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Does Curriculum Constrain Teachers?


Dear Debbie,

Words are slippery things.

Take the idea of “constructivism.” Yes, I agree with you that we all “construct” knowledge as we encounter new ideas. We try to make sense of new ideas by fitting them to what we already know, using the vocabulary and experiences that we have already accumulated. If we have a meager vocabulary—or none at all, as when we visit a foreign country and are unfamiliar with the language—and if we have no experiences that are connected to the new ideas, then we will not be able to do much constructing of knowledge.

So the job of the school becomes one of conscientiously, purposefully building the vocabulary and background knowledge of students so that they can use them dynamically to understand new ideas and enlarge their knowledge.

There is another sort of constructivism in which students are busily discovering whatever they want to discover or trying to figure out through inquiry what the teacher knows but refuses to teach them or sitting around idly because they don’t know what they feel like discovering today. This is not the sort of classroom I admire. I have never much cottoned to the idea of the teacher as a “guide on the side, rather than a sage on the stage.” I tend to like the happy medium: the teacher who has clear aims, who knows what knowledge he or she is trying to convey, and who figures out imaginative, creative, innovative ways to teach it.

I don’t think that teachers are hamstrung or hampered by knowing that the 5th grade social studies curriculum will be focused on the Colonial era in U.S. history or that in 6th grade the curriculum will be focused on the Ancient World. It would seem to me to be helpful to teachers to know, in a general way, what they are expected to teach. My own children went to a progressive school where the 5th grade every year was devoted to the study of ancient Greece. The kids loved it.

I don’t imagine any circumstances in which my “ideal curriculum” would interfere with the imagination, professionalism, or creativity of any teacher, unless he or she wanted no curriculum at all.

It troubles me when I learn of surveys where American teenagers say that Oprah Winfrey and Marilyn Monroe are among the 10 most important figures in American history. Or surveys showing that Americans select John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan as the best presidents in history. These surveys lead me to believe that people are identifying figures they have heard about or remember or saw on television, and that they actually have little or no knowledge of American history. I shudder to think how little most people know today about world affairs, world history, or geography.

I have always believed that one of the most important jobs of the schools was to provide equal, democratic access to knowledge. I confess that I do believe in the value of a fairly traditional curriculum, at least in the subjects that I know most about, history and literature. It may be that reading the writing of other students is a wonderful classroom activity, but I would hate to see kids graduate from high school and college without ever reading classic American, British, and world literature. Maybe they will pick it up on their own, but I doubt it.

I do believe that it is possible to make a distinction between more and less important knowledge, information, and skills. If there were not, how could we educate, how could we decide what to teach every day?

I recall reading a passage from John Dewey in his book "The Way Out of Educational Confusion" where he said that it was futile to establish a hierarchy of values among studies, to say that one was more valuable than another. Thus he argued that there was no reason to favor a course in zoology over a course in laundry work, since either might be narrow and confining, and either might be a source of understanding. In theory, I suppose, this might be true, but in reality, the children who were studying zoology were learning the principles of science, while those in the laundry work course were learning to wash and press clothes.

Far be it from me to take on John Dewey, let alone Deborah Meier on these subjects. We do disagree.

And yes, I think it is bizarre to mandate constructivism, as Joel Klein did in New York City. But please note that phonics is not doing fine in the New York City schools. The last time I checked, no education school in the city was even teaching phonics to future teachers, except for special ed teachers. The mandated reading program was and is “balanced literacy.” There were no gains in reading for New York City kids on NAEP over these past four and a half years in which balanced literacy was mandated.

I need your help to figure out the small school puzzle. I know that the Gates Foundation pumped a billion dollars into small high schools. In every urban district, maybe in suburban ones, too, small schools are in. For reasons I don’t understand, there seems to be a convergence between the small school movement that you pioneered and the interests of the billionaire philanthropic sector. Why? Help me understand how this happened.




You and Antonia Cortese (AFT) of “Common Core” were quoted in a Sam Dillon piece in today's NYTimes on a similar subject (History Survey Stumps American Teens). You said, “The nation’s education system has become obsessed with testing and basic skills because of the requirements of federal law, and that is not healthy.” You went on to voice your concern regarding the narrowing of our school curriculum with the purported loss of time in our schools for history and science.

I have a different spin on the narrowing of the curriculum with its current emphasis on math and reading for K-8: Let me preface this little diatribe with the understanding that No Child Left Behind has its problems. However, it needs to be reauthorized not abolished. When No Child Left Behind was developed it realized national bipartisan support from Ted Kennedy to George W. Bush. Many people, many educators included, believed an emphasis on reading and mathematics were important for helping our under-performing students close the achievement gap. The target population was not kids from Beverly Hills, Jupiter Island, or Riverdale. The kids they were hoping to help were poor/minority youngsters from urban schools. They genuinely believed NONE of these kids should be left behind.

Who has opposed the educational reform movement of the past two decades? The educational establishment. And why have they so vehemently opposed ed reform and NCLB? It’s fairly transparent. They lost much of their autonomy and control in the operation of our schools because the business community and state legislatures were not real impressed with the "graduates" our schools were producing. State legislatures, vexed by the business lobby, decided (at least initially) to leave the educational establishment out of the dialogue as to how we were going to reform our schools.

