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It’s Time: Ditch Curriculum

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It’s Time: Ditch Curriculum

By Linda Dobson

curriculumWhen you’ve been advocating for educational freedom in general, and homeschooling in particular, for as long as I have, I admit there are dark moments when I think decades of thought and action have been for naught. But then, I read something like Grant Wiggins’ “Everything you know about curriculum may be wrong. Really.” And then I don’t feel so all alone.

An Educational Thought Experiment about Curriculum

As the powers-that-be tinker around the edges, recommending a little less – or more – of what has already failed countless children, Grant suggests an educational thought experiment that “concerns curriculum. Not the specific content of curriculum, but the idea of curriculum, what any curriculum is, regardless of subject. Like Copernicus, I propose that for the sake of better results we need to turn conventional wisdom on it is head:  let’s see what results if we think of action, not knowledge, as the essence of an education; let’s see what results from thinking of future ability, not knowledge of the past, as the core; let’s see what follows, therefore, from thinking of content knowledge as neither the aim of curriculum nor the key building blocks of it but as the offshoot of learning to do things now and for the future.”

See also Redefining Educational Success

Oh, yeah. This homeschooling advocate relishes the idea of turning conventional wisdom on its head, especially when we’re talking about curriculum, a stumbling block to true education if every there was one. We are finally getting to the core of redefining educational success.

So, suppose knowledge is not the goal of education. Rather, suppose today’s content knowledge is an offshoot of successful ongoing learning in a changing world – in which ‘learning’ means ‘learning to perform in the world.’

As odd as that might sound for academics, it makes perfect sense in our everyday lives. The point of child-rearing, cooking, teaching, soccer, music, business, or architecture is not ‘knowledge’; rather, knowledge is the growing (and ever-changing) residue of the main activity of trying to perform well for real.

In athletics this is very clear: the game is the curriculum; the game is the teacher. And each game is different (even as helpful patterns emerge). Knowledge about the game is secondary, an offshoot of learning to play the game well. As I learn to play, knowledge – about rules, strategy, and technique – accrues, but it is not the point.

So, it would be very foolish to learn soccer (or child-rearing or music or how to cook) in lectures. This reverses cause and effect, and loses sight of purpose. Could it be the same for history, math, and science learning? Only blind habit keeps us from exploring this obvious logic. The point is to do new things with content, not simply know what others know – in any field.

This thought experiment also helps parents, educators, and students understand what is so very very wrong with current practices.

…thinking of knowledge as an offshoot and performance as primary helps us make sense of current oddities and failures in schooling. For example, boredom is rampant in schools; perhaps it is the inevitable result of focusing on knowledge instead of performance (which is inherently more engaging). Forgetfulness is constant: students rarely recall what was taught a few weeks ago. How can content move from short-term to long-term memory if there is always more content to memorize tomorrow? And test results reveal over and over that few students can transfer learning to new challenges and overcome basic misconceptions. What do these unending “discrepant phenomena” tell us–if we would only attend to them?

How Do Kids Learn How to Play Video Games without Curriculum?

Grant addresses the disconnect between a need for curriculum and children using and learning video games today:

Video games are especially startling from the perspective of conventional views of curriculum and instruction. According to the standard view, I should never be able to learn and greatly improve at the games since there is no formal and explicit curriculum framed by knowledge, and – even more puzzling – no one teaches me anything! I shouldn’t learn but I do. In games (and in life), I begin with performance challenges, not technical knowledge. I receive no upfront teaching (or even manuals any more in games and other software!) but I learn based on the attempts to perform and feedback from trying – just as I did when learning to walk or hold a spoon. How is that possible? Conventional views of curriculum and instruction have no good explanation for it.

Here are the questions all involved must ask, ponder, and answer if we have any hope of ridding children and their education process of  the constraints of curriculum:

Beyond these examples of transformed curriculum, there are other reasons for declaring that all conventional curriculum-writing is badly misguided and is doomed to fail the moment we frame it backward from topics and content instead of performance. The following questions are suggestive:

  • If curriculum is a tour through what is known, how is knowledge ever advanced?
  • If learning requires a didactic march through content, why are movies and stories so memorable – often, more memorable than classes we once took?
  • If a primary goal of education is high-level performance in the world going forward, how can marching through old knowledge out of context optimally prepare us to perform?
  • If education is about having core knowledge, and we are more and more teaching and testing all this knowledge, why are results on tests like NAEP so universally poor, showing that over decades American students have not progressed much beyond basic “plug and chug”?

A revealing shift in the winds has in fact occurred in our era in professional education. In medicine, engineering, business, and law courses are no longer built backward from content. They are built backward from key performances and problems in the fields. Problem-based learning and the case method not only challenge the conventional paradigm but suggest that K-12 education is increasingly out of touch with genuine trends for the better in education.

There is more to be had and embraced in Grant’s essay, and I strongly recommend you set aside enough time, not just to read, but to ponder, and share what you think with others.

A large part of homeschooling success derives from freedom from curriculum. It’s past time all children receive the same benefit. The proof is there; the knowledge is there. It’s time: ditch curriculum.

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Reader Feedback

4 Responses to “It’s Time: Ditch Curriculum”

  1. Lesli says:

    Great article! Thanks.

  2. Sheila Stone says:

    can you link to Grant’s article? I am trying to google it right now. thanks!

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