Rethinking Curriculum

By David Levine

The restless spirit of curriculum reform stalks the educational landscape. It is con­jured up from the cries of battle. weary teachers, from parents whose children aren’t learning, from business people worried about their future workforce, from state legislators alarmed at the growth of an economic underclass. This spirit of reform calls into question current goals, methods, content, and means of evaluation; in short, the totality of the present school curriculum.

The promise of reform is heartening, but we must remember that reforms can only be as sound as the vision upon which they are constructed. And while exciting experiments in curricular reform have popped up here and there, many educational policy makers and manages still remain most comfortable with approaches which treat schools as knowledge factories and teachers as technicians. As long as this is the case, meaningful reform is un­likely to be widespread.

Not that these people nakedly extoll an industrial model of educational jargon has acquired smoother, more refined vocabulary since the days when Franklin Bobbitt urged educators to adapt the methods of industrial production to schools. But under modem phraseology we can find ongoing practices and proposals which reflect a production line mentality. Consider: 

  1. The disheartening popularity of “systems management” approaches which seek to set in place elaborate lists of objectives, rigid sequential instruction in isolated skills, and standardized tests as “teacher proof’ mechanisms for guaranteed, easily quantifiable results. These management techniques flood schools as commercially produced learning systems or are constructed by school system officials under such labels as “curriculum alignment” or “outcome based education.”
  2. The tyranny of the standardized test, continues to distort curriculum. When multiple choice tests hold sway as the most honored means of “quality control,” the pressure to trivialize, to teach isolated skills, to neglect higher order skills, are tremendous.
  3. The enduring commitment to forms of school organization and instruction which eat children as raw material to be processed by teachers into educational finished products. Many parents, teachers and administrators still think of schooling as the “transmission” of a static body of knowledge from teachers to students with little opportunity for young people to play an active role in their own education. Walk the halls of any modern high school, and you are likely to pass classrooms in which the predominant forms of student activity remain listening to the teacher, giving short-answer oral or written responses, reading a textbook and cramming for a test. This traditional pattern is reinforced by pressure to “cover the curriculum,” to produce acceptable test results, and to manage large numbers of students with little preparation time. 

Of course, there have always been teachers, inspired by their love of learning and children, who have gone beyond the basics to fill their classrooms with innovative and enlivening learning experiences. But such teachers remain embattled, torn between their sense of what constitutes good teaching and the constraints of a bureaucratized and isolating system which does little to encourage initiative and ex­perimentation.

If we want good teaching to flourish, we must create contexts in which such teach­ers feel comfortable, and all teachers are encouraged to consistently examine, discuss and improve their work. Such a context can only be created by taking a comprehensive look at the underlying notions and typical practices which characterize school curricula, and being willing to explore profoundly different ideas about the structure and function of schools.

I think the best way to challenge the depressing (though largely unacknowledged) reality of “school as factory” is with metaphors which seek to express our own counter vision of what schools should be. I would like to suggest two. In the place of “school as factory” I propose “school as an experiment in democracy”. In place of “teacher as technician,” I propose “teacher as artist.”

Since these two metaphors depart from traditional educational language, some ex­planation is in order. By “experiment in democracy” I mean to suggest a commitment to helping all students develop the values, skills and knowledge they will need to succeed in a democratic society. Teachers committed  to such a  goal would be willing to actively confront the effects of racism, sexism, and class bias on student achievement. They would be willing to explore and develop student-teacher relations and curriculum content  which promote high expectations, cooperation, and student initiative. A school which is an experiment in democracy would be characterized by ongoing debate and reflection among students and staff about these issues; and governed by the idea that constant evolution is the sign of a healthy institution.

Since teaching for democracy means helping students become highly compe­tent, sensitive and independent human beings, it is a complex undertaking beyond the ability of teacher as a technician. It requires the effort of a teacher who is aspiring to treat her profession as an art  In The Educational Imagination Elliot Eisner ex­plains, “Teaching is an art in the sense that teachers, like painters, composers, actresses, and dancers, make judgements based largely on qualities that unfold during the course of the action. Qualitative forms of intelligence are used to select, control, and organize classroom qualities, such as tempo, tone, climate, pace of discussion and forward movement. The teacher must ‘read’ the emerging qualities and respond with qualities appropriate to the ends sought or the direction he wishes the students to take. In this process, qualitative judgement is exercised in the interest of achieving a qualitative end.” 

In Eisner’s framework, the “work of art” on which each teacher labors consists of the process of teaching itself and the relationship between teacher and student out of which learning grows. Teaching conceived as a democratizing art subverts the mold of standardization. It celebrates diversity of style and content At the same time, I think this kind of approach strongly suggests certain core qualities which are desirable in a curriculum:


This approach would relate the universe of knowledge to the issues, experiences and contradictions each child confronts in his/her own life. This implies much more than using a fragment of personal interest to hook a child into a prefabricated curriculum. It means conceiving the curriculum as a means through which students make sense of their own experience, encounter the world beyond their immediate lives, and put these two elements of reality together into a meaningful whole. For example, a social studies unit on law might draw out what students know about crime, drug use, and police-community relations in their own neighborhood and use this knowledge to explore questions which concern how the criminal justice system works and the conflicting rights of the individual and society. Such an approach would challenge students to expand their understanding through reading, discussion and interviews, and to integrate new knowledge into the web of understanding they bring to the classroom.

