Philosophy of Education: Curriculum
Now that we have discussed the who of education we are finally ready to move on to the what of education: curriculum. The word “curriculum” is an incredibly broad term which I view as representing the sum total of all that a learner learns in the course of his/her education. Curriculum is not just the government-mandated prescribed learning outcomes. Since it is so broad, I will speak briefly about by beliefs as they pertain to various types of curriculum. Overall, I seek to achieve balance in curriculum which both shares core timeless information yet is responsive to the great diversity of student interests and needs. As always, the guiding principle in selecting curriculum is to always act according to the needs and best interests of students.
A Broad View of Curriculum
Curriculum, in the broadest sense, incorporates all of the learner's learning experiences. This broad outlook becomes less daunting when we consider different aspects of curriculum separately. I will use the following divisions for curriculum: explicit curriculum – the government-dictated prescribed learning outcomes; implicit curriculum – the non-prescribed, teacher-selected outcomes; hidden curriculum – the unintended learning outcomes; null curriculum – what is not taught in schools; and extra curriculum – organized activities that occur outside of the confines of the school (Naested, et al., 2004). While these particular divisions are not essential to my beliefs about curriculum, I feel they are helpful in organizing my thoughts.
Explicit Curriculum. I am a mathematics specialist so most of my comments will be focused towards the mathematics curriculum. Mathematics, perhaps more so than most disciplines, tends towards depth rather than breadth, hence it is (plagued?) by dependencies. That is, in order to understand the material in the next course in the sequence students must understand the material in the current course1. Hence, as a classroom teacher, I do not have a lot of control over what the explicit curriculum consists of; however, I do have a great deal of control over how I teach it. I believe in order to deeply learn mathematics students must do mathematics. Doing mathematics does not mean merely memorizing algorithms, rather it means actively developing them. I believe that students must experience this creative side of mathematics lest they be left with the, false belief that it is a boring body of facts to be memorized. It is by creating mathematics that students develop the reasoning skills that I hope will carry through into student's lives. By comparison, as much as it pains me to admit, the algorithms are unimportant.
Implicit Curriculum. This is the curriculum that is taught primarily through role modelling and through meaningful incorporation into the curriculum. It includes Canadian values of democracy and respect for diversity. It is also where, when appropriate, teachers need to “teach students to understand relevant [explicit] curriculum in a Canadian, Aboriginal, [and/or] global contexts” (British Columbia Ministry of Education, 2012, p. 4). The implicit curriculum is flexible, and should be responsive to the needs of students and the community.
Hidden Curriculum. The hidden curriculum is closely related to the implicit curriculum, except it is focused on the unintended lessons that teachers and the educational system as a whole teach hence my philosophy tends towards the avoidance of potentially harmful lessons. To this end, I believe it is important that teachers regularly reflect on their teaching through the lens of the following two big questions of critical theory: “ How [does my] school contribute to inequality and oppression in society? What pedagogy can address these problems” (Barakett & Cleghorn, 2008, p. 50).
Null Curriculum. R. Medcraft, an Australian Aboriginal educational leader, notes that teacher are often afraid to teach Aboriginal content for fear that they will teach something wrong (2000). I feel this fear, but it is a fear that I need to overcome lest Aboriginal knowledge and ways of knowing fall to the null curriculum. If particular knowledge or ways of knowing are not taught, students, and indeed society, may well infer that this untaught knowledge is unimportant (Naested, et al., 2004). Clearly, this has huge implications for the teaching of knowledge from marginalized cultures. In order to overcome this fear, non-Aboriginal teachers especially, need to seek out the support of people like Aboriginal education workers, and Elders to include appropriate content in culturally sensitive ways. Once again, the issues surrounding null curriculum reach further than just Indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing, it is just the most pertinent example.
Extra Curriculum. It cannot be denied that extra curricular activities are an enriching part of many learners' education. Part of what makes extra-curricular activities so enriching, yet hard to discuss as a whole, is the fact that they can be tailored to student interests. The unfortunate aspect is that typically cost money, sometimes a great deal of money. I believe that as a system we need to provide more opportunities for students of lower socio-economic classes to participate in extra-curricular activities without adding financial stress to their families. This issue resonates particularly deeply for me as I came from a family of 4 children in a single-income, lower-middle class family so the question of “how much will it cost” always came up when considering extra-curricular activities. Equality of access is a systemic problem that we, as a society need to fix.
