Tuesday, October 25, 2011

10 Ways to Re-Imagine the Classroom: 6. The Nature of the Curriculum

This post is part six in a series in which I offer some ways that we can work together to re-imagine our classrooms so that students are more engaged, our work is more relevant, and student learning is more enriching. This list of ten comes from a workshop I help facilitate on Transformational Teaching.

#6- We Can Transform the Nature of the Curriculum from Segmented to Integrated.

The other day I walked into my daughter's room to discover a joyous mess. She had taken every toy that had been carefully sorted only hours before into separate and aesthetically pleasing baskets and bins, and she had dumped them all into a decidedly not sorted play extravaganza. The Little People were mixing it up with the Toy Story characters, drinking tea from a giant tea set and swimming in Barbie's pool. They were all having a lively discussion (voiced entirely by my 3-year-old) amidst what could only be described as a post-apocalyptic Lego and Lincoln Log landscape.

As an adult who had helped to so carefully sort and store this pile so recently, I was mortified. In my mind, we had gone to all the trouble in the first place so that when my daughter wanted to play tea party, or Barbies, or blocks, she would be able to easily find the pieces she would need to fully enjoy that world. If this was the way she was going to play, I might as well have just thrown everything into a single box.

Then I realized that I was placing my own ideas about how to interact with the toys on my daughter. My brain sees these toys in categories, and it imagines playing with them in isolation from one another. It's kind of sad. In my world, the Little People bus is too small to fit Woody, Buzz and Rex. I was suddenly very aware of how limited my world is compared to my daughter's. By organizing for her, I was actively limiting her possibilities. Fortunately, she was strong-willed enough to correct the situation.

We limit our students in much the same way. That is why I believe that we might do well to stop thinking about the curriculum in terms of Subjects. This is something that, admittedly, is a hard transformation to imagine accomplishing. School is made of boxes; we have a science box, a math box, a history box, etc. In middle school and high school (typically) we structure kids' days around moving children from box to box. I'm a scientist for 50 minutes, then a writer, then an athlete...

Even in the younger grades, because we attach standards separately to each subject area, there is pressure for teachers to structure the day around subject areas instead of skills. It's an ironic reality of liberal arts learning that schools feel the need to separate subjects to guarantee that students will experience all of them, but in the process, we create an environment in which students are not engaged in the learning.

The problem is that when we separate science learning from history learning, language learning and math learning, we remove opportunities for students to make connections between subjects that will accelerate and solidify their learning.

Worse, we prevent students from exploring and driving their own learning. We take away their opportunity to create something new or to make learning personally relevant.

I really wonder what it would look like if we had a school in which students were allowed to freely mix and match the content they were learning, if the goal of school wasn't to "get through" a pre-determined set of content, but was instead to master learning, develop creativity, and explore the world.

If we can build that, my daughter will graduate at the top of her class.

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