What is a core curriculum? Should we be following one?

Discussion about a core curriculum brings to light some fundamental differences in thinking about education and learning.

A core curriculum is a set of educational goals that focuses on making sure that all students using it will learn set material tied to age/grade level.  The design of the curricula are based  on things that do not have much relevance to a homeschooler: grade levels,  learning divided into discrete subjects (math, science, history, etc), testing goals and classroom management needs.  Recently the idea of a national core curriculum has been receiving a lot of attention.  The Core Knowledge Sequence/ Common Core State Standards is a national initiative to create a standard path of education across the states, in part to make sure that students across states have similar academic skills, in part to simplify the production of text books and in part to create a “level” playing field for future job prospects.  A recent periodical (American Educator, Winter, 2010-2011) calls the core curriculum an idea whose time has come. The article subtitle reads ” How a core curriculum could make our education system run like clockwork.”

The article goes on to state:

A  curriculum  sets forth  that  body  of knowledge and skill our children need to grow into economically productive and socially responsible citizens. A common curriculum—meaning one that is shared by all schools—is what binds all the different actors together; instead of going off  in radically different directions and inadvertently undermining each other, teachers, administrators, parents, textbook writers, assessment developers, professors of education, and policymakers all work in concert. A common core curriculum—meaning one that fills roughly two-thirds of instructional time—leaves teachers ample room to build on students’ interests and address local priorities.

In countries with a common core curriculum, the benefits are many:

  • Teachers need not guess what will be on assessments; if they teach the curriculum, their students will be prepared.
  • Students who change schools are not lost, so time is not wasted on review and remediation. Their new teachers may have different lesson plans and projects, but the core content and skills to be mastered in each grade are the same.
  • Textbooks are slim, containing just the material to be learned in a given year (not hundreds of incoherent pages trying to “align” to different states’ vague standards and different notions of proficiency).
  • Teacher preparation programs ensure that candidates have mastered the curriculum, and ways to teach it, before they become teachers.
  • Teachers across the hall, across town, and (thanks to the Internet) across the country are able to collaborate on developing and refining lesson plans and other instructional materials.

In other words, a core curriculum is there to help teachers, schools, test companies, textbook manufacturers create an infrastructure for traditional, school based education.  The idea of a core curriculum in the presented format doesn’t make sense for homeschooling.

One of the benefits of homeschooling is that the learning process can be tailored to the learner.   A curriculum guide uses a variety of sources to create a philosophical framework for education.  The choices for what get taught and when are based on sociology, politics, educational theory, developmental psychology and the needs of a large institutional system.  What has gotten lost along the way is developing a system of learning that benefits the individual.  Instead of tying learning to a chart,  you can personalize your child’s learning.  A curriculum is a terrific place to find ideas and to help organize your thoughts and plans for learning, but don’t let it define your family’s homeschooling.

Look at two different aspects of education: the learning process & the materials/opportunities.

Learning Process:

  • Let ability and comprehension determine the pace of the subject material
  • Assist the learner with taking control of the learning process
  • Spend as much or more time on understanding logic, critical thinking, problem solving, etc as on fact acquisition
  • learn to examine and evaluate the structure creating the information base being used for learning
  • Teach how to evaluate learning as it is in progress so that the learning process is continually  developed
  • Build learning experiences so that the learner can apply previous knowledge and processes to current learning.

Materials/Opportunities:

  • Don’t limit learning to the contents of a textbook or syllabus. Let the learner follow the ideas and information.
  • Expand the resource base- wider variety of materials, different formats, different interpretations, different sources, different foci.
  • Build learning communities that challenge ideas and create opportunities to talk about ideas & learning
  • Make the most of the community learning opportunities

Let me start by saying that I agree there is a set of foundation knowledge that makes learning easier.  However, people have taken a very large step from the idea of basic skills, ideas and facts to a K-12 guide detailing what should get taught when.

For example, the folks at the Core Curriculum site have stated:

The more you know, the more you are able to learn.

In one sense, this is a truism.  In another, it’s just wrong.  This is a misinterpretation of how learning works.  Yes, the larger your knowledge base, the more information you have for processing new experiences and ideas.  However, a knowledge base is much more than facts.  The most critical part of the knowledge base is the ability to process and integrate information in a way that gives you a framework to evaluate new information.  Programs that focus on facts first, thinking later takes away one of the most valuable learning skills- the ability to put information in context.

Many educational program will focus on a parts to whole style of instruction.  First we’ll teach the basic components, then we’ll show how it all goes together and makes sense.  Others insist that whole to parts is the only way to go.  We have to show the ideas as larger concepts, and then we will take it apart and look at what went into it.  The assumption in the whole/parts debate is that one method is significantly better than the other.   The decision about how to approach a topic and where to start shouldn’t be set in stone.  How much experience does the learner have with the subject?  If the ideas are completely new, it is worth taking some time to help the learner get an idea about the larger picture.   Does the learner have previous understanding of a similar situation which will make decoding this one more straightforward?  Does the learner see the link between the two situations. Instead of worrying about parts and whole, we can focus on finding ways for the learner to determine which learning approach will be best for this situation.  The approach will differ from person to person based on learning styles, experience and the materials available.

One complaint about asking kids to think critically is that we are really asking them to guess how to figure things out.  Wouldn’t it be much simpler to just give them the steps and the facts and go from there?  Yes, it would– if your goal is the ability to recall and return a set of preprocessed information.  However if your goal is for a student to be able to assess unfamiliar ideas and information and to determine a structure to think about it, then no.  The advantage to building critical thinking skills early on is that the learner is learning how information is gathered, how it is analyzed and how to develop ideas and theories.  With these skills, a learner in a totally unknown situation can figure out what’s happening &  develop an approach to solving a problem or putting together the facts for a larger picture.  Rather than fuss over parts to whole/whole to parts, the structure of introducing the information and learning structure should reflect the learner’s prior knowledge and experience both with the subject and the learning skills needed.

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5 Responses to What is a core curriculum? Should we be following one?

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