“What purpose should schools serve?”
This question is the dark matter of debates in education: it’s rarely detected, yet it makes up five sixths of the conversation. The debates themselves take many forms: traditional vs progressive in math ed; inclusion vs separated special ed; strict academics vs teaching for social justice. However, underneath, they are all asking some version of this question: what purpose do we want our schools to serve? What are the priorities of education?
I was discussing graphing bias and provincial elections with Alec on Twitter and, as inevitable as gravity, the purpose of education drew close to the surface:
I always ask, when people say things like this, “well then, why don’t we change the curriculum to include these important things?” It’s a naïve question – there are so many reasons. Political will, disagreement on priorities, cost, etc. However, this does raise fundamental questions about the nature of curricula.
In the Canadian Forces, we have the concept of a permissive document – a document that gives permission, and without that permission, actions are verboten. A great example are the military dress regulations – if an article is not listed as permissible for wear, you cannot wear it, no questions asked.
Are curricula permissive? In my experience, most teachers don’t think so. We have no compunction about doing things outside of the curriculum, if we believe them be beneficial to our students. In that sense, we treat curricula as baseline, and we teach beyond them at our own discretion.
Note: some teachers complain that curricula are so full, they have no time to do anything extra. In most cases, if these are math teachers, they’re conflating curriculum with a textbook.
I believe in centralized organization as a genuinely efficient system, if implemented well. I have an issue with teachers presenting whatever additional education they choose, without guidance, despite my faith in their professionalism. So here’s my proposal for redesigning how we think about curricula:
- We release baseline, academic curricula. These are very similar to current curriculum documents, in which teachers are mandated to cover certain academic topics, but are still given flexibility in how they approach it.
- We also release guidance curricula for things like behaviours, social justice, citizenship, leadership – whatever social norms we as a society decide to promote. These documents require teachers to promote positive social norms, but are much more flexible about approach and how much material needs to be covered.
The reality is, teachers already do the second part. Denying that is futile. Many, many teachers do a great job, and it’s important that centralized bodies don’t decrease their efficiency. However, providing guidance and support for teachers who struggle with this part of their job (you could call it the dark matter of the teaching profession) is the role and purposed of centralized agencies. So why don’t we own up to our own realities and support our people in meeting these goals?
Did I make you angry? I would love to read your critiques below.