Sunday, February 2, 2020

What is curriculum? Well let me tell you... [TE 818 Cycle 1]

A bit of reading. A blog post. This should be pretty straightforward. 
Oh, boy.
Alright, this New York Times article can’t be much tougher to navigate through.
[Get’s halfway through…]
Surely the What is Curriculum? selection and Happiness in Education chapter will be cut and dry and light reading. 
I guess I might as well get some disclaimers out of the way as I attempt to gather my thoughts and offer some kind of reaction to the variety of readings for this graduate class cycle.
  1. I have a bias to action. I read Egan on page 11 quotes another saying “ ‘There is no matter what you teach them first, any more than what leg you shall put in your breeches first. Sir, you may stand disputing which is best to put in first, but in the meantime your back side is bare. Sir, while you stand considering which of two things you should teach your child first, another boy has learnt ’em both.’ “  I applaud him. Even so, taking this time to back up, think deeply, read and re-read over the past few days has put me into a happy ivory tower type mode. Yes, I want the practical, on the ground stuff but dabbling in these sources of what and how and why and yes even contradiction has been positively energizing. 
  2. This was my first time reading Dewy as a “primary source”. Don’t judge. Don’t chase after my undergraduate professors. I’ve heard of the guy, ok? I have some (probably overly generic and unhelpful) basic thoughts about his philosophy of education. Reading him for real was a challenge, but super worthwhile. I feel like many of the educational tensions I feel on a daily basis are the same that he wrestled with and wrote about. 
  3. I have no idea how to organize this blogpost into something other than a ramble. I did some reading in the morning. Some on the city bus. Some in front of the wood stove in the evening. We had our first sunny day in what feels like 6 months and I read outside in my camp chair while my kids rode scooters around the local park. In reference to disclaimer point one, I’ve been in pragmatic mode at school for quite a while and this season of reading and reflection has been a trip (a good one). I’ll attempt to synthesize a bit here in this blog post but forgive me if the logic and flow is lacking. 
Act 1 - Dewey
I’ll probably spend most of my time here. The academic yet conversational voice. The analogies (especially the adventure and map allusion- I love maps) and examples. Dewey was tough, but man it was fun. 
My first order of business was set up a T-chart of Dewey’s Child  and Dewey’s Curriculum. Spoiler alert, I think his whole argument is to show that these two concepts are do not have “some gap in kind (as distinct from degree” (page 8). He mentions “apparent deviations and differences between child and curriculum” on page 5...but enough of the spoiler. Here is the T-chart. 
Lived Experience
Material, Organized Knowledge. “Science of the ages”
Learner Centered
Teacher Centered

