Why curriculum needs to change!

This will likely be my last post for 2014 so, I might as well go out with the proverbial bang and talk about the need to update, modernize, enhance or simply “slash: the current curriculum. It has served us relatively well in a knowledge economy but knowledge is easily attained and we now live in an innovation economy. In this short video Tony Wagner states, “The world doesn’t care how much our students know. What the world cares about is what they can do with what they know.” The shift that rings loudly in my ears is from a curriculum steeped in content to one that focuses on competencies.

Earlier this month I had the pleasure of sitting on a panel at the Curriculum Prototyping Symposium in Calgary. The panel brought together a wide array of stakeholders debating the “big why” of curriculum redesign and is well worth the viewing here. The process of prototyping in itself is revolutionary and provides great hope for the future of curriculum. I would strongly suggest checking out the many links available on the Inspired Curriculum website.

In preparation for the panel, two questions were provided to guide the conversation. I’ve included the two questions (#1 & #2) as well as other questions/statements I believe need to be answered or debated as we move forward on creating a nimble curriculum that supports an innovative economy.  

1. How does engaging with teachers, students and community members in prototyping lead to an improved curriculum?

  • For too long we’ve had a closed shop in education. That may have been fine when we, the educators, held all the knowledge. But knowledge is easily attained today by simply a flick of a switch. Education has become far too complex to do it alone and today we need both internal and external views to make curriculum more alive, more relevant and more flexible.

2. What are the new basics in education?

  • I think there is a fear out there that this new curriculum journey will not include foundational skills but let’s not use the terms “reading, writing and arithmetic.” The fact is that foundational skills will never cease to be critical- they are the building blocks. Literacy and numeracy will always be cornerstone to our education system but the basics must be expanded to include competencies. Basic skills are not enough anymore!
  • The 4 C’s- Critical Thinking, Creativity, Collaboration and Communication are essential and what I would consider basic for education today. There was a time when all of these were learned naturally. playing hide and seek, make-believe and through engaging family sit down suppers. We left school, did our homework and then played with friends until dark. Today, that does not happen because our society is not the same. Parenting is different, we have a shrinking middle class and well put simply, our streets are certainly not as safe today as they once were. What was once taught at home now needs to be taught at school. Given that, we must adjust to ensure that these basics are part of the school system.

3. Why do we need to transform curriculum?

  • Approximately 1 in 4 students are still not completing high school in 3 years. Now while we should not hang our hats on this three-year rate, we need to accept that we have students who are not completing high school… ever. That is a societal issue and simply doing more of the same will not address it, instead it is a recipe for insanity.
  • How many times do we hear our own kids respond to the question, “What did you learn at school today?” with “Nothing.” That is problematic and in part we have a curriculum driven by knowledge acquisition rather than based on local context and student/teacher interest. The very best curriculum finds the sweet spot between passion (what I love to do) and ability (what I’m good at doing). It motivates students as Daniel Pink would suggest because it provides purpose, allows for mastery and invites autonomy.

4. Needs of the society

  • Our current curriculum is not nearly flexible enough to meet the changing labor market. We need to be able to change on almost a dime in order to support an innovative culture. Our current model of curriculum redesign is far too cumbersome and regimented!  There is a global market out there that our students are competing in and without a nimble curriculum, our students will continually lose out. We must be able to “pivot” when required!

5. What are the essential outcomes?

  • Our curriculum has far too many outcomes and often without any relevance to any local context. Teachers have been caught teaching all the outcomes rather than focusing on the “need to knows”. Sometimes this has been the result of the assessment/accountability practices currently in place, while others it has simply become a habit. The need to cover curriculum or surface learning as John Hattie would say, is not beneficial for our students. Deep learning takes time and you can’t gain that time if you are worried about simple course coverage.
  • “There are no curriculum police!” This has been a mantra of mine for the last number of years! Nobody will know if you skip over irrelevant outcomes that have little bearing on students’ future success. Every outcome is not equally important..it can’t be! While I’m not a great supporter of one’s own professional judgment, (collective is far superior) this is one time when good teachers simply know what is most important and must focus their instruction around just that! Parents don’t complain when their sons and daughters are engaged in learning, excited about learning and can articulate their learning! That won’t occur for all students if we continue force feeding them a mammoth of useless outcomes!

The journey that Alberta is on, has great potential to revolutionize our classrooms. The shift from content to competencies and static to flexible is what is required. But it will take all of us to speak from only one side of our mouth, forego victim mentality and “if only” thinking, demonstrate some maverick leadership and finally be courageous to impact learning and fully engage all our students! When you return to you classrooms in January, how are you going to change your teaching of the curriculum?

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