The Focus of Curriculum
Determining the focus of curriculum is a balancing act between differing viewpoints and opinions. Should curriculum be student-centred as advocated for by the progressivists, should it be strive to be society centred as the essentialists would have it, or should curriculum place relatively timeless content first as per perennialist thought (Naested, et al., 2004; Walker & Soltis, 2009)? The answer, I believe, lies in a balance with a student-centred bias. Without the great developments in knowledge of those who came before, students would have to recreate knowledge from scratch – this would slow, if not stop, the progress of ideas in our society. If students do not develop the basic skills needed in life, they will not become the independent adults capable of interacting with and bettering society. Finally, if students do not get to interact with the curriculum on a personal level, they are unlikely to develop the deep interests needed to drive life-long learning. In order to achieve the appropriate balance, core topics can be taken from a traditional perennialist/essentialist curriculum but taught in a way that encourages students to investigate them using inquiry-based activities that place the learners in the role of knowledge creators. In addition, student interests can be incorporated into into lessons. Well designed lessons should consist of student-centred activities that give students the opportunity to personally explore the concepts to be taught.
Differentiated Curriculum for Diverse Learners
In as far as it is possible curriculum should be designed to be inclusive of a wide variety of learners. Differentiated activities – activities that play to a variety of intelligences and ability levels – is the key to inclusivity. The activity described in the Learners section of this paper is one such example. When designing activities that involve multiple intelligences, I believe that activities should not allow students to avoid areas of weakness. Such options may result in a lack of development weaker domains. Instead, activities should be designed so that areas of strength are used to support areas of weakness by truly involving multiple intelligences and skills rather than involving one or two student-selected intelligences. In addition appropriate adaptations and/or modifications need to be considered for identified exceptional learners. As a teacher, it is important to accept that carefully chosen, appropriate accommodations do not represent an unfair advantage to students for which they have been recommended rather they represent a levelling of the educational playing field (British Columbia Ministry of Education, 2009a). Gifted students are one class of exceptional learners whose special needs are often, unfortunately, ignored. Such students deserve an enriched curriculum. In mathematics at least, I would lean towards enrichment geared towards increasing student depth and breadth of learning over merely accelerating the existing curriculum. Gifted students often have special interests which can and should be used as a leaping off point for enrichment. People are diverse, hence curriculum must be designed with diversity in mind. Well-designed curriculum should lend itself to being tailored to meet the needs of individual students for whom it has been designed.
Good teaching and assessment are inseparable. Hence, as I believe in the value of differentiated instruction, I must also accept the notion of differentiated assessment. The underlying maxim of differentiated assessment is “fair isn't always equal” (Wormeli, 2006). Instead, “[f]airness must be redefined in terms of equity of opportunity” (Cooper, 2011, p. 30). Assessment schemes for a given learning outcome must be carefully chosen and adapted so that they are fair to diverse learners, yet still measure learning against relatively objective standards. A given assessment task may be differentiated in terms of 1) scope, 2) complexity, 3) constraints, 4) criteria, and/or 5) medium; however, any modifications must preserve the purpose of the assessment (Cooper, 2010). Fortunately, standards-based criterion-referenced evaluation is compatible with differentiated assessment. With criterion-referenced evaluation, students' performance is compared against objective standards (e.g. using a rubric) rather than against each others'. This leaves room for differentiation as long as the rubric is sufficiently broad and the adapted task still assess the same objective. By comparison, the inferior practice of norm-referenced evaluation (e.g. “bell curving”), is incompatible with differentiation since it places students in competition with each other hence it is inherently unfair (British Columbia Ministry of Education, 2009b). Fairness, as in equity of opportunity, is the ideal that should guide teachers' assessment and evaluation practices.
1Thus review of past concepts and skills is an essential part of learning and teaching mathematics.