Lane Clark Workshop Series

real. thinking learning assesment

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Does Curriculum Matter?

Why worry about curriculum?  Surely in today’s world, what matters are the 21 Century Skills, also referred to as the General Capabilities or Key Competencies…In 2018, curriculum should be subservient to the classroom programme…The children’s interests and 21C skills should drive learning, not curriculum content…

I disagree.  Vehemently.  Unequivocally.

First of all, the 21C Skills must be contextualised in something.  You must become competent in some context.  You can’t think critically or creatively, manage information, self and others, collaborate, generate ideas and innovate, etc., etc., in a vacuum.  These skills and the purpose for engaging in them are driven by a greater purpose.  The question then, is, what is that purpose and where does it come from?  Many believe that the purpose should come from the learners.  Let them determine the context based on their interests.   Then back-map the curriculum – the outcomes will be in there and even if they aren’t, it doesn’t really matter…

Really?  Our kids don’t know what they don’t know and they won’t likely be interested in what they have never been exposed to.  Is it not part of our role and perhaps even duty, to expand their horizons, to immerse them in new possibilities, to guide them to explore new directions and opportunities?  I believe with all that I am that I can ignite and engage learners in pretty much anything IF I immerse them in strategic, developmentally appropriate and thoughtfully constructed contexts that come out of the curriculum.

For more than 25 years, I have worked with educators across 5 continents and in 19 countries. Those who have worked with me know that I begin with the curriculum.  You know that I unpack the outcomes in great detail so that I understand what learners are meant to know and understand at the end.  If I, as their teacher, don’t understand the concepts they are meant to learn, how can I design instruction toward this end?  Once I am clear in my understanding then I contextualise the curriculum based on my learners.

I look at the curriculum and I ask ‘5 whys deep’.  Why at this age; at this time in their lives; at this developmental level; in this community; and in their culture of learners, do my learners need to know and understand these outcomes?  Why do they need to develop these skills? How could they USE this learning to make a difference in their life and in the lives of others™?   As I ask these questions, I begin to see what I call ‘so what’ possibilities…

If my learners knew and understood these outcomes and could ‘skilfully’ employ these skills:

What problems could they recognise and solve?

What alternatives and/or new possibilities could they generate?

What products could they design and make for authentic clients?

What plans could they develop?

How could they use patterns and trends to predict the future, evaluate that future and if they are not happy with what they see, set goals and design actions to change what is needed to achieve their desired future?

Learners are then strategically immersed in the curriculum through, something I call, Learning Centres, and are invited to become ‘so what’ detectives.  What problems can you find; what challenges could you meet, IF you could only learn more about the areas we have been immersed in?  The ‘so what’ will drive the need for learners to learn new conceptual knowledge and new skills.  As is the case in the ‘real world’ of learning, learners know why they want to learn before they engage in their journey.  They do not complete weeks of learning and then in week 6 or 7, try to figure out how they might ‘take action’.  Their ‘so what’ challenge is the reason for learning, the reason for persisting, the reason for collaborating, the reason for thinking critically and creatively…the reason for learning curriculum concepts and skills; the reason for learning and implementing 21C skills; and the reason for learning and employing intellectual dispositions.  It is amazing how much can be seamlessly infused, when purpose drives learning.

Let me digress slightly to outline why I believe it is so important to begin with curriculum and then I will return to this idea that curriculum does in fact matter; and the fact that curriculum can be addressed rigorously without compromising student voice, 21 C skills, intellectual dispositions and authentic learning.

I will share my thinking via two different curriculum examples, one from the New Zealand National Curriculum and the other from the Australian National document.

In the New Zealand Curriculum, leaners are invited to learn the following:

L1 Understand that people have different roles and responsibilities as part of their participation in groups.

L2 Understand that people have social, cultural, and economic roles, rights, and responsibilities.

L2 Understand how cultural practices reflect and express people’s customs, traditions, and values.

L3 Understand how groups make and implement rules and laws.

L3 Understand how cultural practices vary but reflect similar purposes.

L4 Understand how the ways in which leadership of groups is acquired and exercised, have consequences for communities and societies.

