A Secret About Curriculum and a Message for Students

Education is fundamentally an endeavor grounded in guesses. Well, that may be hyperbole, but our curriculum is a guess at what our students may need to know for their future. We really can’t know what they are going to do, how things are going to change, or what we missed that we should have taught.

We do have some guidance, so our curriculum decisions are not blind guesses. We do have a history of necessary skills. Presumably, text will still be a way we communicate. Graphs will too, and the cognitive work of analyzing data, being logical, and asking important questions—skills we taught generations of students—will continue to be skills we teach and that will lead to “successful” graduates.

Because we cannot know what the future holds for society in general or our students specifically, the curriculum tends to contain generalizations. It comprises broad knowledge and skills which we anticipate will be needed for everyone. At least, this is the curriculum for general education schools and programs. We see this in the standards that has guided so much teaching in recent decades.

When we “teach to the standards,” we are teaching the same curriculum to all students. We trust that those who wrote the standards for a wide audience know what everyone needs and that they know what our specific students need.

I believe this trust is fundamentally misguided:

  • Curriculum intended to teach everyone everything is going to be too broad to teach anything. There will be so much to “cover,” it will all be too superficial to be meaningful.
  • Students do have interests unlike the interests of others. These are a valuable source of motivation that we miss when we teach a standard curriculum, and they represent valuable (economically, socially, and personally) skills that are undeveloped during their schooling.

I also believe there is not much that we can do to change the demand that teachers follow standards. It is grounded in political and institutional factors, so it will be very slow to change.

School is unlikely to change, so what are students who care about learning to do?

My answer is “if you care about learning, then focus on learning.”

Students are in a difficult position. Teachers who are focused on teaching to standards are likely to have been also teaching a misguided concept of what it means to be educated and how to be a learner.

My message to students is that learning is a process; it is an active process. It is also a permanent skill. You are never going to be able to learn everything you need before you need it; this is especially true as technology and other factors are changing what we need to know very rapidly.

To be a learner, you must engage with the curriculum:

  • Do the reading.
  • Understand the reading.
  • Preview lessons before you arrive in class.
  • Review the contents after a lesson.
  • Take notes.
  • Write the paper.
  • Study for the test… early and often.
  • Ask questions.
  • Answer questions, and if you don’t know the answers, look them up or ask your teacher.
  • Tell others what you have learned.
  • Ask others what they have learned.

The more you think about what you are studying, the better you will learn it and the better you will be prepared to learn in the future—and that is the most important thing to learn during your time as a student.

Schooling today is focused on outcomes and trends in data. This makes sense as it reflects the political realities affecting leaders.

Students, please realize outcomes and the data are for educators and the folks that assess educators. Often, they have little to do with you. Engage with your teachers to discover what they are teaching that is useful and interesting—and pay attention to them, they may introduce you to things you didn’t know would be interesting.

Remember your learning is your learning.