Column: Embracing the Practical

Dr. Miriam Heller Stern

In 1969, University of Chicago Professor Joseph Schwab famously declared the field of curriculum “moribund.” Textbooks and lists of great works alone did not adequately construct well-designed architectures for teaching and learning. Educational theories deriving singularly from academic research in psychology or philosophy in Schwab’s view underserved curriculum development, leaving the enterprise “desperately in search of new and more effective principles and methods.”


Luckily for future generations, in the same breath Schwab also led a charge toward “a renaissance” in curriculum design. When deciding what to teach and why, he called upon educators to take “practical” considerations into account, including the needs and interests of students, the diverse settings and communities in which they were learning, the uses and nuances of the subject matter, and the skills and orientations of the teachers. But the term “practical” here should not be confused for “simple,” for Schwab was arguing that the curriculum designer must synthesize multiple areas of expertise.


Schwab’s now classic call for change has not lost any of its power. Curriculum materials may have evolved over the decades, from textbooks and handwritten notes to shelves full of binders and now to digital media. Scholarship in every discipline has multiplied, and the canons of cultural literacy have largely been revised and expanded. We have more content from which to choose and more varied tools at our disposal. Now more than ever, educators need to master the art of deciding how and when to use them.


The idea that curriculum should take into account the multiple priorities of teaching, including the subject, the students, the context and the teacher makes intuitive sense, right? Then why are so many teachers still coming up with their own plans for presenting language arts or Bible, scrambling to pull together resources from various online repositories, or struggling to design lessons that deliver benchmarks and goals? And why is it so challenging for schools to introduce new curricula?


Leading a renaissance in curriculum is hard and complex work. Schwab suggested that weaving together the various priorities of a curriculum is an art form, not a simple formula. Here are some recommendations for how we might support good educators in pursuing Schwab’s vision of “The Practical” in curriculum design.


Address Resistance

A few years ago, I asked a well-respected head of school who was preparing for retirement what he viewed as the biggest challenge of his successful career in administration. I was sure he would point to fundraising or cultivating a great teaching staff. His response took me by surprise: “implementing the new math curriculum.”


This leader was no stranger to shepherding change, but curriculum decisions reveal deeply held beliefs about subject matter, teaching and learners. Unfortunately, sometimes educators are motivated by nostalgia and autobiography, and they resist trying models that diverge from how they were taught. One might experience the same reaction from parents, who expect their children’s curricula to have the familiarity of a relic of their own childhood (even if they hated it or cannot recall what they learned). Students sense adult resistance, which impacts their trust and motivation. Communicating a multi-faceted rationale for the curriculum creates the possibility of a shared belief in the new plan for teaching.


Create a Brain Trust

Creative, out-of-the-box thinking happens when people have the opportunity to brainstorm, to debate possibilities, and to devise adaptive solutions to challenges as they arise. Good curriculum design, Schwab argued, involves deliberation. With so many factors determining what we ought to teach, various points of view and alternatives must be considered. What types of literacy does our school value, and how will students develop proficiency or fluency? Where in the curriculum should we reinforce habits of mind such as interpretation, evidence and argument? When should covering essential subject matter take priority, and when should students “having wonderful ideas” (to use Eleanor Duckworth’s phrase) be a driving force in the curriculum? Schwab’s call for multiple voices of expertise around the planning table foreshadowed the design thinking approach that innovators are advocating for today.


Research has shown that teachers crave time for professional collaboration, and many do not have it in adequate measure. Stanford Professor emeritus Linda Darling-Hammond has led a national crusade to improve teaching through collaboration. The most successful schools build in time in the school day for faculty to co-plan. This time is not just to coordinate their schedules or check in about students (although these are important), but to engage in an iterative process of strategizing about complicated decisions. Outside of school hours, intensive workshops where educators can deepen their subject matter knowledge and collaborate with colleagues provide valuable input from beyond the walls of their own schools.


Engage a Good Coach

To paraphrase the old saying often attributed to heavyweight champion boxer Joe Louis, “Everybody has a plan, until they’ve been hit.” Coming up with a smart curriculum, while essential, does not guarantee successful teaching. Often, really innovative approaches to curricula fail not because they were lacking in promise but because stakeholders could not stomach waiting out the inevitable “rookie” mistakes. Some schools are opting to move professional development dollars away from schoolwide one-off presentations with generic applicability and toward more targeted coaching to improve the implementation of innovative curricula.


Much like an athletic coach, a curriculum coach who has expertise in the goals, subject and methods of the curriculum can amplify effectiveness. A coach who visits the classroom periodically and reflects back with a teacher about intentions and outcomes can help a teacher regroup when things don’t go quite as planned. It’s not enough to hand teachers a playbook and then abandon them during the game. Teachers who feel supported are more likely to succeed.


A renaissance in curriculum is possible. We must recognize that doing what is “practical” is actually sophisticated, not simple, work.

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HaYidion Jewish Literacy and Curriculum Spring 2016
Jewish Literacy and Curriculum
Spring 2016