Choosing the Perfect Curriculum

Happy student studying the perfect curriculum

A commonly held belief: If the perfect curriculum can be found, it will perform the magic–the abra-cadabra–to transform a student into an educated adult all by itself. What's wrong with this picture? Maybe an answer will emerge from the following story ...

The Real Magic of Learning

Many years ago, my daughter, Melody, began violin lessons with a retired college professor. His first comment, as she unpacked her violin, was, “Melody, I can’t teach you to play violin.” As he said this, I startled in shock, since he had already auditioned and accepted Melody into his studio, and was charging a very significant fee. However, he quickly followed up this comment with, “But I can help you learn.”

And, with that, my educational world suddenly shifted. In that moment the perspective swung from the teacher and the books to the participation of the student.

A good teacher is important, just like a good curriculum. However, the real magic of learning–the true abra-cadabra–is only revealed as the student engages the material: practices it, plays with it, dissects it, considers it, creatively reconfigures it, questions it, teaches it, and makes it his or her own.

Think about this: A good curriculum will ... 

  • Offer opportunities for students to dive into oceans of learning
  • Allow them to find interesting issues to pursue
  • Encourage their growth and understanding
  • Help them find motivation to do the work of learning

How do we find such a curriculum?

See whether it answers these questions:

#1) Does this curriculum encourage students to think about what is being said, to consider and ask their own questions? Or, does it simply require that students memorize and regurgitate answers in the mind-numbing mold of “Polly want a cracker”?

I remember my high school experience as a second-year algebra student. Though I excelled in the class, yet I never had a clue that algebra is something people actually use in real life.

We were never taught to ask, “How does this work beyond the pages of my textbook?” Actually, we were never taught any more than to do the pages in sequence, take the tests and get the grade.

It wasn’t until I was thirty-eight years old that I discovered algebra had a reason for existing beyond the confines of a textbook. And, to tell you the truth, I was both chagrined and surprised that no one had bothered to explain that during any of those months of algebra.

In language arts, rather than name the noun, name the verb, write the sentence ... why not BE the noun, DO the verb? Go outside and collect nouns and make them do stuff——cause them to obey whatever the prepositions demand of them!

Keep going until the questions start — “What about this?” “Is this right?” “Can we say it this way?”

#2) Does this curriculum offer students the freedom to make individual choices, based on their interests? Or, does it demand that everyone march in lock-step through each page?

I can concede that math would mostly be sequential. But as a historian, I have often pondered the arrogance of requiring all students to know the importance of the Napoleonic wars, for example, while dismissing the comparative importance of learning about Beethoven, Robert Fulton or Louis Braille.

These men all lived during this same era, and each significantly impacted the world. Who decided that it is more important to know geo-political history than musical, scientific, or blind-education history, to the point of excluding them from the history books? Why should we require students to know the impact of the battle of Waterloo, while restricting from them the significance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Fulton’s affect on transportation and commerce, or the earth-shaking technology that opened the written word to those who could not see?

Rather than a forced march with a whip-cracking overseer through selected facts, why not give a basic understanding of an era of history, introduce students to the many fascinating people of the time, then set them free to dig more deeply into those people and events most compelling to them?

#3) Does this curriculum encourage active, hands-on, creative participation on the part of the student? Or, does it allow them to sit passively through the lessons as long as they can answer a certain percentage of the test questions correctly?

What's the difference between being a player on the field and a spectator in the stands? When you are a player, you exert energy, get sweaty from the effort, and make a difference in the outcome. When you are merely a spectator, however, you expend a minimum amount of energy, and have little to show for it.

That is exactly the difference between being actively engaged in learning and passively doing as little as necessary to pass the test. One opens the doors to a life filled with possibilities, while the other closes those doors.

As you will discover, the REAL magic of learning happens when a student engages with the material, when questions bubble spontaneously to the surface, when a hunger-to-know-the-answers propels a student into a deeper study. 

When you find a curriculum that encourages this kind of participation, it will help them not only learn the subject for that year, it will help them become lifelong learners! 

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