Conversation with Pre-Service Teachers - The Set Curriculum

On November 19th, I will be hosting a Second Life workshop for pre-service teachers from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. They are currently taking a course on instructional technology in teaching. They have already explored technology integration, internet safety, and information literacy. They've read a number of entries on this blog and then, as a group, composed a list of questions regarding technology integration in my classroom. For the next few weeks, we will be using this blog as a discussion platform. If you are interested in following the discussion and interacting with teachers who, very soon, will be integrating technology into their subject areas in their own classrooms, please join us by responding to the questions, my own answers, or the comments left by the students. I hope that you will jump in and join the discussion, either here or by posting a response on your own blog. I want the students from Brigham Young to see that the edublogosphere is a varied and rich network. So, if you are a librarian, a high school teacher, an elementary teacher, or an administrator, please join me in this collaborative and mutually-enriching exercise in professional development. If you choose to express your views on your own blog, please use the following tag to make it easier for all of us to keep track of this discussion: BYUPD07.

So, let's begin!

First of all, I'd like to thank the students from Brigham Young and their instructor for the opportunity to engage in this discussion. Those of us who have been blogging with our students or using other interactive tools often begin to live in a sort of bubble and forget that our first steps were often very hesitant. The questions you sent reminded me that meaningful integration of technology can be a challenging task - one that is often dominated by technical and Internet safety concerns, as well as the need to conform to institutional pressures at the school or district level. In other words, as I looked at the questions I remembered all the obstacles that I had to overcome when I first started thinking of creating a blogging community in my classroom. Now, I realize that while learning from other teachers is an important part of this process, implementing technology in my own classroom is a process that requires a lot of personal reflection. It's a great opportunity to engage in some informal action research, learn more about myself, and the nature of my classroom practice. In other words, there is no clear, simple answer to any of the questions that you sent me. They are, however, great conversation starters. I hope that you will engage in a discussion here on this blog and that other readers of this blog will join us as we explore the issues you are interested in.

In this entry, I'd like to address your question on the set curriculum:

What are your feelings on a set curriculum? Do you believe we as teachers, and as human beings should have more freedom to be able to study and teach things that are important and that interest us, such as human rights abuses? What is the limit of going outside the curriculum? Is there such a limit?

Prior to researching and using a blogging community in my classroom I never had a problem with a set curriculum. I never even questioned it. It seemed logical to me that my responsibility as an educator was to prepare a collection of texts, resources, diagnostic and assessment/evaluation tools in order to achieve specific learning outcomes. I saw myself as a subject expert whose primary responsibility in the classroom was to teach a very specific set of skills and competencies. I saw myself as someone who possessed knowledge and perceived my students as individuals who needed to acquire it.

Then, one day, in my grade 12 English class, Julia came up to me after class and said:

"Mr.Glogowski, could you please take a look at my essay before I hand it in? I just wanna make sure that it's ok."

The essay was due at the end of that day. Julia was a conscientious student and thought that asking me to proofread it would give her another chance to revise her work, if necessary, and then hand it in in the afternoon.

I said, "Sure, let's take a look."

I skimmed her work and saw that it was well organized and supported with lots of specific examples from a variety of secondary sources. Julia wrote about the AIDS crisis in Africa and seemed to have a solid grasp of the topic.

"This looks great!" I said. "You can hand it in now. No need to wait till this afternoon."

"Thank you. But could you take a good look? You see, I'm worried about little careless mistakes ... you know they're never really serious but they do add up."

"Julia," I said, "you've written essays in the past. You're a good writer ... I don't think there's anything to worry about."

"But ... could you just take a good look at the thesis statement and the hook? Also, I'm not sure my supporting sentences flow very well. The conclusion took me hours to write ... now it seems forced."

I skimmed through her work again, this time focusing on the specific parts that she was unsure about.

"No, I don't see any major weaknesses here ... I'm sure you'll do well."

"Thanks ... but ... will this get me 89%?"

"Why 89%?" I asked, puzzled.

"I need 89% on this assignment to get into Queen's."

That's when I realized that, to Julia - one of the best students in my class, one of the best writers - writing was really only about getting a grade. It had no other meaning or purpose. All of her learning was reduced to one thing - the need to achieve a certain average.

Of course, the whole system is based on evaluation. It wasn't just my classroom and my methodology that transformed Julia into an average-calculating automaton. Yet, as I was driving home that day, I thought, "She did not engage with her topic at all. She wrote about human rights in Africa and yet she didn't really seem to care about the issues she had researched. Instead, all she cared about was her average. Writing that paper was a means to an end. It certainly was not an opportunity to engage with a topic, to engage as a human being."