The starting presumption of a student­ centered teacher is that each child brings to the classroom a unique set of perceptions and abilities which can 6e cultivated to expand understanding, sharpen skills, and increase motivation. A student centered classroom is a place where students are encouraged to explore their own interests, and to view school not as the imposition of an alien agenda, but as an organized means to articulate their own.

Since a student centered approach is respectful of the student and his/her world, of necessity it celebrates the language and culture that each child brings to the classroom. It is incumbent upon the teacher to consider a multicultural classroom not as an impediment, but as an opportunity to explore and appreciate the rich variety of human experience.


Learning is a social process most effectively accomplished with the active engagement of the learner. While lectures can be a valid and stimulating mode of instruction, a classroom overwhelmingly dominated by teacher talk stifles the capacity of students to be active learners. Dialogue, performance, experimentation, debate, questioning and collaboration all tend to enliven students. Research in “cooperative learning” has shown how the explicit cultivation of social skills can help students learn to work together and increase the achievement of students of varying abilities. 

An interactive approach subverts normal hierarchy which isolates students from each other and sets them into competition for the attention and approval of the teacher. Practiced well, it promotes tolerance, the ability to listen and respond and respect appreciation for the view of others. 

The Encouragement of Real Intellectual Work

Real intellectual work is marked by rigor, depth and intrinsic meaning. It enables students to simulate, as closely as possible, activities that take place in the world outside of school. It favors the integration of several skills into the coordinated performance of a meaningful action.

If we hold these qualities in mind, the suggest that some classroom practices ar likely to be more valuable than others. For example:

— In the place of the basal reader, students should be encouraged to read whole books.

— In the place of grammar and spelling drills, students will best master writing through producing, editing and publishing their own essays, stories, poems, and plays.

— In the place of answering questions at the end of the chapter, students will bett learn to think like scientists by conducting, and explaining their own experiments.

— In the place of completing multiple choice and short answer ‘tests, students will better learn to think like historians by conducting their own interviews and writing their own research papers.

Real intellectual work can also be fostered by cutting through the trivia that dominate many courses. Grant Wiggins former director of research for the Coalition of Essential Schools, argues that instead of parading students through a broa and superficial survey of topics in a given field, it is more effective to identify “essential questions” which have sparked debate  among  actual  practitioners  of knowledge – writers, scientists, histori­ans – and structure learning around seri­ous inquiry into these questions. According to Wiggins, essential questions “go to the heart of a discipline. They can be found in the most historically important and controversial problems and topics: What causes the major events of history? Is light a particle or a wave? Are social and moral habits natural’? Is Death of a Salesman a tragedy? What is a ‘great’ book or work of art? …What is adequate ‘proof’ in each field-of inquiry?” As Wig­gins contends, such questions encourage critical and original thinking.

The Welcoming of Controversy

Schools are highly political institutions. How could they not be, given that one of their main charges is to reproduce within the next generation values and so­cial relations deemed appropriate for the continuation of civilization? When teachers pose as “objective” and “neutral” purveyors of a collection of value free skills, they are merely obscuring a large part of what their interaction with students is all about.

Politics exists in schools not only in the content of the curriculum, but in the social relations which characterize classrooms, and the school as a whole – what has been called the “hidden curriculum.” The arrangements of power and authority, teacher expectations of how students will behave and achieve, the tracking of students all involve value judgments made either consciously or reflexively.

And then there is the content itself. Here teachers act as political beings through the opinion they express, their framing of discussions and issues, the questions they ask, the topic they address and ignore, and the materials they choose to use.

If we want school to be the artful cultivation of democracy, we will acknowledge the value-laden nature of education, and seek responsible ways to let conflict and discussion unfold in our classrooms. In part, this means helping students reflect critically on their own thoughts and feelings about big issues: racism, sexism, ecology, violence, distribution of wealth, the role of the United States around the world. But it also means sharing our own opinions on these issues with students, not as the final arbiters of truth, but as we are in reality – thinking and feeling human beings with our own impulse and obligations to stand up for what we believe.

The advantages of accepting the political nature of schools are twofold. First, by accepting it, we give ourselves the chance to think about and discuss with our colleagues responsible ways to express our own values in the classroom. Secondly, we can realize that the politics inherent in school life, whether they involve issues which students encounter outside tl\e school or issues embedded in the hidden curriculum of schools’ social relations, are a great source of discussion and projects which can unleash the creativity and enthusiasm of students.

