Curricula as Permissive Documents?


“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:

See the full conversation here

See the full conversation here

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.

This is not curriculum - it's a resource. Adjust your complaints appropriately. (Image from Pearson)

This is not curriculum – it’s a resource. Adjust your complaints appropriately. (Image from Pearson, w/o their permission)

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.


2 thoughts on “Curricula as Permissive Documents?

  1. Zach,

    I love your take on this hugely controversial topic. Having known you for a while, I know you are a very pragmatic and logical guy – so having a document that tells you exactly what to do may seem appealing (to myself as well).
    I have an issue with your statement, “I have an issue with teachers presenting whatever additional education they choose, without guidance, despite my faith in their professionalism”. Being a social studies educator, our Saskatchewan curriculum has not been updated since the 1990s, which means that it leaves a large chunk of content that our students should know out. In this case, it is often left to the teacher to “present whatever additional education they choose” because their professionalism is valued and the fellow teachers know that our curriculum (although wonderful in many areas) is lacking in so many more.
    Even with all of the complaining that many teachers do about the old curriculum, I’m not sure the open-ended renewed curriculum in Saskatchewan is the way to go either. Often people say that this curriculum leaves out a lot of the content that teachers wish they knew WHAT the students needed to know, versus wide overarching themes and ideas.
    Plainly put, I don’t know what curriculum needs – I guess that’s why we have professionals who work exclusively with curriculum! I also agree with your point that curriculum change is extremely difficult because of all the politics and funds required.
    Here’s to still hoping the social studies curriculum gets some attention in the next 20 years!

    Thanks for your point on this topic 🙂


  2. Pingback: Online Collaboration and Helping Others (as Best I Can) | Zachary Sellers' Blog

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