. This is an uncomfortable place to be. As Pema Chodron once notably said,
“Chaos can be extremely good news.”
It slams us up against old patterns that hold us back.
Before the pandemic, we were long overdue for a serious closet clean out when it comes to what we teach in our schools. One old pattern needing our attention is that of holding on to what we have always taught. In my decades of work with middle schools, no matter what city or state, we always seem to add more and delete almost nothing.
Even with the advent of 21st century skills, or what we call in Vermont, transferable skills, we have had a hard time letting go of our volumes of content. While we value the attention to transferrable skills, it turns out they still don’t rank above the books we have always taught, the units we love, and the archives we inherited.
After the Common Core declared it had cut back content load in math, I was hopeful. Yet little changed in the volume of middle school mathematics. We are all still buried in way too much to teach.
The Mile Wide and Inch Deep Curriculum
While teachers often share that they’d love to change this, they feel pressed to prepare students for the tests. One science teacher told me she had to cover 65 topics in 42 days. Speedy curriculum coverage was once translated into curriculum by mentioning, “I mentioned it, so I am moving on”, sustaining the yet untouched mile wide, inch deep United States curriculum.
Knowledge keeps growing, expanding and changing. The “Knowledge Doubling Curve”, as it’s now known, was created by Buckminster Fuller in 1982. Fifty years ago, we were told that we were witnessing a knowledge explosion. Human knowledge was doubling every 13 months.
Today, with the help of the Internet, we face the doubling of knowledge every 12 hours. To put it into context, in 1900 human knowledge doubled approximately every 100 years. By the end of 1945, the rate was every 25 years. It’s 2022.
It’s been said that “facts are stubborn things,” but maybe not as stubborn as we think. New facts are replacing outdated ones at an accelerated rate as the tsunami of data continually yields new discoveries and information. It’s time to change.
Discernment, critical thinking, and relevance
COVID offers a superb example of the dramatically changing nature of knowledge as our collective understanding of the virus, the vaccines, the protective measures…. you name it, changed dramatically and fast. Achieving consensus about COVID truths often feels like ‘trying to nail Jello to a tree.’
We have been called to be nimble with ever changing information. We have witnessed the public’s struggle with deciphering truth: distinguishing fact from opinion, remaining open to new truth, and seeking to really understand.
Most importantly, we need a curriculum dominated by attention to lifelong learning skills and a hardy respect for the ever-changing nature of knowledge. Specifically, our students need our help learning to access and evaluate a wide array of knowledge and to decipher fact from opinion. Our students need abundant opportunities to put knowledge to work in real ways.
Decluttering the Curriculum
How can we Marie Kondo our curriculum— declutter by removing anything that doesn’t spark joy? If we asked that home organization expert, she’d likely advise us to cut our volume in half.
Imagine if we held curriculum conversations around units that we have always taught. What if we asked ourselves: Why do we hold on to them? Do they still seem essential for our students today? Do they inspire students to learn more? (Mehta and Peeples, 2020)
These are thorny questions. Aside from broad agreement about some of what is worth knowing, there’s considerable debate. Who decides what’s worth knowing? What knowledge will best support preparing students to live well and participate more fully in our world?
One sure way to move forward towards a more compelling curriculum that is not a mile wide and an inch deep, is to start with the voices of kids. As many advise, start local. Like the slow food movement, we need to localize and personalize our curriculum. We can only do that with the help of those we serve.
Engage Student Voice in Curriculum Decisions
We can find powerful guidance by helping students help us. I don’t mean just the kind of voice we often solicit from students in choosing writing topics, books to read, or research topics. I mean we need to know what concerns, wonders, questions our students have about their own lives and our world.
This is not only done to engage students more fully. It is done because in a democracy all citizens and all voices matter. We need to organize curriculum differently by using their questions and concerns to help us map a living and richer curriculum. Some of these instructional practices are shared and discussed in this blogpost on Negotiated Curriculum.
Maybe both teachers and students repeatedly ask questions about climate change, or about money, or about racism, or about happiness or health to name a few likely themes. It is not the individual curiosities here that matter as much as the shared questions regarding issues in our ever changing world.
Imagine then assessing the merit of our content focus in terms of how it can inform these shared questions? Like Marie Kondo, we can toss out what fails to have both personal and social significance to us and our students. After all, there are many roads to assessing standards. Or to quote Blake, “To see a world in a grain of sand…”
Do we worry that building some of the curriculum around the concerns and questions of our students will derail rigor? To me, standard curriculum coverage might be the greatest roadblock to rigor. So much of what we teach lacks a context that is meaningful to students. Content without a meaningful cause is content lost.
Why are we learning this? What does this have to do with anything? How can I put this knowledge to work in real ways? As NELMS award recipient James Beane once observed:
“The rigor in a middle school curriculum lies not in painful abstraction but in its capacity to engage the intellectual curiosity and imagination of young adolescents.” (Beane, 1998).
Content without a meaningful cause is content lost.
Rooting into here and now
Therefore, let’s ask ourselves just how what we teach explicitly connects our shared questions about the world with our content standards. Instead of planning units around topics or standards, let’s consider planning units around vibrant questions drawn from the real local and world issues that baffle us all.
After that, we design the learning activities so students are called to draw upon a wide array of content to address these questions. When we approach the curriculum this way, it shows students that school knowledge is vital to addressing the compelling questions in our lives and world. Knowledge really matters.
Lastly, this on-going pandemic has me feeling like I live in a changed and ever changing world. What kind of curriculum will matter in reshaping the future world to ensure peace, sustainability, civil discourse, and health? What will our students most need to know and be able to do to lead us all towards a better, saner, more just world? As we craft lessons and units, let’s pause to consider the end in mind and rethink what it is we teach.
Beane, J. (1993) The middle school curriculum: From rhetoric to reality. AMLE. Columbus, OH.
Feltman, C. (2021) The thin book of trust, 2nd ed. The book publishing, Bend, OR.
Roy, Arundhati. (2020) The pandemic is a portal.
Mehta, J. and Peeples, S. ( 2020). Marie Kondo the curriculum. In Shankar blog, June 25, 2020.
Sable, M. (1995) Maxims and various thoughts in The timetables of women’s history, p 174.
Siffre, A. Something inside so strong.