The challenge to define curriculum “basics”

Arguments  have been going on for a very long time now about what is or is not a curriculum “basic.” Yet, many intuitively feel (particularly parents and grandparents) that there are not enough basics going on in our schools today — no matter where we live in the Western world. But is that actually true? Or, is it just a case of teaching methods?

What I mean by teaching methods is that each and every teacher has an instructional style that determines how they will present a unit of study. So, just as we all have different personalities, there is a similar variation on precisely “how” professionals teach.

For example, some teachers like to teach in a more traditional manner and have desks in rows. Others like groups of children so they can use interactive methods like learn-by-doing activities and co-operative group work. Still others are more eclectic and like a bit of both methods — moving desks around to suit the lesson or activity.

In essence then, you can have two teachers teaching the same course of study and, while the students will end up with approximately the same knowledge and skills, they may acquire it very differently. And, frankly, there is nothing wrong with that as long as the basics are part of that process.

But, therein lies a potential problem. Who decides? The principal? Since he or she also have their own preferred methods, that wouldn’t likely be helpful — and why teacher appraisal is so subjective. So, assuming teachers are “satisfactory” or better, in today’s classroom they are the ones who decides “how” they will teach.

While the temptation might be to say: “Well, they should all be taught to teach the same,” that is simply not possible in today’s world — anymore than two dentists have the same chair side manner or two physicians have the same bed side manner. They don’t and neither can teachers.  

For example, let’s say junior level Teacher A includes not only the new words in a reading lesson, but adds related words and has the students keep a spelling journal. Teacher A also insists that a follow-up creative writing activity include correcting all spelling errors on the final draft — and has the students add those new words to the spelling journal. 

Teacher B, on the other hand, teaches the exact same reading lesson but does not keep a spelling record beyond the immediate lesson — but does have the children keep a record of their new words in their notebook. However, Teacher B does not insist that the students correct any spelling errors in their creative writing, assuming that they will learn from those mistakes as they mature — which may or may not actually happen and clearly a topic some feel should be open for debate.

Flashback:  Let’s go back to the start of what educational researchers call “curriculum theory.” Ralph Tyler started it all with his tiny book in 1949.  And, in spite of the fact that thousands of curriculum and instructional design texts have been published since then, his questions are still relevant.

1. What purposes should the school seek to attain?
2. How can learning experiences be selected to help attain these?
3. How can learning experiences be organized for effective instruction?
4. How can learning experiences be evaluated?

So, what purposes should our schools seek to attain in 2009? Sounds simple doesn’t it? Because it is those “purposes” that define curriculum “basics.” 

While we can all agree that our children and youth need to be able to read, write, spell and do basic math — without a calculator — beyond those “basics,” there is little agreement. Some will want to include Canadian history and Canadian geography and I would certainly agree with that.

But, then there is the scientific method, all aspects of the environment, such as the pros and cons of the global warming movement, astronomy, money management, how to write a budget and a resume and how to prepare for a job interview. Of course, there are also the creative subjects like visual art, drama and music — which are essential if we want to create innovative thinkers.

My point in this article is to highlight how there has been disagreement about the basics for a very long time, otherwise Tyler would not have had to articulate how to solve those disagreements. Obviously, I am not suggesting here that we all just throw up our hands and give up — although the teachers’ unions would prefer that approach.

No, I am just explaining where the real change needs to come about — assuming structural change is needed. For example, why do some parents prefer Catholic schools (including many who are not Catholic) over the secular public schools? What is different? And,when parents have a choice in where they send their children, how is that most private schools seem to include the curriculum “basics.” 

Which brings us back to the first Tyler question. What purposes should our schools seek to attain, given the business, job and political environment children and youth will soon be headed? In other words, if we could remove all the edu-babble and political correct issues, what purposes are the “basics?”