By William Boyle
As a teacher, I have wrestled with years with the notion of “curriculum.” What really is a curriculum? Who determines it and what purpose does it serve?It has always been a struggle for me to look at a suggested, or assigned curriculum, and to somehow incarnate that for actual students in the classroom. It’s difficult always to make a plan that someone else envisions for his/her own purposes, and to then make that plan come to life in the lives of actual, living, breathing adolescents. And if a curriculum cannot come alive in this way, then what purpose does it really serve? It seems to me that such questions come up for every teacher that cares about the lives of his or her students. In wrestling with questions such as these, I have come up with some contingent answers that have come to surprise even myself, answers which possibly subvert the whole concept of curriculum as we think of it.
Curriculum: A Definition
First of all I would like to address what exactly we mean by the word curriculum. Normally it means the topic, books or ideas that will be worked with in any classroom. What the students do in terms of the intended learning is shaped by what the curriculum consists of. When we think of schooling, normally the vision is that of teachers doing their “curricular work” over the summer, either alone or in small groups determined by their discipline. In other words, it is done outside the context of an actual classroom filled with living bodies. Instead, curricular work is done with a concept of what the class will be like, necessarily filled with abstractions of what the teachers believe the students are like. It is a fantasy full of abstractions. This is not necessarily a criticism. Important reflective work is done the same way. However, it is meant as a truth to be recognized. Curricular work is a vision based on a fantasy abstracted from reality. The prevailing stereotype of curricular work is that it is completed outside of the context of an actual classroom filled with real students. Parker Palmer, the educational philosopher/ thinker, uses different language, which has some subtle, yet important, differences in connotation. He calls the subject to be studied the “Third Thing.” And you can’t have a Third Thing without having two other things. Already there is a relational view of curriculum occurring, a context that depends upon relationship in order to exist. There is no “curriculum” which is able to stand on its own outside of the context of an actual classroom. The other two things in Palmer’s mode of thinking are the teacher and the students. None of these can exist outside of the context of the other two things. Is there really a teacher if there is no subject to teach? If not, what is the teacher teaching? And if there are no students, whom is the teacher teaching? When thinking of curriculum in this way (i.e., as subject and in relation to the other two things), then curriculum can exist only in the context of community. The binding force of the community, the purpose for its gathering, is the subject. But the subject can only truly exist in relation to an actual community. To think of it any other way is to fragment the whole, to imagine the community as fragmented, to deny that the three things are not actual unless in community. The danger that occurs in speaking about curriculum as separate from community is that it creates a false dualism, as if curriculum exists on a piece of paper, as a plan, simply because a teacher writes it out (and in some cases, submits it to someone else, i.e. an administrator, for judgment). Thus curriculum is judged as “good” or “bad” as an objective reality before the other two things are even present!
The Fragmented Curriculum: Source and Purpose
After defining what is meant by curriculum, we have to determine what we want for the community. What is the purpose of learning in this community and how will our purpose shape the community? Whether conscious or not, curriculum is always shaped by this question. And the question of purpose can never be determined without determining who shapes the curriculum, and who influences the shaping of the curriculum. I argue that the further away the source of the curriculum lies from the actual community (which consists of all three things), the more abstracted the purpose of the curriculum becomes from the real lives of the members of the community. In other words, the further away from the actual classroom’s time and place the fragmented curriculum is developed, the less relevant it will be, and the chance that authentic learning will actually occur decreases. The easiest way for me to draw examples of this is in my own field, English. Often times curriculum is developed by those far away from any particular classroom for very abstract purposes. Thus, the purpose of learning reading and writing becomes to know how to write for college, to score well on the verbal portion of the SAT, or to write well for the Michigan Educational Assessment Program. All of which are fine goals when looked at individually, but as purposes for the study of English literature, reading and writing, they seem to me to be weak to the degree of blasphemy in terms of the actual intentions of real readers and writers. One of my favorite quotes in relation to this is by Robert Coles, who says that all literature addresses the great moral question, “How ought one live a life?” If all literature in some way works with such a compelling question (And who among us doesn’t struggle with the same question to varying degrees? How can literature ever become irrelevant to the lives of adolescents if this question is the basis for its study?), then why form curriculum for the purpose of scoring well on a test, or knowing how to write a 5 paragraph essay? All too often the design of curriculum avoids the issues that the writers of literature put as the central themes of their work, the kind of questions that come to life naturally, without any curricular intention on the part of anyone in the life of a living community.
Community and Curriculum
If we take Palmer’s notion of the Third Thing seriously, then any meaningful look at curriculum can only take place from within the context of community. In other words, standardized testing is a waste of time to the degree that it imposes abstractions upon a community through curricular assumptions. Such a way of imagining what goes on in schools necessarily limits learning and the transformational potential of community. Instead, we need to look at curriculum as it really occurs when it lives. That is, we need to know that the kind of curriculum that leads to authentic learning always exists as within the dialogue of com munity members. If the Third Thing provides the purpose of a community, then it also must be realized that a community continually reassess, reshapes, re-envisions, and reforms its purpose through dialogue. This dialogue occurs between teacher and students, but mostly between teacher/student and subject. How quickly a class learns a curriculum by whatever measure always determines pace, which content material is learned and when. This is a simple example that reflects current reality. To take this further, I imagine a learning community in which curriculum is determined in the present. There is no plan that happens without negotiation. There is no reading that is done without critical dialogue about its purpose, its relevance to teacher and student, individually and communally. Thus curriculum would never be static, but always evolving. The health of the community (and health here includes necessary feedback/confrontation) requires flexibility in relation to the subject and our approaches to it. There would not be an artificial ceiling to what is learned based on the content of any standardized test. (Anyway, tests such as these are developed far away from the context of particular classrooms.) The nature of a healthy community leads organically to the evolution of its own particular curriculum, a curriculum which has relevance built into its establishment, driven by authentic questions, leading to authentic learning and the habits of deep questioning and thinking. Isn’t this much closer to what actually occurs in any classroom that is alive, that is driven by the passion for learning that living a full life requires? Curriculum must be firmly grounded in the particulars of any given, particular community. When we develop curriculums to be bought and sold, usually because of their application to standardized tests, we deaden possibility. When we impose an external vision upon any particular community, we fragment and cheapen the existence of that community. We teach children that life (like our curriculum) exists as a given. That the world can’t be shaped but must be settled for. Instead of developing a passion for learning we develop the habit of conformity to externals which students have no choice about. I want no part of such a vision. We can refuse to allow ourselves to be limited by the imagination of others.
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