Dear Diane Ravitch:
This week I watched your interview with Book.TV where you explain why you think we need to focus on good strong curriculum. This focus concerns me.
When I first began teaching I was committed to the idea that k-12 schools should, above all else, provide students with a rigorous curriculum. As an art teacher I saw what many teachers did in their classrooms as simply putting paints and crayons in front of kids and saying, "have at it, now don't make too big a mess." I spent countless hours writing curriculum and developing lesson plans that would expose students to the splendors of art history, the thought provoking ideas in art philosophy, and a strong foundation in aesthetic theory. I loaded those lessons full of such rich content that I thought there would be no way my students would be bored in my class or that they would walk away from eighteen weeks in my classroom not knowing more than I did when I took high school art. Why then was I always surprised when most of my students did not find the content as riveting and inspirational as I did? Sure, occasionally I would expose them to an idea or introduce them to an artist that would capture their attentions and their imaginations but not always, not by a long shot.
Six years of working with "at risk" or "non-traditional" students later in environments both traditional and online and three years spent with the majority of my time in the back of the classroom observing, I have a far different perspective. I think I understand why my original beliefs about teaching and learning were false. The more time I spend in the back of the classroom the more strongly I feel that there is nothing, no matter how hard they try or how good they are, that a teacher can do to impart knowledge or information to a learner. Learning comes from the learner, not the teacher, and the only thing a teacher can do is set conditions for the learner to discover the understanding for themselves.
What I failed to realize when I was a new teacher was that in so carefully crafting a rigorous curriculum for my students I was robbing them of the element that made the curriculum exciting for me. I was robbing them of the opportunity to discover many of these things for themselves. Discovery is fun, discovery is the ingredient in the learning equation that provides the fuel to keep going. It is why we like adventures and exploring. It is this thrill of discovery that can motivate lab researchers to spend years on painstakingly boring and repetitive tasks in the pursuit of knowledge. And, it is what was largely lacking in my classroom my first four years as a teacher.
What makes this story even more perplexing is every time an administrator or mentor observed my teaching in those years, while they all recognized that something was missing, no one identified this problem. I have a theory for why that was. The model of teaching and learning that has become so synonymous with school that it is etched into the vision nearly every teacher, student, and community member has is based largely on two resounding principle beliefs: 1. students learn through instruction; and 2. The depth & breadth of the curriculum define the level of learning in a course. These are false assumptions and there is very little data that I have seen that prove otherwise.
Last week I posted a clip where as part of it Alan Kay very eloquently describes the Montessori model of school and how the Macintosh OS was based on Montessori principles. Users of the computer discover how to use it by encountering cues in the digital environment. This discovery propels the user to dig deeper and explore more until soon they understand how to navigate and use the computer. Our classrooms need to be more like the Macintosh OS. I started to come to this realization about teaching and learning about four years ago, just before I started this blog and titled it Techno Constructivist.
In that same clip Seymour Papert goes on to explain, with precision, exactly why it is so hard to change the education establishment. There is a lot of money invested and people's jobs that depend on the proliferation of the curriculum and instruction myth. However, just as with my early experience teaching a rigorous art curriculum, the pressure schools have had to be more rigorous under NCLB have diminished a vitally important variable in the learning equation. I fear Race To The Top (RTTT) will only work to further extinguish the flame.
A rigorous curriculum poses another problem. Even if it doesn't extinguish the thrill of discovery in students it still represents a fundamental and troubling truth about the purpose of school. Curriculum always discriminates by what it includes and especially what it excludes. Howard Zinn knew this and made it his life's work to explore this equity issue within the context of US History curriculum. At it's best, curriculum reinforces mainstream values. At its worst, it oppressess and excludes people and ideas. But, maybe that is what the goal of NCLB and RTTT is. If you deprive someone of the thrill of discovery they loose the love of learning and diminish their ability to engage in critical thought. If you focus on rigor in the curriculum you reinforce the values and biases in that curriculum.