What is curriculum? What is its purpose?

25 Jan

Up until very recently, I had very little knowledge or understanding of educational curriculum. I took the term ‘curriculum’ to mean the scheduled content and structure that any given course or school offered for its students, and my only formal experience with curriculum occurred as  student in the Michigan public school system. After reading Ralph Tylers ‘Basic Principles in Curriculum and Instruction’ in a Community Program Development course last semester, I started to develop a better understanding of what went into planning a curriculum. I also began to recognize the amount of forethought that was required when preparing a curriculum for educational purposes.

Throughout my years as a student in the public school system, I can remember several occasions where I felt burdened or bored by the required academic curriculum. I can still remember those moments where I would think to myself: “Why do we have to learn this? How is this going to benefit me after I graduate?” Yet, I still participated as much as possible, and graduated with relatively high grades. After high school, I went on to gain a liberal arts education at the University of Michigan. I took all of the required classes, and again, graduated on time with relatively high grades. (Granted, I was a privileged middle class white student in a system plagued by poverty and racism…) Yet, given just this information about myself, I would have expected to disagree with Noddings critique of liberal education. If liberal education worked for me, why would I want to critique it?

The answer to this question, for me, lies in my beloved critical thinking skills. I was raised in a small town that is occupied by an overwhelmingly white, Christian majority. I have no memory of being prompted or encouraged to become a critical thinker in my youth. I don’t remember any of my teachers, or my parents, encouraging me to question authority or to think critically about the ideas I was being exposed to. Like many young people in America, I was exposed to and socialized to accept racism, sexism and homophobia at a very early age. Whether I was hearing it from my parents or hearing it from the media, it made no difference.  As far as I have seen, there is no immunity the systems of oppression that exist in our world. But I believe that I made the choice to become a critical thinker on my own time. And I also believe that I owe a great deal of credit to my liberal arts education at the University of Michigan.

As a student at U of M, I was able to take courses in psychology, Women’s studies, biology and anthropology all alongside one another. (Again, issues of privilege in relation to how I arrived at the University of Michigan set aside for the time being). I was able to soak up the information presented to me in these courses and began to connect the dots on my own. Maybe I was one of the lucky ones who thrived in this type of a learning environment. Regardless, I believe that part of what shaped me into the critical thinker I consider myself to be today was the experience of having access to a wide array of knowledge and ideas and challenging myself to being making connections between them. This allowed me to develop the skills I needed to understand broad concepts and abstract ideas, and in turn allowed me to understand and critique the oppressive systems such as racism and privilege that were so pervasive in the world around me.

That being said, I am beginning to understand why a liberal arts education is much more appropriate and useful in a college educational setting, than it is for elementary or secondary school. Since moving to Lansing, I have been volunteering as a classroom nutrition educator at several public elementary schools in the Lansing area. The evidence of a liberal education curriculum surrounds me the moment I walk into these schools. As I pass by a classroom with the door open, I can hear the teacher instructing the youth on topics such as George Washington’s personal life, plant biology or the civic responsibility of all citizens. Many teachers have posters hanging on their classroom walls that describe what it means to be a “good citizen”. Like Nodding’s says in her chapter on alternative visions, is it not more important for a child to learn how to relate and care for themselves and other people than it is for them to understand why it is important to vote? (Blog post on the debate of “Civics Education” in public schools: http://educationnext.org/should-schools-turn-children-into-activists-and-should-uncle-sam-help/)

By forcing students to accept a curriculum full of topics or disciplines which they have very little interest in, or by focusing so intently on standardized testing in public school systems, we are squeezing the creativity and freedom out of today’s youth.  I have seen the downfalls of this system with my own eyes while working in elementary schools. I have seen all the tell tale signs of students checking out and either mentally removing themselves from the lesson in silence, or worse, lashing out verbally or physically in ways that could simply be attempts to enliven their otherwise mind-numbing 8 hour day of tasks such as memorizing the various parts of a eukaryotic cell. (NY Times article on anger and outbursts from middle school students: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/17/education/17middle.html?ref=thecriticalyears) I can’t help but wonder, are we failing to properly educate and prepare our youth for the world that awaits them?

