The Curriculum Question

A good friend messaged me a question the other day that’s come up a few times in conversation since. It’s sort of an eternal question in the education world, and I thought I’d share my gut response. This answer is by no means my final word on the subject; I feel like I’m continually formulating my thoughts on learning, education, etc. But I love the discussion, and hearing other people’s thoughts. 

Sooo, I offer you the question and my stream-of-consciousness response. In reading it over, I have some things I’d edit and add. But for now (because I’m ready to go get my jammies on), I’m leaving it as is and inviting you to add your thoughts on the matter. 

Q: Gordo [that was my nickname from college], what do you know about the Core Knowledge Curriculum? It’s all the rage in the burbs these days. And what do you think the ideal curriculum is? Big question, I know, but I would love to hear your answer.

A: Oh boy. That’s an enormous can of worms. To directly answer your question, I don’t know much about the Core Knowledge Curriculum itself. I do take some issue with the philosophy behind it, which is that there is some set knowledge that all kids need to know at each grade level. Who decides what parts of history or literature or science are worthy of teaching and which aren’t? It’s all rather arbitrary. And that’s true of most canned curriculums.

The cynic in me sees the whole curriculum business as just that – a business. They all market their products as the best, or the most progressive, or based on the most current research, blah blah blah, in order to get teachers/parents/school boards to buy their products. Also, from my reading, many of the current curriculums are highly scripted and leave no room for deviation or improvisation, which really takes all of the art out of teaching. 

My belief is that learning is a much more organic process than we currently treat it, and that no set curriculum is going to serve all kids. Ideally, I’m a proponent of teaching basic learning skills/tools (reading, math, critical thinking, problem solving), exposing kids to LOTS of different things, and then helping guide them down the paths that intrigue them. I think kids learn better and deeper if they are allowed freedom to choose what they want to learn about. For some kids, that might mean a unit study in medieval architecture, for some it might be exploring the properties of magnetism, for some it might mean comparing artistic methods and mediums. Once they satisfy their curiosity, they move on to something else. As long as they are using and building their tools of learning in the process (reading, math, critical thinking, problem solving), then the topic (history, science, art, geography, etc.) doesn’t need to be handed to them. Kids want to learn about the world; it’s a natural instinct to want to make sense of what you see and hear. If kids are exposed to a wide variety of stories, artwork, people, etc. they’ll naturally start asking questions, and what they learn by answering them leads to more questions, and so on. I guess you could say I think the best curriculum is a curriculum of questions led by the kids themselves. 

People ask, “But won’t they miss some things?” Maybe. But what does that even mean? We all have “gaps” on our education. That’s why learning is a lifelong process. I think if we make sure kids have the tools to learn (reading, math, critical thinking, problem-solving) and make sure we don’t squelch their natural drive to learn, kids will learn what they “need” to know. Because ultimately, kids aren’t going to learn everything anyway. They’re going to “learn” for a test (if they even do that) and then forget about it if it wasn’t something they really were interested in to begin with. I’m big on interest-led learning. There are some things kids do need to know, but I think that list is a lot smaller than people think. That doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t learn other things, and they will. There is a lifetime of things that are worth learning about. Keeping kids’ love of learning alive and helping them explore the world and develop their innate gifts is what education should be about, in my opinion. Curriculum is not only secondary, but if given too much emphasis, only succeeds in killing most kids’ drive to explore. 

Wow, you just got an earful. Sorry for the soapbox. It’s a very good question, and one that comes up a lot in the homeschool community. Lots of different opinions out there. And mine has gone through many variations with experience and exposure to lots of different philosophies. Education is one of the simplest and yet most complicated things in the world, isn’t it?

So, dear readers, what are your ideas, beliefs, etc. about curriculum or education in general? I know I’ve got folks here from all different parts of the education spectrum, so I think this could be an interesting discussion. Please share your thoughts (civilly and respectfully, of course). 

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Annie writes about life, motherhood, world issues, beautiful places, and anything else that tickles her brain. On good days, she enjoys juggling life with her husband and homeschooling her children. On bad days, she binges on chocolate chips and dreams of traveling the world alone.

