The Curriculum Debate Rages

Posted on December 10, 2013


There is an interesting series of blog posts going on between Deborah Meier and Robert Pondiscio about curriculum. The latest post from Robert can be found here:

The Progressive Case for a Common Curriculum

While I appreciate the debate, I don’t appreciate some of the techniques used. Here are some examples:

You write that the struggle to define democracy and liberty continue to evolve and that schooling “ideally prepares us to join in that struggle.”  I strongly agree, but here again I must insist on specificity.  Do you expect children to absorb what they need to know to contribute to this discussion by osmosis?  Through patient and persistent modeling of democracy in our schools?

This is essentially a straw-man argument. The alternative to a curriculum is not purely learning through osmosis or patient and persistent modeling of desired behavior. Learning that takes place without a curriculum comes in all shapes and sizes, including explicit instruction. The presence or absence of a curriculum has nothing to do with how learning takes place, it only defines how much choice an individual has over what they learn.

The civic virtues we both prize are empty platitudes without history to make them meaningful.

I’m not sure here which civic virtues he is referring to, but Wikipedia defines Civic Virtue as:

Civic virtue is the cultivation of habits of personal living that are claimed to be important for the success of the community.

By this definition all civic virtues are actually quite tangible within even the smallest of communities. The history of how people have struggled to define and defend civic virtues is certainly interesting and valuable, but the lack of that knowledge in no way creates a situation where civic virtues are empty platitudes.

Cognitive skills like critical thinking, problem-solving, and especially reading comprehension, are knowledge-based.  They are not content-neutral, transferable skills that can be taught, practiced, and mastered in the abstract.  Our ability to comprehend written or spoken language is largely a function of constantly making correct inferences, which itself is a function of background knowledge and vocabulary shared by author and reader, speaker and listener.

Here again there is a bit of a straw-man argument. The absence of a curriculum does not lead to the absence of knowledge. My two year old, with no curriculum in sight, is constantly asking me “what is that?” and “what are you doing?”. Her curiosity about the world leads her to seek knowledge constantly.

Technically he is not arguing that curriculum = knowledge, but he certainly seems to be making that implication.

You can easily observe that, even without a curriculum, people will strive to learn and understand the skills and content that they determine to be important and worth their effort. As can be seen by students in curriculum-free environments, a curriculum is not at all necessary to develop critical thinking, problem-solving, and reading comprehension skills. Knowledge is necessary, but a curriculum in no way guarantees the accumulation of specific knowledge, and the lack of a curriculum will not lead to an overall lack of knowledge.

The only thing we are saying with regard to curriculum is that we are confident determining what each individual in our society should know. I have yet to hear any evidence backing up this confidence. In fact most adults, even those who are confident in their ability to determine curriculum, do not likely have a complete understanding of all of the required content. Nor do they feel any urgency to rush out and learn it more completely. The fact is, that while all of these skills and content are valuable, very few are absolutely necessary, and we may be better off with a society that has a very diverse exposure to different skills and knowledge.



P.S. I recently had a Twitter debate with Robert around this. You can find the transcript here:

You may need to click on the date of the last tweet to continue reading the full transcript.







Posted in: Education, General