Thursday, March 31, 2011

Curriculum as Complicated Conversation

Curriculum is often couched as a deliverable. Like me, you may have heard phrases like:
"Teachers need to differentiate in order to deliver the curriculum."
"The specialist researches teaching methods and develops ways for teachers to successfully deliver the curriculum to meet these goals..."
Or this from an ASCD post: "The taught curriculum is the one that teachers actually deliver." 
Go ahead and query "deliver the curriculum" and see what pops.  I got more than 250,000 hits.

It's interesting to consider what rests beneath the metaphor of curriculum as a product that can be delivered, especially as it has become such an accepted (and I want to suggest not examined) means of expression. "Delivering" suggests a thing that can be transported from point A to point B. It is something that is contained and whole and at the destination point, handed over.

Now think of something you learned that was complex. Was it simply a means of someone handing "it" to you?  Could the learning you are recalling even be contained in a single expression?  Were you simply the receiver of this learning or did you need to play with the concept--idea and in doing so perhaps the initial "it" was changed or (in)formed by new understanding?

Situating curriculum as a thing is a mistake, let alone as that which can be moved from point A to point B.  Instead, think of curriculum as that which is made between and among people.  Yes, curriculum may be informed by products that can be moved (curriculum document, state standards, etc.), but curriculum happens in the lived moment.  As such, learners, be it teacher or student, maintain agency.

William Pinar tells us that curriculum is a “complicated conversation.” He suggests curriculum is  situated in space and time where teacher, student, and text meet to co-produce self, other, and culture. The curriculum documents that are produced in schools and standards that are produced by states and nations offer possible curricula, but not the lived one. To mistake one for the other often leads to reenactment or miming and divorces "school curriculum from public life and school curriculum from students' self-formation" (Pinar, p. 186).  Pinar writes:
Instead of employing school knowledge to complicate our understanding of ourselves and the society in which we live, teachers are forced to "instruct" students to mime others' (i.e., textbook authors') conversations, ensuring that countless classrooms are filled with forms of ventriloquism rather than intellectual exploration, wonder, and awe (p. 186).
Intellectual exploration, wonder, and awe cannot occur if learners are thought of as receivers of curriculum, be it the teacher who is handed the curriculum to deliver or the student who receives "the content".  Intellectual exploration, wonder, and awe require an organicism that is not relevant, nor possible, when the task at hand is mere mimicry or translation.

So it seems prudent to ask, What is the purpose of curriculum?  If curriculum is understood to be a document, it often is reduced to thing that gets checked. I once worked in a school district where teachers were made to write all of the objectives (citing state standards) for a "lesson" on classroom blackboards.  I thought it absurd, especially when I entered a kindergarten classroom and saw that the large amount of print taking up the blackboard served only to visually confuse children who were trying to acquire the alphabetic principle.  But beyond the primary school issues,  one might wonder, why were teachers directed to do this?  I suspect that somewhere in the hierarchy, a person or two thought that this accounting would translate into learning.  I hazard to guess that at some educational conference or in a fashionable education journal, this type of action may have been touted as a form of accountability. It is only a form of accountability if you believe that curriculum is a product that can be delivered and that writing it on the board makes it so.

So if the purpose of curriculum is not to make sure that x gets "done", then what is it?

Pinar writes:
The educational point of the public school curriculum is understanding, understanding the relations among academic knowledge, the state of society, the process of self-formation, and the character of the historical moment in which we live, in which other have lived, and in which our descendants will someday live (p. 187).
Understanding requires the acknowledgment of a self who is historically situated and at the same time always becoming. Learning requires interaction with academic knowledge, understanding that this too is socially situated. These relationships are not unidirectional and are influenced in ways those close to the moment may be able to predict, but never with any certainty.  Meaning is composed in such moment, not handed out like a boxed curriculum or a nation's standards.

This is why curriculum is a complicated conversation, not a rote recitation of someone else's words. Curriculum gets made, not transported. To occasion such excellence requires expertise and planning.  The plans learners make  need to be thoughtful expressions of intention, not actuality.   Consider Murray Krantzman, a middle school teacher,  who explains (Reilly, 2009):
I plan instruction more as notes to myself. I have a sense of where the work might head, but it is not necessarily the procedural aspects that I am thinking most about. For example, in the poetry engagements I wanted kids to tune into hearing language: the assonance, consonance, and onomatopoeia that is present in everyday talk. I want them to hear and record this. I want them to begin to name principles that rest beneath the surface of these everyday things. To do this, they will need to wonder (p.379).

