The intersection of curriculum and individual student interests and engagement

So, I have always struggled with the idea that as a society, we need curriculum to guide us. We want our citizens to have certain knowledge and be able to do certain things. Reading, writing and ‘rithmitic (my little wee tiny jab at back to basics provocateurs…) for example. Okay, so I am going to go off on a tangent right away, but it occurs to me that as a society we religiously (nope, not starting down that road…) want our kids to read and write and do math, and hopefully think…we hear the clamouring all the time. I do not disagree. However, what percentage of our lives do we spend engaged in something that lives in, or uses technology and computers? 80% 100%? Yet, very few of us are clamouring to have our kids learn to write computer programs….that is for the specialists, isn’t it? Could it be because none of us know how to do it, never learned it and of course do not need it? We all learned to read and write and do ‘rithmitic, but we did not learn to write computer programs. And, despite the fact that all the computer programmers could take over the world tomorrow, it simply does not occur to us, or we run from it, “cause it’s too hard”…..however, as I said, I digress. Back to my original point…hopefully.

I agree with curriculum resting at the provincial level, guided hopefully by experts who know what we all need to know. However, how much flexibility is there in that curriculum? Does it allow students and teachers to branch out and go their own way? Should it? Can it? I am not sure. I will use a history example to make my point, hopefully.

I am a lover of history. I download podcasts (Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History is amazingly well done) and I download university lectures from iTunesU. They are brilliant. I have even made connections with some of the professors from Yale, Harvard and Berkeley, just to tell them how much I enjoyed their lectures. I always started the email with “I am not a freak stalking you, but…). I can now learn amazing stuff, taught to me by experts who know, at my leisure, while I cycle, ski, fish, drive, or whatever. I can also tailor my learning. In listening to a fantastic series on Western Civilization by John Merriman from Yale (check him out on youtube, he is very engaging), I can skip the lecture on “social conditions early in the British Industrial Revolution” because I really am not interested. However, I can listen to his lecture on the early stages of the Bolshevik Revolution a hundred times if I want. Perhaps part of why I am so interested in the Bolshevik Revolution is because I have personal ties to it. My father and his family emigrated from Western Ukraine (Slave Ukraina, by the way) in 1928, shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, and many of our relatives were affected by Communism for the next 75 years, including perishing in the Gulag.

However, the point is that I can be a consumer of history in this manner. If I was listening to a lecture on Medieval History in Europe, I would be attracted to anything related to the Knights Templar, the Church, their conflict, Philip the Fair, etc. So, if a student takes CHW3M and is more interested in the Knights Templar, does it really matter that they skip a unit? I would argue, as a student of history, that one often “skips” certain elements of a history program to concentrate on another, and then the questions raised often lead you back to where you deviated in the first place. Often to really understand something, you need to understand something else, even if it is not that interesting originally. It is information that adds to the overall topic and it spreads like a root system.

So, in the end, we ask our teachers to find things that inspire our kids, motivate them to learn more and get involved, yet we often as administrators and as a “system” we do not give them enough freedom and leeway. However, how do we balance it all, so that the “important” knowledge is still learned? The “Roma” in me wants to scream that really there is no “important knowledge” and what right do any of us have to deem there to be? However the university trained teacher in me also bristles at the thought of a laissez faire system of curriculum. Yes, if all students were engaged in learning, perhaps it would not matter, but they are all not, are they now? If only we could really know if decentralizing curriculum would really lead to significantly higher engagement, then we could just do it, couldn’t we? Because, you know, all three political parties would agree with that,,,
Great day at OTRK12 today. Thanks to all the presenters and contributors who kept the thoughts flowing on Twitter. Looking forward to tomorrow.

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