EdTech & Design, Opinion, Promising Practices

Necessary Disruption (Part 4: Less, But Deeper, Curriculum)

Schools must respond to the rapid, pervasive social and technological change all around them.  In doing so they must preserve the supportive relationships which are their most essential benefit.  Surface features of schooling such as curriculum, instruction and assessment, however, need to be transformed.  But how?

Let’s start with curriculum, and specifically the high school curriculum.  It’s too broad and too thin.  It too easily becomes a superficial diet of info-bits that are required to pass tests that measure what is easiest to measure rather than what is most important.  In a rush to ensure that students know all the basic essentials in a world where knowledge is growing exponentially we have fallen into the trap of filling heads rather than changing minds.  This serves no one well.  Curriculum bloat needs to be reversed in order to free up the time required for deeper inquiry into big ideas so that students are enabled with understandings, skills and dispositions rather than encumbered by inert and decaying knowledge.

Curriculum is also too fragmented into subjects.  This is a purely academic deceit that is not present in the “real world,” where issues are always multidisciplinary.  Subject divisions make life easier for curriculum writers, text book publishers and testers, but they make schooling less authentic, engaging and significant for students.  These divisions also obstruct the development of important life skills such as critical thinking, collaboration and communication that should be present as pervasive themes but are generally lost, or at best inconsistently addressed, because nobody sees them as their job.

It seems to me that there is a fairly broad consensus that students would be better served if curriculum were deeper and more integrated, but much less willingness to make the change.  Policy makers seem reluctant to suggest that anything be removed from the curriculum and many teachers are so indoctrinated with, and comfortable within, a subject-specific view that they do not seize the opportunities that do exist for a more substantial inquiry-based approach to learning.  Sometimes, in fact, it is teachers themselves who are the most fervent defenders of the curricular status quo.

Therefore, I would propose a two-pronged response to this problem.  Government should, with consultation but without undue delay, trim the curriculum to create some “white space,” perhaps about 20%.  Teachers should be challenged to use this opportunity to integrate and deepen learning and schools should be required to consult with and report to their community in this regard.  I don’t believe, as Michael Fullan says, that you can mandate what matters but you can articulate a worthy goal, create the potential and issue the challenge.

Ideally, in addition to individual teachers making changes, secondary schools would then organize students in “academies” or “houses” consisting of one class group per grade in order to encourage integration by having two teachers work together to cover at least the English, Social Studies, Math and Science components of the curriculum for those students until at least the end of Grade 9.  These classes should stay together and work with the same core teachers for at least two years.  This would provide a much more natural transition from elementary and create the potential for extended inquiry and stronger relationships.

To invigorate and accelerate these changes, teacher teams should, within the confines of the working day, be provided with time to co-plan, and, as part of their own commitment to professional growth, they should create personal learning networks (directly and virtually) on their own time.

The experience of deeper inquiry will, I believe, inspire both students and teachers so inquiry-based learning that takes root in Junior Secondary will extend into senior grades even if the greater degree of specialization required at that level makes a similar cohort organization impractical – which, however, I believe should be kept as an open question.

Government assessments, which some would eliminate but which I see as a reasonable expectation by the public and an inevitable feature of schooling in our time, should be amended to reflect these changes – narrowing but also deepening their focus.  (I will say more about assessment in a future blog but mention this aspect because it is an essential feature of the disruptive change I am proposing.)

There are abundant individual examples of similar approaches that have been highly successful even without the enabling government action proposed.  Its time for this good practice to become the common practice, and the expected practice, in order to provide students with the integrated, inquiry-based learning they require to prepare them for the world as it is and as it is becoming.  I believe that it would serve both students and society better and that it would be more enriching, rewarding and sustainable for teachers as well – a virtuous circle of benefits.

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Bruce Beairsto

Retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University

Bruce Beairsto is a retired school superintendent, educational consultant and adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University.

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