Many of the teachers I work with in NZ look quickly at these outcomes and proceed to design learning that may ‘touch’ on these ideas or superficially explore them. This is generally the case because the curriculum is thought to take a backseat to what really matters – the Key Competencies.  This is concerning and I will tell you why.

Groups are the foundational concept of all learning in the social studies discipline.  Involvement in a group, whether it is a family group, a sport or religious group, a cultural group or friendship group, all fulfill the human need for belonging and teach us how to relate to others (a NZ Key Competency). All groups create an identity through titles, dress, symbols or colours.  Personal identify is partly developed through the groups that one belongs to.  If you think about your own identity and the groups you belong to, you will see how critical this is.

People join groups who share their values and beliefs, interests and/or needs or they make groups based on their values and beliefs, interests and/or needs.  Groups are a place where people can share and develop what matters to them and a place where they can find support and provide it to others. If human beings do not find their place in what we consider mainstream groups, they will find a group or create one, in which they can belong – a gang, fundamentalist group, etc.  Often the values and beliefs of these groups are in contrast to more mainstream groups; violence and conflict often result.

Groups have members who must take on roles and responsibilities to ensure the effective functioning of the group (this includes leadership); rules or laws must be followed to safeguard against anarchy.

Participation in a family group, a sport group and even a cultural group serves as a microcosm for participation in society…

These concepts build on one another and relate to each other.  They are fundamental to our social development as human beings.  How can we say it is OK to ignore them, or reduce them to the culture unit or values unit or ‘be the best you can be’ unit? How can we say that curriculum ‘does not matter’ or should not be ‘unpacked’ and understood before we design instruction?

As mentioned earlier, many teachers briefly look at their curriculum (some don’t even do this; instead they reference units made years ago or reference pre-made units or schemes of work designed by other organisations) and then begin the design of learning activities or lessons.  The units they design seldom address the concepts the children were meant to learn.  When I say, ‘meant to learn’, I am not saying this because they are meant to learn the outcomes so that curriculum is ‘covered’.  Instead, I am saying that they are ‘meant to learn’ for the sake of their own personal development!  To help prepare them with the knowledge, skills and aptitudes that they will need to participate effectively and contribute positively to their society (another NZ Key Competency).

Too often, the learning we engage our learners in is not developmentally appropriate conceptually.  When teachers begin a study into culture and invite kids to explore food, clothing and celebrations, they are doing a disservice to their kids because learning about culture is so much more significant than that. Unfortunately, teachers have no idea because they are seldom expected to unpack their outcomes so that they truly understand what we need our kids to learn.   They are not asked to look for the connections between the concepts within their objectives or learning outcomes. They are not asked to explore why the developmental sequence provided in their document has been outlined as it has.   When the curriculum is consulted, all too often, teachers see each year’s outcomes as discrete and disconnected to what has come before and what will follow.  Instead of linking prior conceptual learning to the new concepts as they design instruction, outcomes are seen, almost as ‘topics’ in themselves.  In light of this, you can understand how on the surface, one would suggest that the curriculum doesn’t matter. After all, if what I am addressing is simply the ‘rules and laws’ unit, I suppose one could look these up on the Internet if they felt the need to know.

A cultural group, if explored responsibly and rigorously, is abstract but the component parts can be beautifully introduced with our little ones in regard to friendship groups or their family group or classroom group.  There are so many exciting and powerful ‘so what’ possibilities that can come out of this as the children explore roles and responsibilities, values and beliefs, rules, identify and relating with others.  They could create groups based on their strengths or interests for others to join in order to learn with or from them; they could make suggestions to the school and try to initiate change in clubs offered at school; they could explore community clubs or groups that they might like to join; they could look at how they could recognise kids who don’t feel like they belong and come up with actions to include others in their games or activities at break times.

Older students could learn about the cultures of those represented in their school and audit the PE document to learn how culturally inclusive the sport/games being offered are in relation to their school demographic and make changes to include more culturally diverse options; learners could audit the canteen for the foods provided and put forward recommendations to leadership (or in NZ, their school Board), to design a more culturally representative menu for students. I could go on and on.

