By: Scott Oosterom
Curriculum, according to Franklin Bobbit is the “series of things children and youth must do and experience by way of developing abilities to do things well that will make up the affairs of adult life…” (Flinders and Thornton, 2009, p. 17). Generally speaking this is a far cry from the definition most teachers have of curriculum, which is thought of as the package of course outcomes that must be disseminated to students in a meaningful way so that they can meet the graduation requirements. Until recently, I was one of these teachers; not thinking outside the scope of curriculum documents and considering all of the other aspects. However, as I progressed through this course, I have had to change my perceptions of curriculum. It is much more complex and multifaceted than I had envisioned from the start.
When it comes to curriculum in the most general sense, it is referring not only to the objectives laid out by departments of education, but also that which students learn in school that is not written in stone and officially documented, like behaviours or beliefs. There is often a social, political or religious influence that curriculum is built upon, along with opposing views of how it should be presented to students effectively. In the school system there are unwritten rules and guidelines that students learn as they progress; when schooling draws to and end, this hidden curriculum is equally important as the parts that are clearly visible. Throughout this paper I will discuss the rich tapestry that is curriculum, and I will examine how outside influences like politics, social taboo and standardized testing affect curriculum development. I will also discuss objectives, and how curriculum is influenced to select particular outcomes. In light of today’s push for standardization, I will also describe high stakes testing and how it is used to determine how well schools are doing relative to other schools.
When asked to define curriculum, it is a formidable task to come up with a simple, concise definition. According to Doyle (2010) in Instructor Notes #2-10, curriculum had historically been described as knowledge that is passed down from one generation to the next. However, it is much more than this, as Doyle (2010) notes, curriculum can be described as a the planned learning experiences needed to attain educational goals; the subject matter that students must learn; experiences that students should have to be prepared for adulthood; or the outcomes that results from students attending classes. Regardless of how curriculum is looked at, it is important that it meet the needs of the students we are teaching. As teachers were know this is not an easy task when the curriculum comes in a pre-packaged format with a one size fits all feel to it. Not all students are the same academically, and as Nancy Mandeville (May 20, 2010) indicates, some students begin school with a deficit of skills, and so we must work within the multiple definitions of curriculum to tailor it to the needs of our student and according to their strengths.
My school has a high rate of students with learning disabilities, it is essential that I am able to work within the context curriculum using all definitions, to ensure that I can meet the needs of my students on an individual basis. It is not enough that I cover the outcomes in my subject areas; I also need to create an experience that will stimulate the students’ learning while taking into account their various skill deficits. The latest trend in education is inclusion; it means that teachers need to use a variety of differentiated instruction and assessment techniques so students’ skills are matched to their mode of learning (Nancy Mandeville, May 20, 2010)
Bobbit suggests that curriculum should be a collection of facts, skills and information that students need to become valuable, productive members of society. This would mean that skills are taught on the basis of what is available in terms of the economics and products in a particular region (Flinders & Thornton, 2009). In much of Newfoundland, this would limit the curriculum to skills and best practices for fishing or aquaculture. This would, according to Bobbit be achieved through directed and undirected experiences, “the total range of human abilities, habits, systems of knowledge, etc. that one should possess” in order to be educated (Flinders & Thornton, 2009, p. 17). According to Stacey Cluette (May 29, 2010) teachers should not try to isolate experience from learning, as the two go hand in hand. She adds that students’ “learning is based on their experiences; therefore, by providing quality experiences in school both directed and undirected you are enhancing their learning” (May 29, 2010). As an extension Bobbit ideas can be easily applied to a vocational education system, whereby the curriculum is tailored to the needs of the region and the students. This model of curriculum is ideal for students wish to pursue their education according to their own interests and abilities, rather than those of the adults (teachers).
While Bobbit believed in curriculum as a collection of experiences to prepare students for a productive future, Dewey had a different perspective of what it should be. Dewey says “the school life should grow gradually out of the home life [and] should take up and continue the activities with which the child is already familiar in the home.” (Flinders and Thornton, 2009, p. 36). Schooling and curriculum are an extension of home and community life, since this is where students are nurtured and receive their moral training (Catherine Kiss, June 3, 2010). Dewey looks at the school as a community of learners, a concept used in many schools today to encourage students to work, play and learn together in a comfortable learning environment (Marie Bennett, June 1, 2010).
