What If We Developed Curriculum Focusing More on “Why” and Less on “What”?

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We typically think of the curriculum as what we teach to students. However, while what we teach is important, what students learn is what really matters. This statement may seem obvious, but experienced educators know that just because a concept or skill has been taught does not necessarily mean it has been learned. Further, just because something was taught and students have demonstrated learning on an assessment does not mean that the learning is deep and will be retained.

This observation cuts to the core of how our schools are designed and curricula are developed and delivered to students. Most schools and school districts design curriculum based on students being assigned to grades based on their age. Yet, we know that learning is not driven solely by the age of the learner. Whether learning occurs is more likely to be determined by what students already know, their perception of the value and purpose of what they are asked to learn, and the extent to which the learning experience resonates with and makes sense to the learner.

The situation is further complicated by the tendency to roll forward what has been in the curriculum in the past, while adding new mandates, expanded content, and current information. The result is that there is more to be taught than there is time for teachers to teach and students to learn.

Meanwhile, scant attention is often given to the question of why students should learn each concept, skill, and body of information contained in the curriculum. The absence of rigorous consideration of why students should learn each element inserted in the curriculum creates a series of problems.

First, the lack of such attention risks inclusion of content that has no clear, current purpose. Absent a clear purpose, the content is likely to be taught in a cursory manner. Meanwhile, students focus on retaining the information only until it has been assessed. Time is expended, but little value is generated.

Second, the absence of attention to the purpose for learning a skill, concept, or body of information often leaves teachers unable to explain to or convince students why they should give full effort to their learning. Consequently, it can be tempting for teachers to resort to extrinsic rewards and threats to generate learning effort rather than nurturing in students an appreciation for the value of learning as its own reward. Too often this approach leads students to see grades as the purpose for learning rather than understanding that grades are intended to be a reflection of their learning.

Third, we know that unless learning has a purpose, it will not engage the full measure of attention, effort, and reflection necessary for the learning to stick. Absent a clear purpose, students often come to see learning as a compliance activity rather than an empowering effort that gives them greater control over their lives and builds their ability to influence the forces that will shape their futures.

Fourth, the inclusion of non-crucial elements in a curriculum intended for all students reduces time for exploration and learning that might not be important for or of interest to all students. If the curriculum can be trimmed to essentials, time can be created to tap and nurture the passions of individuals and groups of students. These experiences can open and expand the thinking of students in ways that make the curriculum more meaningful, valuable, and purposeful. As a result, their engagement in and learning from the common curriculum is richer and greater.

Admittedly, the curriculum can be an “unwieldy beast.” Making changes in the way curriculum is developed may not be easy. But if we are committed to having the curriculum be a learning guide, not just a teaching path, the battle is worth waging.

How have you injected compelling “whys” and clear purpose in your lessons? How has the curriculum supported or thwarted your efforts? What ideas do you have for a curriculum that serves the needs of today’s learners?

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