Curriculum for the Future

Curriculum and Learning Experiences: A CAPE Ohio
Position Paper for Principle 7

Curriculum: Top-down and Bottom-up

Curriculum in the future should flow from big ideas stated in the goal statements found in most published standards. These goal statements typically receive wide support and appear achievable. Such goal statements capture the aspirations of the standards. As such, it is these statements that should ground the conversations that take place among professional educators as they structure experiences customized to the learners they serve. Through such ongoing conversations focused on planning, evaluating, and fine-tuning their approaches to the standards, professional educators will create the experiences and time frames that best match their students. The standards are the destination; the profession creates the multiple routes necessary to achieve them.

Breaking these standards/goals down into pieces (grade-level outcomes) however, is an artificial process that diminishes their essence and universality. Grade-level outcomes are largely “good guesses” about what must be learned at a given chronological age. Long lists of grade-level outcomes rest on the untested assumption that a particular path is the only route to eventually achieving an important goal. This assumption amounts to wishful thinking and is a top-down curriculum development practice that has run its course. A new type of professional practice, one that creates standards-based learning experiences around the immediate and long-term needs of learners, will take its place.

Embracing the concept of national standards stated as comprehensive, important goals makes an excellent starting point for future curriculum development. Such standards must receive broad national and local community support. As the standards become widely known, they become the vehicle for accountability and for engaging parents and community members. Parents and community members should be able to “see” the national goals in action at the individual student, school, district, and state level. Parents and the larger community must become valued contributors in the work of achieving the goals. Making these goals and the work that accompanies them well known and visible is a responsibility that should be shared among educators, school districts, and state education agencies.

Such a true standards-based curriculum has advantages in being both top-down and bottom-up in its development. The demands it places on teachers are significant and at the same time elevating professionally. It’s easy to argue that teaching is a “profession” when practitioners are in the thick of wrestling with how they understand a broad and important learning goal, how the goal relates to the content and structure of the disciplines they know best, how child/adolescent development intersects with ultimate intent of the goal, what the specific needs and characteristics are of the learners they see every day, and what the needs of the larger society are.

Acknowledging and Learning from the Mistakes of the Past

In the future, how we address the fundamental problems inherent in many education reform efforts—that they present too much to learn and retain while ignoring individual differences in learners—will determine whether we have a “well-educated” adult population with all the individual and societal benefits that descriptor implies. A vision for curriculum and learning in the future will simplify curriculum and learning while elevating the teaching profession. This vision advocates three significant changes: 1) limiting “national standards” to lists of big important ideas stated in the form of learning goals; 2) giving educators the responsibility and authority to determine the paths to achieving these goals and how these paths will be developed, monitored, and achieved; and 3) using the best educational research, theories and practices to ensure that all students master, not only important content, but the nature of learning itself.

Since the adoption of No Child Left Behind, the curriculum and learning experiences available to children have been significantly constrained by state-level tests of varying degrees of difficulty and sophistication aimed at eliminating any differences in performance across demographic and racial groups and special needs and regular student populations. The flawed methodology adopted to achieve this laudable goal has led to increasingly negative consequences for students, schools, school districts, staffs, and communities. Despite results on state tests that show rising test scores, results from the National Assessment of Progress (NAEP) suggest such curriculum alignment efforts produced little overall improvement in learning. And most significantly, rather than narrowing gaps in learning, these test-driven systems have encouraged more labeling of “winners” and “losers” whether they are students, teachers, schools, or communities.

Equally challenging to many curriculum design efforts is the nature of learning itself, which for individuals is idiosyncratic. Learners often get their major learning insights on different timetables needing different amounts of instruction and different kinds of experiences; this variability occurs even with the best teaching. One-size-fits-all approaches invariably fail.

Sweeping Changes on Behalf of Students, Mining the Under-Used Intellect of Teachers

An emaciated curriculum must be reinvigorated by focusing on what we know about learners, their needs, characteristics, and development. Some of these needs and characteristics have emerged in recent research, but have been appended to curriculum planning rather than made central. This requires a revolutionary mental shift in how curriculum is developed. For example, as we now understand, children are not “born smart.” They “learn to be smart.” Social science and neuroscience combine to support this new way of thinking about “intelligence” and “ability.” Public education’s primary obligation to individual students is to develop and manage what is, in effect, a path of successes that will help them “learn to be smart.” Persistence and hard work are crucial for student learning and growth. Researchers have labeled this “grit.” It’s as good a predictor of future success as any standardized test results we have. Without the experience of genuine accomplishment, persistence withers. The public education system must set policies and support practices that help students learn to be smart and prioritize the development of persistence in students. This essential support for learners, building capacity from “the bottom up,” is so basic that it must become an embedded feature of every classroom.