The Path to Reform

If the practices described above are to become the norm rather than the exception in our schools, comprehensive reform is essential..A good starting point for such reform would be a clear and sound delineation of the ways in which teaching can and cannot be “scientific.” Teaching can be scientific in the sense that it can be informed and guided by knowledge of appropriate learning research, and in the sense that it is good for a teacher to proceed “experimentally,” to form hypotheses about how children learn, to try out ideas based on these hypotheses, and to evaluate the results. But it cannot be scientific in the sense used to describe technical fields such as chemistry or physics, in which exact and quantitatively verifiable conclusions can be spelled out. Nor can it be scientific in the sense of industrial scientific management, based on the idea that precise and unvarying techniques for producing the most efficient results can confidently be established.

Since teaching is not a science or a precise technical procedure, but, at its best, an artful endeavor, curriculum should demand rigor without being. narrowly proscriptive or dominated by formulaic commands. Elliot Eisner explains, “Rationality includes the capacity to play, to explore, to search for surprise and effective novelty. Such activities are not necessarily contrary to the exercise of human rationality, they may be its most compelling exemplification. What diminishes human rationality is the thwarting of flexible human intelligence by prescriptions that shackle the educational imagination.”

Unshackling the educational imagination means understanding that at its heart good teaching is an act of creative intelligence, and that it can best flourish when teachers are given the freedom and responsibility to construct and critique their own curriculum. We need to popularize the notion that effective curriculum development involves constant ‘Cycles of teaching practice, discussion, reflection and evaluation. In place of “educational prescriptions,” teachers need broad curricular goals and outcomes for which they are held accountable, and a working environment which encourages them to consult with their peers and experiment with a broad array of materials and activities within their own classrooms. Good teachers are constantly tinkering with their curriculum: searching for new materials, trying out new activities, designing new challenges and means of assessment for their students. Healthy curricular reform would include removing all which constrains such practices, and providing strµctures and training  which encourage them.

Time and Teaching Load

At present, a great deal of “curriculum development” energy is absorbed by such activities as revising· lists of objectives and choosing new texts. But the impact of such activities on what happens inside the classroom will be negligible unless we change how the time and energy of teachers are spent. Teachers are not given enough time to plan or to consult with their colleagues, and their energy is spread too thinly over large groups of students. Structural changes are needed to remedy these problems. 

There are several ways that adequate preparation time could be provided: a paid two week period at the start of the school year, one day each month set aside for planning, or longer  planning time built into each day. This additional preparation time should be structured in ways which allow teachers to plan on their own and, just as importantly, to meet  with their colleagues. At present, teachers operate in a debilitating isolation. Professional consultation must often be squeezed into a rushed hallway conference or a few words exchanged  at the end of an exhausting work day. We need opportunities to meet in relatively relaxed settings to discuss common problems, learn about each other’s successes, and debate the merits of different goals, techniques and curricular materials.

Structural changes which provide for more adequate preparation time should be accompanied by reforms which reduce the number of students each teacher is responsible for. Consider the dilemma of a high school teacher who wants to teach creatively. His class sizes range from twenty­ six to thirty-three students and his total student load is between 130 and 170. He may be able to memorize all his students’ names, but he won’t have the time to get an in-depth understanding of their individual strengths and weaknesses. Nor will he have the time to implement the kind of labor intensive activities and assessment which are essential to good teaching. Against his idealistic aspirations, e will be drawn by the practical constraints of his situation into the mass production techniques of over reliance on the textbook and standardized tests.

There is no reason to consider the pre­sent teacher/student ratios to be im­mutable. Some schools have decided to cut down on their total number of course offerings and instituted interdisciplinary courses as ways of substantially reducing the student/teacher ratio. The Coalition of Essential Schools recommends a student/teacher ratio which does not exceed eighty to one, and has helped  schools move toward this goal without extravagant increases in budget.

But just providing more time and im­proved student/teacher ratios is not enough. It’s harder to be a teacher as an artist than a teacher as a technician. Many teachers would find the idea of..designing their own curriculum or seriously sharing problems with their colleagues both daunting prospects. Guidance and training is needed to help all teachers struggle with the difficult tasks of thinking independently and self-critically about their own teaching, and being willing to dialogue with others about their own successes and failures. One effective way to encourage these skills is to have groups of teachers design curricula together, and then meet periodically to discuss their own efforts to im­ plement what they’ve created. Another approach, “peer coaching” has been lJ!>ed as a non-threatening way for teachers to receive both affirmation and constructive criticism from each other.

The defenders of the “teaching as a science” model might argue that to move out of the world of curricular blueprints and omnipresent standardized tests is to inevitably move into the world of pedagogical sloppiness and subjectivity. But ironically it is their approach to education which is sloppy and subjective, because it loses sight of the fundamental qualities of good teaching. In actuality, when we demand that teachers learn to think for themselves and to talk seriously to each other about teaching, that they help students master real skills instead of mindless drills, that they constantly challenge and re-work their own classroom practice, we make possible a level of rigor and accountability now missing from most schools. If our schools are to emerge from the widely acknowledged crisis which now grips them, it will be by taking paths which lead away from teaching as a technology and towards teaching as a democratizing practice which aspires to artistry.

David Levine teaches English at Shalom High School in Milwaukee.