Comments 8

  1. Lisa – I actually think of you often when I think of people who make the best of public school. I don’t think that public school is perfect, but I do think that for many parents it’s the best option (for money reasons, or because they just don’t have the gift of teaching. I think about my friends sweet children and how messy it would be if their parents tried to homeschool them…oi). I feel like you and John are absolutely involved in your kids’ education and I know that if every school had parents as involved as you guys, public education would have a much better reputation! 🙂

  2. Suz, that is pretty much what I said during this discussion. I feel like public & private education should be a collaborative effort between the school and the parents. This is the stance we have taken and why I spend so much time at their school either helping directly in the classroom, bring other programs to the school and helping provide the school with any needs they may have. Outside of school we try to take the boys to the library, museums and other exhibitions that interest them and broaden their horizons, so to speak. Annie pretty much reinforced my feelings about curriculums because I have always viewed them as a “fad”. Not to say they don’t work or provide different ways to learn but I don’t like throwing myself wholeheartedly behind a particular curriculum. Good discussion!

  3. Suzanne and Dad, yes! Thank you. P-Diddles, you’re an old lady. But I went ahead and increased the font size because I love you (despite your having no chocolate in your house yesterday). Kris and Gabbi, education choices are never easy. I question our decision to homeschool all the time. We all have to do what we can. Honestly, like David Albert said at our homeschooling conference, giving your kids time, patience, love, and lots of good conversation will go a LONG way. And you can do that no matter where your kids go to school. And those Discovery Channel videos are awesome.

    There’s a book called, “Guerrilla Learning: How to Give Your Child a Real Education With or Without School” by Grace Llewellyn that I thought was a great read for people whose kids do go to school but who want to give them more of an education like we’re discussing.

    As far as being disciplined and strong enough to homeschool, there are many days that I’m neither of those things. But the kids seem to keep learning despite my inadequacies. 🙂

  4. Have I ever told you you’re my hero? I think I have, but I’m throwing it out there again. I wish my kids went to your house for school every day. I wish I was qualified to home school my kids. But it just wasn’t in our cards. I love how you’ve thrown them into whatever they’re interested in.

    Sometimes I feel that outside of our full time jobs and the school day (They get dropped off at the bus stop at 7:30am, and picked up at 4:30pm. The bus ride is 45-60 mins.)there’s such limited time for exploring those interests. After we squeeze in music lessons with daily practice, swimming lessons, homework, school functions and Faith-related functions, there’s just enough time for meals and a little tidying up the place. Birthday parties, laundry and errands take over Saturdays and Sundays. I tried taking them with me to the library ONE time. They only wanted to play the computer games. I just didn’t have the patience to watch them play computer games in a library full of books. I guess that’s it. I just don’t have the patience to teach my kids. That stinks.

    I do love their school, but I agree with what you say. My kids will soon lose their love for learning. I recently bought a super cool 16-dvd set from the Discovery channel called Life on Earth. It looks amazing. We haven’t watched it yet, but now I’m all ramped up to throw that sucker in the dvd player tonight and watch it. I think that’s the answer I was searching for. We don’t live in the ideal area for, and I don’t have the time to bring my kids to everything that might interest them. Maybe I just need to spend some time on the couch and bring it to them 🙂

  5. Thank you for all the wonderful insight! I love reading anything you have to say about education. I am in a constant battle with myself about the education path for my kids. As you know from experience teaching in AZ, the school system is a joke! And I already know that Elijah, while quite intelligent, does not learn in a “standard classroom setting” fashion. I ponder the idea of home schooling, but then I fear I am not disciplined or strong enough to do so. So please keep blogging about education. You truly are an inspiration to me!

  6. Love the topic, but the font is so small that when I try and increase it, all the words go off the page. Make it a little bigger so I can read your wisdom.

  7. A spiritual sage once told me….each child is like a small garden plot. The role of the parent/teacher is to gently sift the soil in this plot to unearth the raw gems hidden therein. After unearthing these gems, the role additionally becomes the endeavor to help cut and polish those raw gems into “pristine brilliance.”
    Or, as Spock said to Captain Kirk when asked how the new and untested crew would perform: “Each according to his gifts, Captain.”

  8. First off, I think you should be the Commissioner of Education! I think you’ve pretty much nailed what is important about learning – the passion to learn and the basics: reading, math and critical thinking (I think problem solving is a natural by-product of critical thinking).
    I just typed a really really LONG response about my thoughts on education and then realized that they really didn’t answer the question you asked, they just reaffirmed why I am passionate about being a public school teacher. So, when it comes to what is important about a curriculum, I think you’re absolutely right Annie. Reading, Math and critical thinking are the most important parts of any curriculum. And for those parents who don’t homeschool their kids, I think the most important thing they can do for their kids is to continually foster that passion for learning. If your child comes home ranting and raving about dolphins, head to the zoo and then to the library and let them learn and learn and learn until they are done. And ask them questions and let them teach you. Other than that, what you learn and when you learn it are absolutely secondary.

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