I find myself relating to Dewey’s curriculum model because our school promotes strong community and cultural ties. The students are encouraged to learn from and share with community members about their Mi’kmaq heritage. Our community school environment welcomes guests into the school to teach students, not only about the outcomes in the curriculum documents, but also about culture through music, art, or carving, which we have tied into music and art courses. While Dewey considered the school an extension of home and community, his ideas do not take into account that not all students like those with negative situations, wish their home to be extended into their school lives (Terina Legge, June 7, 2010; Oosterom, June 5, 2010). I, for instance, have worked with a student who was having difficulties in his home/personal life, he did not wish this to be brought into school because of the additional negative impacts it would have on his schooling.
Before moving on, it is worth noting that curriculum is deeply rooted in society and culture, both which are tightly bound with politics and religion. In many educational jurisdictions the content of the curriculum is governed by religious groups and societal beliefs in the area. For instance, I raised the issue of teaching evolution in science courses throughout the United States. There has been much controversy in the past as religious and political groups get involved in curriculum development. In many school districts educators have replaced the subject of evolution with that of creationism resulting from beliefs that evolution does not belong in school. Through this censorship many American students are not learning about this important scientific theory.
Although such drastic censorship does not appear in Canada (that I am aware of), there has been issues of excluding topics from the curriculum. Thornton wrote about social studies curricula which have eliminated discussions about gay and lesbians because of heteronormativity, the belief that all people are heterosexual (Flinders and Thornton, 2009; Kiss, July 7, 2010; Temple, 2005). Gays and lesbians have only recently been added in a small part to the curriculum as society’s views of homosexuality have changed. Thornton says that while it is more inclusive than it once was, it is still often left up to the teachers find more inclusion opportunities (Karen Cowley, July 1, 2010).
One of the most crucial, and interesting aspects of curriculum is that which is unwritten. The hidden curriculum refers to the rules and behaviours that we expect our students to know and learn as they progress though school, do not actually teach them. In class, around peers on the playground, or around other teachers, students are expected to behave in a particular way. Stacey Cluette (June 19, 2010) says that teachers generally only use the hidden curriculum to insist that students conform to classroom or school standards of behaviour so that we can provide them with an education. Research shows that the hidden curriculum is what leads more harmonious classroom environment. Even though classrooms are very dynamic places and no two groups of students are alike, in general schools are very static places. The routines and familiarity reduce behavioural problems and allow students who struggle to more easily succeed in the school environment (Suzanne Hawco, June 18, 2010).
Barbara Mulcahy (June 15, 2010) says that while the hidden curriculum works to help some students conform to expected behaviours, other students are at a disadvantage because of physical disabilities or social class differences where their personal expectations to not match that of the school. She points out that students with autism spectrum disorder, for instance, may inadvertently break rules of the hidden curriculum because they are not equipped with the same mental ability to understand the hidden curriculum.
Skeleton, as quoted by Cluette (June 19, 2010) says “Although teaching conformity was the antithesis to official curriculum goals, it nevertheless had a function in preparing students for the real word of hierarchical power relations.” These unequal power relations are similar what students will experience in the workforce or elsewhere in real world situations.
As times change, educators are constantly looking for better, more effective methods and techniques to teach our children. A post-modern curriculum, according to Lewis (as cited in Nancy Dewling, June 23, 2010) is one that is “characterized by active learners, high-level thinkers and problem solvers” and thus focuses on the learning process as much as the learned end product.
During the late nineteenth century teachers followed “the three R’s of Readin’, ‘Ritin’ and ‘Rithmetic” as the core of education. These were functional subject areas for a developing industrial society (Flinders & Thornton, 2009). A more post-modern view of what curriculum should be and how it should be taught uses William Doll’s four R’s. According to Kelly Carpenter, Doll’s four R’s, richness, recursion, relations and rigor, “would provide a deeper, more reflective approach to teaching and learning” (June 25, 2010). Richness gives the curriculum substance and depth giving layers of meaning to the content so that that is it open to multiple interpretations. Recursion suggests that curriculum should mimic aspects of human consciousness in a sense that creates a sense of self-reflection on the subject. Through relations the teacher can makes pedagogical relationships to other parts of the curriculum or cultural relations to areas outside the curriculum to make subjects more relevant to students. Rigor, based on students’ beliefs and experiences refers to how they understand and interpret the information presented in the curriculum (Flinders & Thornton, 2009, Luo as cited in Scott Oosterom, June 26, 2010).
Post-modernists, according to Catherine Roberts (June 23, 2010), believe educators are co-constructors of knowledge and self-esteem is required for learning where students build upon their existing identities rather than discover them. In this type of system teachers are promoters of traits like diversity, tolerance, freedom, and creativity. Nancy Dewling (June 23, 2010) reported that most courses do not presently allow for much problem solving and post-modern teaching.
