Rethinking the Curriculum

Educators grapple with the problems and potential of change

The Coalition of Essential Schools is a national coalition of schools pursuing progressive educational change. Organizers of the Coalition’s 1990 annual fall forum offered participants the option of working in strategy groups rather than traditional workshops. Approximately 200 participants chose this approach, including teachers, administrators, district and state people, foundation people, and professors. The Coalition reports, “They identified one problem they had come to see as intractable in their school: heterogeneous grouping, for instance, or scheduling cross-disciplinary courses, or faculty members who resisted new ideas. Then, in three half-day sessions, they joined with other school people who faced the same issue and struggled to come up with strategies that might work.” A report from the groups focusing on curriculum is reprinted below. In many ways, it parallels work being done in Milwaukee through the K-12 curriculum and instruction reform process.

What is “rethinking the curriculum?” this group asked itself, struggling with the process of defining the problems. Is what to teach the issue, or how to teach it? How do differing ability levels, areas of expertise, and teacher styles affect the rethinking process? Once you’re under way, how is a new curriculum best conveyed to others?

Some of the challenges that immediately arose were these:

  • Modifying the curriculum to reflect connections between disciplines
  • Keeping what worked in the current curriculum as it is improved; not losing foundation skills, but adding what’s missing
  • Studying how kids learn in light of current views of intelligence, and shifting from acquiring knowledge itself to learning how to use knowledge
  • Engaging people in and out of school with the rethinking of the curriculum, and using their expectations and support as one clearly defines skills, standards, and activities desired for various levels
  • Coming up with content that will connect those skills, standards, and activities with the specific school’s situation, not dictated by national tests, textbooks, or state requirements. A good curriculum reflects the strengths if its community, the rhythms of the year or of the day, what individual students find meaningful and interesting
  • Figuring out how to assess what students have learned based on the skills, standards, and activities they’ve been taught — shifting from an answer-oriented curriculum to a question-centered approach
  • Committing the time and resources to rethink the curriculum in a way that involves teachers and deals with their fears of change.

As the group wrestled with their definition, a striking number of other angles into the problem arose — so much so that the group resorted to drawing a picture of what happens when one sets out to rethink the curriculum. At the center of one of these concentric graphs was the phrase “meaningful learning,” surrounded by field defining what the phrase means, which was in turn encompassed by a circle describing how it might happen.

Practical Solutions

What problems arise when all this starts happening? Fear of change is a big one for teachers, the group agreed. Among other things, they worry about giving up a straight textbook approach, learning how to lead a good discussion, and knowing whether the students are actually learning from the new ways. Certain practical steps will help:

  • Decide what a student needs by the end of the school.
  • Decide what a student needs by each level, and how those levels can connect for continuity.
  • Write interdisciplinary curriculum units around an “essential question.”
  • Write units that will lead to authentic performances.
  • Design ways to tell if the curriculum is actually working, and whether more desirable “qualities of mind” are resulting.
  • Allow enough time to work on the curriculum.
  • Accommodate the autonomy and individual styles of teachers.

A good curriculum is not inflexible, one study group in this area concluded; it should be able to accommodate specific situations with a degree of spontaneity. In one community with a large proportion of Zuni Indians, for instance, students would speak Zuni at home and in the hallways but be taught and tested in English. Their scores on standard measures label them slower academically than students in other schools and districts, but a rethinking of the curriculum could challenge this assumption — measuring their language skill in Zuni, for instance, or using their own culture’s ways of teaching via apprenticeship rather than memorization, they might be assessed entirely differently. To reach these students and help them succeed in an Anglo system may take is a new orientation on the part of their school district. Exhibitions might replace conventional tests, and competency tests might be orally administrated with directions given in Zuni.

Dealing with Change

Another group examined in detail what would happen if a school set about developing interdisciplinary courses around an essential question.

One strategy was to find the question’s connections with the various disciplines, then insist on authentic — not contrived — ways to explore the question both within each discipline and among several. How would this affect various constituencies within the school system?

For students, the group predicted, linking the disciplines in this way should result in more coherence, and probably in more satisfaction and thought, as they stay with a subject longer and see it from different perspectives. They would place more value on content as they see it help to create a meaningful context

for the question they are following. But the approach could also create stress for the students used to a more formal and predictable-and anonymous-structure. Like teachers, they may be afraid they’re not learning the “right” thing.

Parents too are used to defining a “right” curriculum, based on what they themselves had to do in school, and often expressed as “the basics.” Basing a curriculum on questions may mean a kind of questioning of intellectual authority by their kids, which can threaten parents. On the other hand, cross-disciplinary projects often call on parental contributions, more engaged at school.

Partly because of that very engagement, teachers may have more fun in the new curriculum as they try new things with the collaboration and support of other staff. But their new responsibility to work together can consume time and provoke anxiety as well; continually having to create the new curriculum means that teachers are often just one step ahead of the game in class preparations.

Building administrators inevitably take much of the flak if such strains arise; but they also benefit from a more lively tone to the school and a more engaged teaching staff. The same is true of the central office, which must understand what’s going on so as to negotiate any necessary waivers from state authorities. The school board, too, must understand the system to explain it to voters; they have a predictable fear that the new ways will hurt students more than help them.

Businessmen, which have long been asking for students who can actively solve problems, must be persuaded that an interdisciplinary curriculum addresses that need. But if grants from businesses are partially supporting school reform, there could be pressure to do things their way; what if a major donor wants proof of results through standardized testing?

Similar pressures can show up at the state level, where the very regulations once written by the board of education are being questioned by the new curriculum. The equity of the new system may be challenged, too, by those who equate a uniform curriculum with justice. Still, certain states like to be thought as “progressive” in education and in the corporate grant money that can accompany change. For legislators, too, educational reform is good politics — but they need more money than they have, they want results fast, and they ask for foolproof measures of improvement.

What is the overall effect of the new curriculum on the organizational structure? “It messes it things up,” this group succinctly noted; and it requires more money as well. “We will have to play in two worlds for a while,” they observed — adopting a new approach, at the same time winning at the old game by demonstrating success through conventional measures. “We may not approve of tests, but we will have to use them or live with them,” they concluded, “while we’re in that transitional never-never land.”

Reprinted from Horace, February, 1991, a publication of the Coalition of Essential Schools. Brown University, One Davol Square, Providence, Rhode Island, 02903.