I realized that my classroom was a place where there was a lot of teaching going on, but not a lot of learning. When talking to me about her work, Julia had used an adopted voice. She spoke about the thesis statement, the hook, about effective support. She used the terminology that I had been using since the beginning of the school year. She realized that school is about "playing school," that as long as she could jump through all of my hoops, she would do well and get into the university of her choice. My class was reduced to an obstacle course. She knew that writing a good paper was about learning how to produce the right reactions in its evaluator - her teacher. That's why she asked about specific parts of the essay - the introduction, conclusion, specific supporting ideas - things that were part of my set curriculum. What she produced was an example of "school writing." It was voiceless and generic, written to demonstrate that she had acquired a skill but devoid of any personal meaning.

And so, the problem with a set curriculum, regardless of the subject, is that it makes us focus almost exclusively on teaching. It makes us think that the most important person in the classroom is the teacher. It is based on the assumption that we know all and that the students know very little.

Should we have the freedom to study and teach things that are important to us as human beings? Absolutely. What is even more important is that we create environments in our classrooms where the students can explore issues that are important to them. Of course, they do need to know how to write an essay or organize a written response - I believe that it is my responsibility to help them learn how to best express their thoughts. But I also believe that it is my responsibility to help them learn how to express themselves in more than one medium and to support them as they engage in this process. In every subject, there is a set of skills and competencies that the children should learn, but we often believe that they must be taught in specific, pre-defined ways.

After that brief conversation with Julia, I realized that I had pre-defined all of her learning. I reduced English and writing to topic sentences and proper organization. No wonder then that Julia's topic was not as important to her as the technical aspects of her writing. As a teacher, I had completely neglected her growth as a human being and focused instead on peddling pre-selected content. Of course, I should be proud of the fact that I had, after all, taught her a great deal about writing essays. But, at the same time, I wish that I had done it in an environment where knowledge was not presented as a static product to be absorbed. Imagine how much more competent she could have become as a writer if she had been given the opportunity to arrive at the importance of solid support as a result of trial and error, peer editing, and in the context of her own journey as a budding writer. Instead, she acquired the skills through automatic drills. In other words, I wish I had taught those skills in an environment where she could also explore her own passions and grow as a human being.

This brings me to John Dewey and his notion of experience. In Experience and Education, Dewey argues that amid all uncertainties in education "there is one permanent frame of reference: namely, the organic connection between education and personal experience." He goes on to say that:

There is no such thing as educational value in the abstract. The notion that some subjects and methods and that the acquaintance with certain facts and truths possess educational value in and of themselves is the reason why traditional education reduced the material of education so largely to a diet of predigested materials.


What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul; loses his appreciation of things worth while, of the values to which these things are relative; if he loses the desire to apply what he has learned and, above all, loses the ability to extract meaning from his future experiences as they occur?

In other words, Dewey argues that no subject has inherent educational value. It is the interaction between the individual and the subject matter that makes the experience "educative" and that our job as educators is to ensure that the environment in which learning takes place allows learners to interact with the subject matter. He argues that "educative experiences" must "arouse in the learner an active quest for information and for production of new ideas. The new facts and new ideas thus obtained become the ground for further experiences in which new problems are presented."

The environment in which Julia wrote her essay did not provide opportunities for interaction between the learner and the subject matter. The skills she had learned were removed from any meaningful context. They were neatly pre-packaged and delivered. As a result, her learning stopped once she finished the paper. There was nothing to motivate her to keep exploring her topic of the AIDS crisis in Africa. Dewey would have said that since no experience has an inherent value, I erred when I selected experiences ahead of time for my students and neglected to create an environment where personally relevant interactions could take place.

Julia taught me that my classroom needs to be first and foremost an inclusive and welcoming environment that encourages exploration and knowledge-building. It needs to be a place where students can engage as individuals. In this kind of environment students can learn through personally meaningful experiences which engage them in what Dewey calls "an active quest for information and for production of new ideas." This cannot happen if the curriculum is pre-selected for the students. If the experiences they are to have in the classroom are pre-defined ahead of time, the opportunities for meaningful involvement are greatly reduced.

Unfortunately, such an environment is not easy to create. First, because it must be co-created with the students. It must take into account their interests and goals. Second, because it dethrones the teacher and forces us to assume the role of a facilitator or a co-contributor. It requires that we participate as human beings and not just content experts. It requires that we engage in learning with our students.

I've been trying to create that environment in my classroom for the past two years. I cannot say that I've succeeded or that everything I do always works out. I can say, however, that I have learned a lot from these attempts to create an engaging and participatory environment, and that they have tremendously affected my classroom practice. That's all it really takes ... finding in ourselves the courage to admit openly that we enter our classrooms every day not just to teach but also - perhaps primarily - to learn.