I truly believe that education is one of the most important issues of our time. Simply pick up the newspaper and read the news and it is impossible to ignore the myriad problems prevailing in our society today. Rampant drug abuse, high crime rates, high drop out rates, widespread poverty, an obesity epidemic,  rising unemployment… Its enough to throw you into a state of despair. But I am convinced that all of these issues can be somehow be addressed in our public education system. Could we not begin to address the epidemic of obesity by teaching our youth about nutrition and food systems? (Link to Food Justice and Food Access curriculum materials: http://www.teachersforjustice.org/2009/01/curriculum-food-access-food-justice.html) (Additional link to Food Sovereignty curriculum materials: http://www.seattleglobaljustice.org/2009/02/food-for-thought-and-action-a-food-sovereignty-curriculum/) Or by providing more nutritious and responsible lunch options for them? (NY Times article on school lunch reform to combat obesity: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/26/us/politics/new-school-lunch-rules-aimed-at-reducing-obesity.html?_r=1&ref=education) Why are we stuck in this same paradigm of required curriculum and standardized testing if we know (or at least some of us do) its not working? Is the curriculum in place being tied to real life experiences and problem-solving skills that will help students succeed well beyond passing their standardized tests?

Like Tyler says in his book about curriculum, a properly designed curriculum can have a great effect on students. A science curriculum that starts with one topic or idea and continues to build on this idea and connects all further ideas back to the initial unit can be very effective and useful, indeed. But what about the student who has no interest in science at all? The student who hopes to grow up to become a firefighter or an athlete? It would be wrong to deny our youth the basic skills and concepts needed to understand of the world around them, but I see this as a problem of balance. For a child who goes on to pursue a career in culinary arts, an entire semester dedicated to studying the Revolutionary War may not be necessary. I truly believe it is about striking a balance. The question is: how structured is too structured? How mandatory is too mandatory? How can we prepare our youth for their futures without suppressing or denying their innate skills and abilities? Perhaps the answer remains to be seen….

One Response to “What is curriculum? What is its purpose?”

  1. Kyle Greenwalt January 31, 2012 at 6:29 pm #

    Hi Terra,

    Thanks for your post. It’s wonderful to have your perspective in our class!

    First off, your ending. I am in complete agreement for the need for balance–Aristotle’s golden mean. For any generalization you can make about kids and schools, its opposite is probably also true in some real cases. So we need to keep our eye on what we are doing and not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

    The type of liberal education you received at U of M and that I received at the University of Chicago is not to be denigrated. It is “liberal” in the best sense of that word–expansive, generous, transformative. It is about producing a well rounded person. Can you say that the children you witness doing drill and kill activities are really receiving a “liberal” education? Probably not. They are receiving something else, which I’ll leave unnamed.

    Because at UM you were probably surrounded by teachers who had a mission and felt empowered to pursue it. By lots of students who challenged you and inspired you to do and try things that were new for you. You never have to apologize for such an experience (in my view), even if others are not given the same set of rich experiences you have.

    But back to “liberal” for a moment. Because I do see a problem. The old view was mind over matter, spirit over body. It created smart people, in some cases, who were literally “out of touch” with their bodies, their environments, their families, their societies. Can I tell you how many times I’ve wished I learned somewhere along the way to do some automotive work, some electrical work, some plumbing work. The one thing I have taught myself–growing food–is a source of rich intellectual enjoyment for me, and definitely rounds me out as a person, while connecting me to people I might not otherwise connect to. It is definitely part of my liberal education.

    So, I think we can have both liberal and technical, art and science, mind and body. The goal has to be some type of education that finds that balance you are looking for! Caring, empowered teachers who see what each child both desires and needs are a first step in that direction.

    Finally, I noted you said you have already read Ralph Tyler, which is on our syllabus for cycle four. A re-reading of Tyler within the context of what we are doing in this course may be good. But I also have a famous reading by Joseph Schwab, from 1969, which builds upon the ideas of Tyler in a slightly different manner. It’s a pretty academic piece (in the bad sense of that term), but has lots of rich insights if you stick with it. If you decide you want to substitute Schwab for Tyler, just let me know and I’ll email you the piece.

    Thanks again for your work!


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