Too many educators see creativity and classroom programme OR curriculum.  It is not ‘either / or’ we can achieve both!  Teachers will never see this if they aren’t invited to understand what the curriculum truly is – a guide toward the development of progressive conceptual understandings.  Let me reiterate this, curriculum is simply but powerfully, a guide toward the development of progressive conceptual understandings. Once learned and applied, these understandings can truly make a difference in a child’s life and subsequently in our world as they participate and contribute to society (NZ Competency and the outcome of the ‘so what’).

In an effort to further demonstrate the importance of curriculum when designing instruction, let’s explore a second example from the Australian National Curriculum.

The following outcomes are identified in the Biological Science component of the Science document.

Foundation: Living things have basic needs.

Year 1 Living things live in environments that meet their basic needs.

Year 2 Living things grown and change (life cycles).

Year 3 Living things can be grouped according to observable features and can be distinguished from non-living things.

Year 4 Living things depend on each other and the environment to survive.

Year 5 Living things have structural features and adaptations that help them survive.

Year 6 Growth and survival of living things are affected by the physical conditions of their environment.

ALL of biological science rests on the first concepts introduced at the foundation level: living, non-living and once living things and the basic needs of living things.  Once this is acquired and integrated, learners can begin to develop the understanding that environments are made up of other living things, once living and non-living things that can be natural or people made.  These concepts are introduced developmentally so that learners can eventually come to see the interrelationships – living things live in environments that can meet their basic needs.  If something occurs that interferes with the environment’s ability to meet the basic needs of the living thing, their life cycle might end. This could then impact other living things in the environment.  There is a domino affect because living things depend on other living things in their environment, to survive.

Biodiversity, man’s human interaction and its impact, food chains, food webs and adaptation, all connect to this basic conceptual knowledge.  Learning about environments lead to learning about ecosystems and ecosystems lead to learning about biomes.  These are not topics but instead really important concepts that can’t be learned all at once; they build on each other.  Only after our learners have developed deep knowledge and understanding about these concepts will they be empowered to make good decisions around sustainability, and their interaction with the living, non living and once living organisms in their world.  Becoming problem finders and solvers with respect to their world depends on this conceptual knowledge and understanding.

Again, creative possibilities to truly make a difference based on this rigorous learning are limitless.  At one Victorian school, our youngest learners were given the responsibility to raise chicks, by the local farmer. This challenge was conditional provided they could identify the chicks’ basic needs while in the egg and after they hatched, and could design the environment they would construct to ensure the chicks’ needs were met before and after they hatched.

Older learners in a NSW school, worked with environmentalists to conduct audits of local ecosystems to find challenges that living things might be facing that could jeopardise life cycles.  Once problems were identified, learners were invited to design solutions that could be shared with the local community and local government.  I could share so many more examples of this kind of rigorous learning, which embeds curriculum conceptual knowledge while infusing student voice, creativity, 21C skills and intellectual dispositions, all in authentic problem based learning contexts.

I just don’t see a rigorous focus on curriculum as coverage.  I see curriculum as a guide to developmental conceptual learning.  I would never design instruction for my learners without curriculum as I see developmental conceptual learning as pivotal to designing a unit worthy of my kids’ time, energy and effort.  I see curriculum as pivotal to enabling learners to use their learning to make an authentic difference that matters. We can’t hope to solve the environmental challenges we face without deep knowledge and understanding of a diversity of scientific concepts.  Engineers, artists, chefs, doctors, architects, musicians, etc. use their deep conceptual knowledge and understanding to do what they do.  Curriculum is not second to their craft. Curriculum underpins their craft. 

Our choices are not creativity, innovation and student voice OR curriculum…we need both, we can have both and we MUST have both!

Teachers are professionals who have a moral obligation to provide substantial and significant learning opportunities for their learners; opportunities that ultimately set them up for successive learning opportunities in their lives.  Surely it is a teacher’s responsibility to ensure that learners have the prerequisite schema to build upon as they progress through school.  Failure to do this will result in closed doors and pathways that end.

And so I will ask the question again…Does curriculum matter?