Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Problem with Curriculum

This one is Dan Meyer's fault, again. Dan has a set of posts out there on good presentations* that I think any teacher who lectures even once a year should read and take to heart.

He said:
Expect your audience to have exactly 20% your enthusiasm. Thus, if your enthusiasm level is only at 70% throughout your presentation, the best you can expect of your audience is 14% enthusiasm. 14%! That's science, people, don't try to argue me on this. If you aren't feeling it, please don't inflict your tepid emotional state on the rest of us.
When I looked through various data and figured out what, out of the curriculum my students didn't learn last year, I realized that it all had something in common. The material my students don't learn is the stuff I don't ask them to do something with. Whenever I ran out of inspiration or time and ended up just lecturing/having them read about something, they tested poorly on it. This seems so obvious in retrospect, but seeing the pattern in the benchmark tests and making that connection was actually pretty amazing at the time.

So, for this school year one of my big goals was to have students transform information as much as possible. Even when I introduced a topic through lecture or reading, the goal was to make sure that I always did something else with that information afterwards. What that has meant for my classroom is a lot more creation on the students part, which is definitely a good thing. The less I talk and the more they do, the better.

I just finished up grading midterms and an overall end-of-semester grading frenzy last week, so I've been thinking about what I failed to teach in the first semester this year. There were a few things that I didn't spend enough time on the doing, or wasn't clear enough about originally, but overall the goal of doing things has been helpful. What's left on the pile of "things no one seemed to get" are now the things that I don't care about.

This is the problem with curriculum: How can I make them care when I don't?

I'm a history teacher because I love history. Love love love it. I'll spend hours discussing it for no reason other than the fun of it. But there are things on my curriculum that I don't care about. That I don't see as important. That aren't part of what makes me passionate about history. (There are also things on my curriculum that just aren't true, but that's a whole 'nother can of worms.)

I was talking to our new AP and social studies overseer about this problem recently. He used to teach World History, so he knows exactly what I'm working with. He feels that the state curriculum is just a jumbled mess of facts, and if we're going to teach from it and teach well, we need to make the connections between those facts for ourselves and then make them explicit for the students. (What Dan calls the "through-line".) This really clicked with the problem of curriculum for me: I can't explain the connections when I don't see them myself.

I'm not familiar with the standards/curricula for history in every state, obviously, but in my experience they're mostly the problematic type. Have some facts your students should know. (Abe Lincoln was president of the US during the Civil War.) Standards shouldn't be a list of facts but a story framework. What matters is the connections, not the facts. History is interesting because its a story. So make the story the aim of the curriculum.

If nothing else, it'd make my job easier.

*Dan Meyer, How to Present


Sean said...

This is brilliant, brilliant stuff. I am sitting here beaming for you that you've uncovered this. I remember making a similar discovery during my time as a creative writing grad student teacher at CU-Boulder. I remember telling my class that, while the general theory was that it was important they learn something about plot, I told them I was confused by plot, and not all that interested in it. We hashed through it, but mostly I asked them questions, and I posed problems with traditional conceptions of "plot" in literature and literary analysis. They came up with tons of great insights, and the "lecture" turned into a discussion without my even trying. (Again, it's that transparency at work; but also this thing you're talking about - that what we teach has to matter to us, has to stir us, at least a little. My students actually helped me *discover what was so important about plot.)

I did a very similar thing almost every semester with poetry. I am not a poet, and I told my students that. I said that I could present them with material and ideas, but that they were going to have to teach *me about poetry; and if they didn't care about poetry, we would have to work together to find out what was so important about it in the first place. It always worked like a charm. Heck, I had ROTC students who started to enjoy writing poetry. No one every left the class without learning not only the material, but also understanding why the material was important.

Wonderful post. Thanks!


Penelope said...

I just ... can't imagine doing what you did with you poetry sections with my students. I picture that conversation going something like this:

"Well, ladies and gents, the curriculum map says we're supposed to learn about the Commercial Revolution now. I don't really know what that is or why it's important, so we're going to have to figure that out together."

This would be met with dead silence and later on comments about how we should just skip it and spend more time on famous explorers.

How do you do this level of transparency and make it work? How do you get the students to buy in enough to care to be part of that? I understand that it worked for you, but I just can't even imagine how to do this with my high school sophomores. Maybe I'm underestimating them, it's possible, but I just ... can't envision what it would look like as a success in my class. And how can I work towards a goal that I can't envision?