So the educational establishment has decided to dig in its heels and oppose the federal law and education reform in general, kicking and screaming every step of the way.

All the fuss about not having enough time to teach history or science because so much of the day is obligated to reading and math is nonsense, an excuse not to address these ancillary disciplines. Any elementary teacher worth a dime could teach myriad reading strategies/skills through most any social studies unit AND not loose a thing in the process. The same can be said for science, not to mention the vocabulary potential from both of these lesser prioritized disciplines. So who has directed teachers to go this route? Take a guess.

After growth models get plugged into the reauthorization then AYP will no longer be available as an excuse either. As an aside, AYP was probably the most egregious, ill-conceived component of the original legislation.

From local school boards and superintendents who lost much of their curriculum autonomy to state DOE's (not to mention the loss of fiscal autonomy in many instances), to principals and teachers who resigned themselves to the status of industry eunuchs because they felt sorry for themselves. Teacher unions and schools of education have not exactly been big fans of the reform law either. The former has been the most antagonistic during this period while the latter seems to think they’re essentially above scrutiny or blame with regards to our problem schools.

No, my spin on the collective obstinance of the educational establishment toward education reform: they’ve decided not to fight it directly but to resist it wherever possible; not to advocate for it but to oppose it passively. Collectively, many in the educational establishment have become civil disobedients.

I agree that constructivism is a monumental waste of time.

On the other hand, Diane, when you say you are troubled because teenagers say Marilyn Monroe and Oprah are important, you surely don't think that teens of 50 or 100 years ago were better informed than teens today? There have been people wringing their hands about uninvolved American students since there were American students.

Besides, whatever caused the "ignorance", it certainly wasn't constructivism, which is not the prevailing norm, thank heavens. Constructivism is taught in the small precious public schools and the occasional chichi private "gifted child" facility (think Nueva). Occasionally, public school teachers pretend at it for a lesson or two, but you can't blame it for whatever you think is wrong with education today.

Being in a teacher school right now, I am moving ever so slightly to the dark side, AKA constructivism. What can I say, they force it down your throat.

I think it is useful only after concepts have been taught. I think of constructivism as activities to general a concept. Could you imagine a classroom where there were never, ever any activities? Me neither. Because I don't think they exist anymore, not even in a strictly direct instruction school.

I swear this whole debate between constructivism and instructivism is like a political debate. There are likely more agreements and things in common than not.

The dark side of constructivism. That tripped me up. I think the standards movement impels us to teach what ever content we are responsible for the best way that content can be understood. After considering learning style and prior background the content, if you really understand it guides us as teachers. I doubt you can teach poetry with instructivism anymore than you can teach some phonics skills with constructivism. Let the content be our guide. I wrote about this recently myself. Great idea for a blog, I sincerely enjoy the open and enlightening discussion.



Construct or not to construct, that is the question.
As a suffering teaching assistant in an unnamed district in an unnamed state, I will here and now say my view on edumacation, to wit:

We(philosophers, congnitive scientists, neuro-scientists, theoretical cognitive scientists and philosophers and anyone else) have absolutely no idea how children/people learn. Furthermore we're not likely to find out anytime soon, since to quote(or name-drop) either Chomsky or David Hume, there are things that are 'forever hidden in Nature', meaning some things are out of our cognitive reach, probably forever.
I think this view is further supported by Wittgenstein, to drop yet another name, when he, in different contexts, says that everything important must necessarily remain unsaid(because of the limits of language).
The moronic things I witness being taught at the high school where I work are almost past believing. All this discussion about "constructivism" is entirely pointless, as I think Ms. Ravitch might agree, since we(edumacators in the U.S.) are not teaching anything of substance at all. "Form" or techniques of teaching don't matter, if there is no content.
So, what to do?

1). Close all education schools immediately(they are a complete waste of time and money).

2). Require all teachers in secondary school, at least, to have masters in the subjects that they teach(most emphatically not Masters in Education in teaching Math or that type of nonsense).

3). Bring back the idea that some art, writing, music is better than others.

4). Fill our schools with what is called "high art": great painting, poetry, etc.

Thank you, I feel better now.

A. Coward

P.S. Of course, no one's going to read this, since this thread died a while ago.

Hello Anonymous Coward,

Your post was read and I found myself nodding in agreement. It's unfortunate, nay tragic, that the reality of some thoughts and works being vastly superior to others is questioned. The result is that some of the great works of art, music, and literature are pushed aside for more contemporary works in an effort to be more "all inclusive" and politically correct.

Yes, schools of education are the bastions of mediocrity, and one reason is that they are known infamously by most college students to be the "easy" route to a college degree. Much of the work there is done in groups, and if one is able to match up with a more capable student, it is possible to ride that person's coattails to success on group projects, which make up the bulk of the assessments.

Unfortunately, as this is realized by guidance departments and high school students across the US, the Ed Schools become destinations of second rate minds that go on to perpetuate mediocrity when they eventually begin to teach. Not having experienced the best in the arts and sciences themselves, they understand no reason why it should be necessary for their eventual students.


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