Conventional wisdom suggests that all children at a certain chronological age or grade level must take a standardized test to show their “mastery” of a uniform set of outcomes. This is a faulty, static view of learning with weak curriculum frameworks that do not serve the best interests of children, families, or society. Conventional wisdom in this instance should be abandoned. The systems of teaching, learning, assessment, and accountability that professionals develop around national goals will have the focus and the agility to meet the future needs of students and society.

Public education systems must also be aggressive in investing in the interests and potential talents of each student. Personalized learning requires more than lip service and it takes significant amounts of time and resources. A chief area of responsibility for professional educators then is to make certain each child has many opportunities to sample and develop a variety of interests. Educators have a delicate role in honoring students’ current interests while at the same time showing them a wider world of choices in which to engage.

Public education should be responsible for supporting the development over time of a student’s deep knowledge in several areas of interest. Developing these interests and deep knowledge gives students an “identity” as a capable learner. This is an identity that the learner carries through schooling and into future learning situations. Researchers call it a “growth mindset.” This identity is the sense successful individuals have that they possess the capacity, the intellectual tools, and the stamina to take on new learning challenges and prevail.

To create curriculum that uses national goals as an ongoing framework while also developing students’ individual interests, professional educators need their own deep knowledge of disciplines, how they overlap, how they intersect, and most importantly, how to use this knowledge to help students make visible progress toward achieving national learning goals. Professional educators will draw on their own knowledge to help students develop interests that can broaden, mature, and change over time. Traditional disciplines (e.g., the arts, music, language—English as well as other world languages, mathematics, sciences, technology, history, social sciences, civics, drama, geography, and physical education) are sources for accessing important skills and content. Students are mostly likely to retain the content, skills, and problem-solving methods associated with various disciplines, however, when they are embedded in hands-on and real world learning experiences that integrate concepts and applications across disciplines. Such experiences promote and encourage habits of thinking such as curiosity, creativity, exploration, and intellectual risk taking.

Conventional content coverage rooted in traditional disciplines and often taught in sequences determined by custom should be replaced with planned, monitored, and documented sets of in-depth studies. These studies may have a well-defined time frame or span years and include mentor relationships depending upon student interest and engagement. Every student must have appropriate choice options that provide experience in developing “expertise,” as well as the ability to apply or transfer this meta-learning to other aspects of life. Personalized learning opportunities should also include industry-, government- or community-sponsored internships leading to post-secondary employment and additional training.

For reasons both civic and humane, the curriculum must be embedded in a democratic learning environment that encourages students to recognize and to respect and value the opinions, beliefs, integrity, and ethical behavior of others. Learning experiences must also require students to think deeply and make decisions about their own beliefs and values. To participate fully in the democratic environment of the school, students of every age need to be supported in the development of executive function and self-regulation strategies, two powerful correlates of success in later life.

We Have Everything to Gain

As we create curriculum and learning experiences in the future, much of what disappeared in an achievement race that lost its moorings will be regained by professionals who act on well-defined principles of learning and compassionate actions on behalf of the learners themselves.

A new vision for curriculum and learning imagines a public education system that has reckoned with the vast and rapid changes in knowledge, demographics, resources, economics, governments, technologies, and worldviews unfolding constantly across states, countries, continents, and cultures, reinventing itself to develop the talents of each individual. It is time for the public education system to show the larger society through the learning experiences it offers what it looks like to love and care for all our children.

Ironically, in a society noted for valuing choice and the individual, one of the biggest challenges in developing curriculum and learning experiences in the future may be to escape the authoritarianism that has characterized many education reform efforts. In the name of the worthy goal of eliminating achievement gaps, we have drifted into something very recognizable to individuals who were educated outside the United States.

Chinese-born educator, Yong Zhao, notes:

Authoritarianism has driven America to admire, glorify, and emulate other authoritarian education systems because they seem to produce “results”—defined as test scores. Instead of valuing what their own educational methods can produce, American leaders envy countries with top test scores in a narrow set of subjects—which is simply a sign of how successfully those countries have homogenized their students . . . To cultivate new talents, we need an education that enhances individual strengths, follows children’s passions, and fosters their social-emotional development.

–Yong Zhao, Presidential Chair, Director of Institute of Global and Online Education, College of Education, University of Oregon         

This view of what curriculum and learning experiences should look like in our future public education requires, in addition to the universal learning outcomes already identified, entirely new ways of thinking about assessment and accountability, teacher preparation, and the ways schools are organized and structured to accommodate these changes.