The first two aspects are Dewey’s terms, the latter two are from my context, although I wish “science of the ages” was a phase I used more often. Basically I feel that Dewey is tackling a foundational tension of teaching is placing ultimate focus on what is to be known and who is supposed to do the knowing. In my setting that tension manifests itself in words like “standards based” versus “student ownership” or “voice and choice.” It’s the same arm wrestle. 
As Dewey sets the stage I think to myself. Obviously I am on team “child.” Student centered all the way. I could never let my colleagues think I stand for anything “traditional.” I used to work at a school with “innovation” in the name for goodness sake. 
Then I read one of his descriptions of curriculum. “Subdivide each topic into studies, each study into lessons, each lesson into specific facts and formulae. Let the child proceed step by step to master each one of these separate parts and at last he will have covered the entire ground” (page 6). 
[Opens new tab. Navigates to ClickUp, a project management software where fellow science and math staff members have painstaking labored to house “modules” of learning for students to navigate, explore resources, track progress, and provide evidence of “covering the entire ground.” Scroll, scroll scroll.]
Great Scott! Am I a traditional educator?! Say it isn’t so!
[Swig sip of beer.]
I think Dewey is helping me break a foundational false dichotomy. He says on page 3 that is is easy to to seize upon the nature of the child (learner centered) or upon the developed consciousness of the adult (curriculum, sum of human knowledge, “science of the ages”) and “insist upon that as the key to the whole problem. He is saying that the answer is yes. Both. It’s the same thing. Of course my colleagues and I when left to our own devices (thank heavens that we by and large are) will develop curriculum that exhibits the order and beautify and organization and patterns that arise from the “science of the ages.” And yet of course we will adapt, modify, call audibles and adjust projects based on the lived experiences desires and fancies of our students. Dewey on page 12 critiques those “who see no alternative between forcing a child from without or leaving him entirely alone.” There is a third way. A magic, mystical project-base learning sauce as I sometimes call it. I guess that’s not a helpful name thought. It’s not magic. It’s not really a sauce. But it is hard work, and it is messy.
Maybe a fitting end to this section is Dewey’s explorer and map analogy on pages 14 and 15.
 “We may compare the difference between the logical and the psychological to the difference between the notes which an explorer makes in a new country, blazing a trail and finding his way along as best he may, and the finished map that is constructed after the country has been thoroughly explored. The two are mutually dependent.”
“But the map a summary, arranged and orderly view of previous experiences serves as a guide to future experience.”
Enough said, I guess. I can’t continue to be hung on avoiding traditional teaching and views of curriculum. I can’t find my teacher identity solely in the learner centered, innovative camp. 
Ah crap. I have like six more Dewey notes that I wanted to write about. Can’t end quite yet.
  1. Page 16 on the value of curriculum as an organized sum of knowledge:  “Observation is assisted; we know what to look for and where to look.” This idea vividly comes to life as I reflect on the Bible Project and their short animated videos providing a literary overview and road map to books of the Bible. My personal reading, observation, exploration, and meditation has been enhanced by their framework and guideposts.
  2. On page 17 I take exception with Dewey when he says “As a teacher, he is not concerned with adding new facts to the science he teaches.” I humbly invite Mr. Dewey to the pub to discuss more, but I find that as I embody the mindset and practice of real life scientists, my teaching improves. When I ask questions, observe, experiment and predict as research scientists are want to do, my students benefit. 
  3. Page 18-19 in reference to when curriculum becomes un-moored from the child.
    1. There is a lack of “organic connection with what the child has already seen and felt and loved [making the material] purely formal and symbolic”
    2. External presentation leads to a lack of motivation.
    3. “Even the most scientific matter, arranged in the most logical fashion, loses this quality when presented in external ready made fashion.” Canned learning is canned learning, folks. 
Ok, maybe not quite six points. I’ll save the recent stories of student experiences with a project at the intersection of chemical experiments and homeless ministry for the next post. Here’s to hoping there is more Dewey reading in future assignments. Cheers.
Act 2 - What is curriculum?
A published date of 1978 is quite a bit closer to my date of birth (1989) than John Dewey, and Kieran Egan was a bit easier to digest from a strict reading comprehension. Never the less I was left with a similar cognitive dissonance after this one. 
From the get go I reminisced to previous curriculum conservation with a dear senior couple at my church. Egan opens with a note about the “conflicts and arguments..of what curriculum should contain.” My friends share that in listening to conservative Christian radio they were lead to believe that Common Core (read “ObamaCore) was rewriting history. I specifically remember this older man looking me in the eye and saying “I don’t think that’s the whole truth, what do you think is going on?” 
I was taking aback by his humility and desire to think outside a conservative bubble. I kindly explained that Common Core was actually math and English language arts standards with the history content being a whole other can of worms in Michigan education policy. No, Common Core doesn’t “rewrite” history, and while it has faults like anything else, it seems to focus on transferable skills and that’s at least a partial win in my book.
While Egan doesn’t write specifically about political divisiveness in his discussion of curriculum, he does ultimately state that the main hinge of curriculum is the what, the content, rather than the how the method. “The present fashion that elevates how questions leads to disproportion and undermines good sense in talking about education. While we ponder how questions, another child has learned two things where our children have learned none, and our educational backside remains bare” (page 16). I hesitate to disagree, having spent less time with Egan than with Dewey, however I found his historical descriptions to be interesting and tell. In the distance past Egan notes that  curriculum conversations surrounded mostly the what of learning. Somewhat rogue educators like Pinel and Montessori (page 12) however embodying mindsets resembling what I’ve learned as Universal Design for Learning. They focused on making learning happen even for society’s most vulnerable students (Pinel the blind and Montessori the cognitively disadvantaged). In my book I chalk up Universal Design for Learning as win in light of believer that there is a Universe Designer.
Egan does float a similar conclusion to Dewy though in the final paragraph, “A further conclusion for the practice of curriculum inquiry is that focus on either how [Dewey’s child]or what [Dewey’s curriculum] at the expense of the other is improper.” So there too. 
Act 3 - New York Times A Struggle to Educate the Severely Disabled
Not for lack of intrigue, but for time and space, these responses are about to become briefer. Otterman recounts the story of a severely disabled student in public school. Frankly, I need to think and reflect more before giving a “hot take” on the specific and broader situation. I made the mistake, nay unadvised choice to read a few of the comments to the article. I was happily surprised to see commentators taking care to express care and empathy, while pointing to real fiscal questions. Can I leave it there? It’s getting late...Sorry to cop out.
Act 4 - Happiness as an Aim of Life and Education
This just happened to be the last selection I read. I’ll give a few brief thoughts and then spare you my ranting. 
The notion of happiness as a student outcome isn’t new to me. I’ve followed start up school (and sister Project XQ school) Iowa Big for about ten years, mostly via the blog reflections of Shawn Cornally. When I received an unexpected opportunity to meet Iowa Big Staff in an XQ Meet up, I found that their primary, explicit outcome for their students was joy. Joy in learning. Joy in their work. Joy in their project. Joy. 
Is it measurable? Is there a rubric? Blah, blah, blah. Maybe some other time. These educators saw their purpose is linking joy to the learning that their students dove in to. Whoa. 
This set me up to dialogue with Nodding about happiness as an aim. I was a bit put out with the disparagement of the Puritans in the first paragraph (page 74, I love the Puritans!), however I found a kindred spirit with Nodding throughout the rest of the chapter. The classic call out of wait, but really, why are we teaching factoring of trinomials was persuasive along with the concluding critique that  “most of our “why” questions are answered within the prescribed system” resonated with me. I am honored to partake in a school critically asking these same questions and fumbling for better answers. 
It was interesting that Nodding valued these why questions highly, even to sarcastically say “Why not avoid such useless talk and get on with the practical business of educating children?” in direct contrast to Egan’s quote about just putting on your pants and start teaching.
In Conclusion

