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The 'Precious' Curriculum

Let us reflect for a moment. When we talk about transforming learning, what are we trying to say?

Put simply, technology gives students the power to transform both how they learn and what they learn. And by transform we are not talking just about changing the appearance or form of the how or what of learning, but changing the very nature of what makes up learning.

We've only seen a tiny glimpse of what is possible. We can find a number of stories from exceptional teachers who have taken up the challenge of proving what can be achieved. But, what has been the exception must now become the norm. Our students, all of them, deserve no less.

So, we've really only just begun. That beginning meant we had to give everyone access to technology - kids and teachers alike. When we do that we find man exceptional, courageous teachers to show us what is now possible with learning in technology-rich classrooms.

And what happens in classrooms around the world is guided by what we describe as curriculum, and it is curriculum that is now the real source of our dilemma.

To illustrate, I'm reminded of a story from Seymour Papert that gives us a context....he calls it the Parable of the Jet-Powered Stage Coach.

".....imagine an early nineteenth century engineer concerned with the improvement of cross-continental transportation. Someone comes to him with a design for a jet engine. 'Great,' the engineer says 'we'll attach this to stagecoaches to assist the horses.' When they try they soon see that there is a danger that the engine would shake the vehicle to pieces. So they make sure that the power of the engine is kept down to a level at which it would not do any harm. (It is not on record whether it did any good.)"
Seymour Papert. Technology in the Schools: to support the system or render it obsolete, Milken Exchange on Education, July 1998.

Papert uses this parable in the context of schools. I think it is even more appropriate in the context of curriculum. For too long we have ensured that the power of the engine - technology - was kept down to a level at which it would not do any harm - to curriculum. We can no longer 'bolt on' to our existing notions of curriculum. We have to rethink curriculum, reconstruct it. We need to re-engineer curriculum. Put simply, our 'smokestack' curriculum is no longer appropriate for a knowledge world. When we give students access to laptops as a natural part of their learning, the door is opened for us to do something significant. Let us not allow this opportunity to pass.

Re-engineering does not just mean doing different things, or doing things differently. It means completely rethinking our notion or our understanding of what curriculum is or what it should be. We are way too precious about curriculum as it is provided today; the way we interpret it, the way we defer to it, and the perception we build of the role of curriculum in the broader public eye. If we are to seize the opportunity offered to us at this time, we should start by trying to establish some basic principles that can guide our thinking forward more clearly.

Let us first acknowledge that we are not trying to throw out the concept of a reference or guiding framework. What we have to develop are the basic principles for establishing a curriculum of knowledge. Let us examine these basic principles:

Curriculum must be built around core values: love of learning, lifelong learning, learning how to learn, working collaboratively. They are already out there and being valued in so many classrooms. We just have not taken them seriously in the context of what is now possible.

Curriculum should be simple. Curriculum is supposed to be the guiding light. If we are supposed to be following it, then let us start by making it less complex. We have compartmentalized 'school learning' so much that we have created a repertoire, an industry of assessment grids and rubrics that have become ends in themselves. Let us get back to our founding objectives, our real purpose for it all. We are trying to develop active learners who love learning, who know how to learn and adapt rapidly, and who can build their own knowledge from information they discover. Simple.

Curriculum should be relevant and authentic. As Drucker so succinctly defines it, 'Knowledge is simply information endowed with relevance and purpose.' There's not a lot of relevance in much of our curriculum today, and certainly too little purpose. So let us think of learning just-in-time....not always just-in-case.

Curriculum should be a living framework, built around thinking. If we keep it simple and focused around our core values, we can do what we like in terms of the strategies we use to deliver it, without losing sight of those things we stand for, our values.

Curriculum should be leverage-able. Why do we think that so much of what we learn under the guise of curriculum is an end in itself? It is sad indeed to think that we do not seek to use curriculum more often as a springboard to great teachable moments, to create wonderful tensions of thought, rather than stay within the safe confines it can be seen to offer. In some ways we may have developed a curriculum of the scared. Now is the time for the curriculum of the courageous.

Curriculum should be transparent. What is the real objective of curriculum? To provide a purpose, a reason for learning. Too often it does just the opposite. We must engage, excite and enthuse our students about what opportunities learning offers, and we cannot do that if we continue to cloak our curriculum in shrouds of 'you need to know this'. Is there not so much out there that can be learned that our focus should now be on making it accessible, desirable and useful?

Curriculum should be rigorous. The minute we start tinkering with curriculum, we are accused of softening it. Why? Are we scared that if we make the wrong investment in the early years of schooling, it will take many years to become evident, by which time the damage may be done and be irreparable?

Let us never take that responsibility for granted, but let us also not deny the bigger responsibility we have to all young students who enters our classrooms to give them learning that is relevant, useful, and appropriate for the world they will enter when they leave our classrooms....and in the process it will be more rigorous and demanding than the habits we have delivered in the past.

Let us dare to step into the future and stop teaching from our past.

Edited and reprinted with the author's permission. The full article appears in Transforming Learning: An anthology of miracles in technology-rich classrooms. Edited by Jenny Little and Bruce Dixon, Kids Technology Foundation, 2000.
May 27th, 2010 @ 10:18AM

What do you thik about the introduction of a National Curriculum in Australia?
Posted By: Peter Hutton on June 30th, 2010 @ 4:08AM