"Bear in mind that the wonderful things you learn in your schools are the work of many generations, produced by enthusiastic effort and infinite labor in every country of the world. All this is put into your hands as your inheritance in order that you may receive it, honor it, add to it, and one day faithfully hand it to your children. Thus do we mortals achieve immortality in the permanent things which we create in common." - Albert Einstein

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

A Curriculum Can Destroy Education

The previous posts on this blog have been emphasizing the role of teachers and resources in student learning. These are the avenues through which learning in schools can be improved. The curriculum is viewed simply as a wish list. Without proper implementation, it simply remains a wish list. Although a curriculum can not be expected to solve problems in basic education, a badly designed curriculum can exacerbate problems.

A long standing debate in education is content versus skills. This dichotomy is actually untrue for deep learning involves acquisition of both content and skills. An editorial in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching recently revisited what defines "meaningful learning". It starts by presenting the following figure (originally from Ege, Coppola, & Lawton, Journal of Chemical Education, 74, 74–83):

Above copied from Journal of Research in Science Teaching
Volume 51, Issue 6, pages 679-693, 12 JUL 2014 DOI: 10.1002/tea.21165
Content and skills are not opposite sides of a pole. These are two orthogonal axes of learning. Students with low content but high skills have very limited factual knowledge, "someone who knows how to think, but who has nothing to think about." These are the "intellectual amnesiacs". Students with high content but low skills are likewise unable to progress since these students have not been able to develop skills necessary to transfer what they have learned into a new or different area. These are the "encyclopedist learners". What we need are the "expert learners", which from the above diagram is clearly a product of emphasizing both content and skills. The editors of the Journal of Research in Science Teaching are quick to point out that the argument of analogical versus rote learning is likewise a false dichotomy:

Above copied from Journal of Research in Science Teaching
Volume 51, Issue 6, pages 679-693, 12 JUL 2014 DOI: 10.1002/tea.21165
Meaningful learning as described by the chemistry faculty of the University of Michigan in their 1997 J. Chem. Ed. paper is:

In this light, one can look at a curriculum and ask if a student is indeed given ample opportunities to learn both skills and content. It is through this perspective that one could ask whether a spiral curriculum for both mathematics and the sciences in high school is the right or wrong way to go. The last sentence from the above excerpt answers this question. It is immersion that is required not a spiral progression through various topics or subjects....

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