It is what happens in the engagements between and among Mr. Krantzman and the students that "curriculum" happens. This is where we need to dwell: those places of intersection where curriculum can be seen "as a lived event in itself" (Pinar, p. 187).

Work Cited
Pinar, William F. 2008. What is curriculum theory? Taylor & Francis e-Library.


  1. This is a timely post Mary Ann; I have been thinking about curriculum a great deal lately and how the idea of curriculum will have to change if we are to move fully to inquiry-based learning. I'm not certain yet where I stand on this idea, but I know that changes are coming.

    I think many people may have a misconception that curriculum gets "covered" over the course of a term or school year. Not once have I "delivered" curriculum in the same way from year to year. So much of what happens during the learning and teaching process is dependent about the personalities, interests and background knowledge of learners. How to explore a topic cannot be determined ahead of time as students do not come to the table empty handed. In our First Nations unit last year, students were very interested in the land dispute in Caledonia, not far from our town. This was our entry point into the topic. This year I have a student whose family farm had been used by First Nations people for thousands of years; the family's arrowhead collection ranged from 12 000 to 350 years ago. This became a central focus for our learning. You cannot separate curriculum from the students.
    Curriculum is dynamic and evolutionary. Learning unfolds and meanders as different students latch on to different ideas. What is meaningful to one is insignificant to another. The idea that you can somehow standardize what students will learn demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of how learning happens and who is in charge of the process.

  2. Heidi, I love this line your wrote, "Learning unfolds and meanders as different students latch on to different ideas." I would have loved to have witnessed you and your students learning in your two First nation units. Sounds so compelling and rich. I think of curriculum as the aesthetic moments made when learners engage. Thanks so much for adding your insights.

  3. Hello Mary Ann,

    I appreciate your thoughtful and reflective post. I think your thoughts on what meaning and implication terms like 'deliver' have is right on the mark. Terms like these most likely represent older models of how teaching works and they simply persist due to our collective habituation to them. In my conversations with other educators, I often find that the common parlance just doesn't convey the vision of teaching and learning that I hope to employ and inspire.

    For example, I've stopped asking teachers what they TEACH because even that term to me implies the idea of a simple transfer of information. Instead I've moved to asking, "How do you hope to transform students?"

    Education is about growth. From the first day that students step into our classroom until the last day that we have with them, we as educators hope to impart and inspire life lessons, aptitudes, and skills that will have enduring value to our students.

    Here's a quote from your post above: ""Delivering" suggests a thing that can be transported from point A to point B. It is something that is contained and whole and at the destination point, handed over."

    I wholeheartedly agree. It suggest that the process of learning is simply an effort to move information into the minds of students. Interestingly I think even making the shift to thinking of education as transformation makes things complicated. You might think that 'transformation' implies that you are transporting students from point A to point B. But this would mean that the transformation of students is standard and predictable. Instead we as educators must realize that the meaning and lessons that learners take with them are individual and unique.

    Thank you for always directing our focus as educators to the difficult and important questions and for conveying your thoughts with such eloquence and grace! I truly enjoy reading your blog!

  4. Heidi, Thank you so much for such a thoughtful response. Like you I to struggle for ways of (re)presenting teaching and learning. I find that I use the term occasioning as a way of representing the non-linearity of teaching. I checked out your blog and will subscribe. Last year I had the pleasure of meeting Larry when I visited HTH. He was quite generous with his time. I could see how he could inspire you.

  5. Hi Mary Ann,

    I really appreciate this post! For me, it brought up connections to Dewey's famous essay, "The Child and the Curriculum." In particular, his closing sentiments:

    "How, then, stands the case of Child vs. Curriculum? What shall the verdict be? The radical fallacy in the original pleadings with which we set out is the supposition that we have no choice save either to leave the child to his own unguided spontaneity or to inspire direction upon him from without. Action is response; it is adaptation, adjustment. There is no such thing as sheer self−activity possible—because all activity takes place in a medium, in a situation, and with reference to its conditions. But, again, no such thing as imposition of truth from without, as insertion of truth from without, is possible. All depends upon the activity which the mind itself undergoes in responding to what is presented from without. Now, the value of the formulated wealth of knowledge that makes up the course of study is that it may enable the educator to determine the environment of the child, and thus by indirection to direct."

    I wonder what you think about that passage? In what ways do you agree? In what ways do you disagree?

    Thanks again. I always love reading your blog.
    - Bryan

  6. I understand Dewey's text as an example of curriculum as complicated conversations that happen among people when he writes, "activity takes place in a medium, in a situation, and with reference to its conditions.