Teacher or learner centered? What or how? Interest or logic? I think it’s all about the mess in the middle. That’s teaching.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Nate,

    Thank you for your post/ramblings! Very enjoyable read. I laughed out loud at several points. (I was also a bit tense, I have to admit, because I was waiting to see if you graded any of my assigned readings as bad. I guess I passed the first test :)

    I'm glad you spent so much time with Dewey. I know it's not everyone's cup of tea. But I think he is very illuminating on so many issues, and I think he helps us unthink and unlearn some things that need to be unthought and unlearned. (School & Society is a really beautiful text if you ever want to take a look at that, available online as well.)

    You give a good read of Dewey. The child and the curriculum are two factors in a single, unfolding process. Thought of broadly, that process is life. How do we as a species reproduce ourselves? How do we change and adapt as the world changes and adapts? How do we pass on the priceless treasures from the past but make them meaningful within changed contexts? The immaturity of the child is placed against the wisdom of the past. The hope and possibility of youth is put alongside the habits and ruts of the past.

    So those are the processes that child and curriculum are involved in. Put simply, Dewey sees education as a way to reconcile the "rights" of society and the "rights" of the individual. In religious language, it's a question of vocation. It's finding and developing my gifts and figuring out how they can be put to use in service of the community. Dewey meets Paul, I Corinthian 12.

    The other part of this is that subject matter is experience. You correctly note that in your chart. The child has experience, but the goal of education is to deepen, widen, and extend it--while maintaining its integrity, unity, and sense of spirit. Subject matter, however, was always at one time an experience for someone. Any scientific "fact" is the result of an experience that a scientist says is reproducible for others under certain conditions (no?). Therefore, the job of the teacher is to take subject matter--which is experience that is logically organized--and psychologize it--return it to the realm of everyday lived experience.

    Curriculum is the process that allows us to check that what we are doing in the classroom leads to the type of outcomes we think it should. Happiness. Growth. Vocation. However we name it, we might say that the outcome of curriculum is to teach proper desire. To want what is worth having. Everything else seems to flow from that fact, for me. If we sense that what we are teaching is bordering on miseducation--that is, it is blocking the prospects for further growth--then we need to turn the ship.

    In the end, I think you are right to see all three authors--Noddings, Egan, and Dewey--as pointing out the futility of living in a dualistic universe. What and how can never really be separated except as we reflect on experience after it has already happened. I think every teacher has seen the limits of child-centered education--that is, the limits of leaving kids to their own devices, and, at its worst, reliving Lord of the Flies. As Dewey says, in one of his most famous lines, the good educator directs by indirection. That is, by shaping the conditions and environments in which children grow up.

    Great post. Looking forward to more!



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