Sunday, November 21, 2010

Curriculum as Inquiry

Reading, reading ... so glad to be reading and reflecting on so many different things this week.  Today I read Curriculum as Inquiry by Kathy Short and Carolyn Burke.  It's probably one of the most important things I've read in a long time.  It made me think and think about inquiry and I had to go back and reread and highlight lots of different parts.  There's way too much in this for just one blog post.  And there's way too much thinking I still need to do too.

Let's start at the beginning - the way I was taught myself.  I have written before about how when I went to school in the 1960s and 1970s a lot of what we did revolved around learning facts.  In history we learned about dates and people, in geography we learned about places, in maths we learned about how calculate to find the answers to the thousands of questions there were in our textbooks, in English we learned the rules of grammar and spelling, in science we did a few experiments (for example I remember heating a metal ball on a chain to see if it would pass through a circular hole when it was hot - something to do with metal expanding) and we always got the same "right" answers.  If we did any research at all it was called a "project" and it involved mostly finding and copying things out.  Once we were finished with all that, we memorised all those facts and then regurgitated them in exams.  Personally none of this really inspired me and looking back now I would say that I probably learned very little and certainly didn't know how to connect the facts I had memorised into concepts or generalisations.

After a break of a few years I became a teacher myself.  In the 1980s the times had changed and the curriculum no longer involved learning lots of facts, it had turned into what Kathy Short and Carolyn Burke  refer to as "curriculum as activity".  Our lessons planning involved coming up with activities some of which led to learning facts, some of which developed skills, some of which started to involve concepts, and some of which were just plain fun and nice to do on a Friday afternoon when nobody wanted to think very much (for example at one stage I can remember students making clay pots, decorating them, putting them into a black plastic bag and smashing them up, so that we could be "archaeologists" and try to put them back together again - now when I look back I shudder to think how much time was wasted on these sorts of activities and how little anyone actually learned).

So this brings me onto the first big reflection I want to make about my reading today.  Although I feel we have moved on a lot since those days, this point really jumped out at me:
Our goal was an integrated curriculum, but what we had created was a correlated curriculum.  While the activities were related to each other because they were all on the same topic, they did not build on each other or support students in pursuing their own questions .....  because the units were limited by our own knowledge, student research stayed safely within what we already knew ..... students were discovering what was already known.
At the WLT in Florence we discussed artificial connections between different areas of the curriculum.  I know this has often been an area of tension with some specialist teachers, who feel that they are only making very superficial connections with the unit of inquiry being studied.  We discussed how webbing or mapping the curriculum may show us where the knowledge and skills are actually being taught but that being forced into these "packages" may well close down alternatives and shut down inquiry.

Photo Credit:  Image Plate from Owen Jones' 1853 classic "The Grammar of Ornament" by Eric Gjerde

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