Objectives and their relevance
Educational objectives, as previously mentioned, are the goals that are laid out by departments of education providing us with some direction. In many courses it seems there is almost more objectives than there is adequate time in the school year to do them any justice, but still, we move on and hope that the students have learned the information. These course objectives may be ideal for providing direction, but they have several limitations as addressed by Eisner. Eisner in Flinders & Thornton (2009 as cited in Nancy Mandeville, July 7, 2010) says “the amount, type, and quality of learning that occurs in a classroom, especially when there is interaction among students, are only in small part predictable” (p. 109) Given the number of objectives and the dynamic nature of classrooms it is difficult to predict the outcome of learning in advance.
A second major limitation has to do with the constraints that different subject areas have on the objectives. In subject areas relating to the arts where creativity is needed, it impossible to predict which objectives should exist because the outcome cannot be determined until after the product has been produced. In other subject areas, such as science or mathematics, objectives are more clearly identifiable (Flinders & Thornton, 2009; Scott Oosterom, July 9, 2010).
According to Kelly Carpenter (July 7, 2010), development of curriculum objectives is the most important step in the development of our curriculum documents. In order to better help students and teachers with the learning process, objectives should be clearly stated and reflect the needs of the students. Tenbrink (as cited in Kelly Carpenter, July 7, 2010) says a well-written, student focused learning objectives can be a valuable teaching tool that guides both students and teachers through the learning process.
While is it important to have curriculum documents filled with objectives to be taught to our students, we must also provided a meaningful context for them to relate to what they are learning. Paulo Friere suggests that the educational or investigative process “[a]fford the opportunity both to discover generative themes and to stimulate people’s awareness in regard to these themes” (Flinders and Thornton, 2009, p. 151). In order to stimulate this awareness, the students need to become actively engaged in their learning. According to Kelly Carpenter (July 13, 2010) Friere believes that students “need to create their own words and become empowered to take control of their education and learning process.”
Friere envisioned an educational scenario wherein the teacher and the student are collaborators. The teacher would serve as a guide to direct students as they take control of their own learning in way that creates deeper exploration of ideas and stimulates critical thinking (Janalee Slaney, July 11, 2010; Scott Oosterom July 16, 2010). By the student taking control of their learning, education becomes more relevant to the student, and more meaningful.
Standardization of curriculum
In our current education system there are hundreds of schools teaching thousands of students. In order to assess both teachers, and indirectly schools and teachers, to ensure objectives are being taught, education departments have leaned towards standardized testing. In Newfoundland, we have criterion reference testing and public examinations to test our students on the objectives that been prescribed by the department of education. We do this, but at what cost to the students? To ensure all of the objectives are covered educators often find themselves teaching to the test rather than teaching the students. Thus, content is often taught in the context of the test, and teachers resort to simpler teaching strategies that focus on memorization and note-taking (Kelly Carpenter, July 21, 2010). This method of teaching is highly teacher-centred and leaves students disengaged and uninterested. In objective-demanding courses that are followed by a high-stakes test, such as an SAT or public exam, it is often difficult to use student-centred teaching strategies because they are more time consuming.
High-stakes standardized testing is often used to measure student achievement, and to measure how well schools are performing relative to other schools. According to Eisner, schools, at least in the United States, are encouraged to push for high student achievement with monetary rewards. In Newfoundland, public exam results are distributed to schools, and teachers can compare how well their students do compared with those from other students. In both cases, there is a certain pressure felt by teachers and students to do well on standardized testing.
According to Jessica Foote (August 6, 2010) Eisner says there needs to be more teaching and less focus solely on testing and test scores. This is true for a number of reasons, including the fact that schools may be funded on the basis of student achievement. In lower-income communities where students generally achieve lower on tests, there will rarely be income enter the school because of test results (Jessica Foote, August 6, 2010). This means those schools with stronger students will always receive funding to better support their students, and so the lower socio-economic schools must rely on minimal funding.
Curriculum is a multifaceted concept that is deeply influenced by society, history, religion and even politics. It is more than just the learning objectives that we teach our students on a daily basis. There are many views that have helped to shape our modern curriculum and how we present; Bobbit’s views suggesting that students learn by mimicking society and should be taught according to the needs of the community; Dewey who says education should be an extension of home and the community; and Doll who has more post-modern views. These along with our expectations for students’ behaviour and societal taboos have helped to shape our current views of what should be considered curriculum. High stakes testing and standardization, though it puts pressure on the teachers, it holds both students and teachers accountable for the educational process. In the end, standardization helps education departments to adjust and make changes to the existing curriculum throughout changing times.
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