Within the span of one week, I found myself engaged in two very different conversations on the topic of education--specifically about curriculum and its role in education.
The first of these conversations took place during a dinner party with good friends. At one point in the evening, our conversation turned to education--not a stretch since three out of the four of us are current or former educators. The one individual at the table who is not an educator asked a very straightforward and sincere question, “What do you mean when you talk about curriculum?” It was evident his intent was to deepen his understanding about this topic because he wanted to know if it was possible for one curriculum to meet the needs of all the learners it served.
We had a wonderful discussion and I left dinner that night continuing to reflect on what was asked and shared. As someone who works with schools and districts on developing curriculum, I kept returning to the initial question that prompted this conversation, “What do you mean when you talk about curriculum?”
A few years ago, there was a debate regarding the color of a dress--was it blue and white or gold and white? People who viewed the same dress saw it as one or the other. Is this how my fellow educators and I “see” curriculum? We regularly reference curriculum as part of our lexicon, but is our understanding of curriculum always the same? Or, like the dress, do we see things differently?
This brings me to my second conversation.
While attending a bridal shower, one of the guests began lamenting the fact that our state had ruined the teaching profession when it adopted that “ridiculous Common Core Curriculum” and went on to say that “98% of teachers do nothing more than hold up these standards and check things off.”
She said more, but you get the gist of her rant.
Unlike my dinner conversation earlier in the week, there wasn’t any room for discussion. Despite the efforts of other guests and myself to engage this woman in a more reasonable conversation, she made it clear that nothing anyone said would sway her way of thinking.
Did I mention, she has a degree in education?
We definitely see things differently!
Here is a woman who knows the term “curriculum” but has no true understanding of its purpose. She sees standards as the curriculum when, in reality, these are nothing more than what the word “standard” means (i.e., a level of quality or attainment). In their 2012 article, “From Common Core Standards to Curriculum: Five Big Ideas”, Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe came up with a useful analogy where they compare standards to building code and curriculum to a blueprint.
Can you imagine what your home would be like if the only thing the builders were provided with was a list of the building codes for your area? Builders need blueprints just as teachers need curriculum. Of course, if you’ve ever built a new home, you know there are some building designs that are more efficient and functional than others. The same holds true for curriculum.
An effective curriculum is one that is is designed backward from a clear set of outcomes, provides multiple opportunities for learners to apply what they have learned in a variety of contexts, and establishes a balance between breadth and depth of coverage--mindful of the outcomes. It is not meant to be photocopied and left on a shelf to collect dust but rather to serve as a living document that is frequently reviewed and adjusted based on progress toward the desired outcomes. And, a curriculum is not a checklist of things “to do” but rather a map that sets the course for all the learners it serves.
Speaking of checklists, I am pretty confident the quote: “98% of all teachers do nothing more than hold up these standards and check things off” is unfounded, and I find it a bit ironic that the individual making this argument falls short of meeting the ELA Common Core standard of crafting an argument that draws on valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence. With that said, she does make a point. If teachers don’t understand the purpose of a curriculum or how to implement it--or worse, if they are not provided with an effective curriculum--then what are they doing in their classrooms?
I’ve had the privilege of working in districts as a teacher, administrator, and consultant where the conversation around curriculum is ongoing and fosters further discussion designed to deepen understanding around curriculum, its role, and our role as educators in implementing this.
In a time when there is so much negative rhetoric targeted at shaming our profession and questioning our value as educators, it is important we take the time to have critical and thoughtful conversations with one another about our profession, so that the conversations we have with others outside our profession will help deepen their understanding of what we do, and why we do what we do, each and every day.
If you would like help starting this conversation in your school or district, let’s talk!