Delivery or design

There is no doubt that globalisation has created a greater demand for quality education and there are pressures to rethink the nature and rationale of our curriculum.  It leads us to ask questions such as how can we continue to confine knowledge within old frameworks? What possibilities are opened up by the availability of new tools for learning? What and how can we teach in a way that offers students a variety of new and challenging experiences?

Earlier this month I was invited to speak at a workshop hosted by the Association of Independent Schools South Australia (AISSA) on how the Australian curriculum could create the capacity for transformation. Also speaking was Rob Randall, CEO of ACARA who provided an update on the national curriculum.

While the national curriculum signals a shift from text book to e-resources and from prescriptive to a more flexible delivery, my point is that it is the teacher and not the curriculum that creates the capacity for transformation.  If we perceive the purpose of teaching as simply delivering a curriculum, then we not only perceive students as passive recipients but we diminish the purpose of education. Our role is to teach students how to think not what to think.

When I was at University I majored in European and Australian history with a minor in English Literature. I trained as a History teacher but my first job was as a full-time English teacher at a secondary school. As you would expect, I was concerned because I was not a ‘trained English teacher.’ On the first day, I met with the English master who told me it didn’t matter because all I needed to know was contained in the English syllabus. The document listed the content, the prescribed hours and the specific texts I was to follow. The syllabus became ‘the bible’ and I wasn’t to deviate from it. These approaches were ill conceived even as we used them.

Dewey said ‘the notion that some subjects and methods and that acquaintance with certain facts and truths possess educational value in and of themselves is the reason why traditional education reduced the material of education so largely to a diet of pre-digested materials.’

When we change the construct of the curriculum from content to learning, we change the nature of teachers’ work. Teachers move from being deliverers to creators, from sages to learners and from cogs to critical thinkers.  If we think about the relevance of a curriculum in today’s world as everything intended to promote wisdom and learning then we give teachers freedom to be creative and responsive to helping students make connections between their lives and the world.

The less prescriptive a curriculum is, the more opportunity there is for experiential learning; giving students space to discern information and construct their own knowledge. Personalising learning means finding out what matters to students and then designing a curriculum that invites them to deepen their understanding, ask questions and importantly fail. Diane Laufenberg, an American History teacher at the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia discusses this in her TED talk.

I know I’ve written about Singapore’s skinny curriculum before but we should all be working towards a goal of ‘teaching less, learning more’.  When the curriculum is centred on learning, students become active participants rather than passive recipients.  Their focus shifts from why do I need to learn this to how can what I have learned make a difference.  What better way of empowering students to become active citizens then giving them a voice in their own learning.

Albert Einstein said: “I never teach my pupils; I just provide the conditions in which they can learn.”  I hope the national curriculum is an opportunity for teachers to see themselves as designers and therefore critical to the process of improving education for all students.

5 thoughts on “Delivery or design

  1. Once again, Greg, you’ve hit the nail on the head with your question, do you want to be a deliverer or a designer? I think this is the really key question schools need to answer when thinking about the how to go about inroducing the new curriculum. Julia Atkin phrases the question another way: “Do you want to be an architect or a project manager?”

    The dilemma is that most school leaders and teachers say they want to be architects (or designers). But then the reality hits. It is much easier, takes less time and less thought to be a deliverer, or a project manager.

    So I think the next question is: how do you support school leaders and teachers to change their mindsets and their practices – to enact curriculum change the way they say they want to enact it? Feeling that taking risks is okay is probably a start. What else?

    1. Barbara, these are all important questions and why effective leadership at school and system level is so critical. We need to provide the support and structures to enable teachers to become architects and designers. Michael Fullan always says behaviours change before belief so perhaps teachers need to work like architects and designers now.

  2. Hi Greg,
    I’ve just read an great article that compliments your thoughts on teaching in this post: “Which Came First, the Practice or the Policy?” Nancy Flanagan. It is a good one to read.

    Nancy concisely sums up the nature of good teaching. She state that “(the)- most important practice-dissector is the teacher herself; what matters is her skill at analyzing what students have actually learned, and her ability to figure out what to do next, based on that analysis”. I like the way Nancy has ‘packaged’ a number of big ideas about teaching and the curriculum in this article. She hits the nail on the head when it comes to focusing on what is important.

    Knowing that it is a change in mindsets that will be the key to the change, as a leader, I believe our starting point is conveying that trust in our teachers & their professional judgements about learning. True education, true learning is based on developing wisdom- a personal and individualized attribute. Such learning is achieved by personalized instruction that builds on and caters for the specific learning needs of each child. Teachers who have the confidence to take the risks and trust in their data informed judgements about where each child ‘is at’ with their learning & where they need to go, will help pave the way. Leaders need to focus on supporting & assisting teachers by developing the skills & trust needed for such learning to take place.

  3. Hi Greg,

    I do generally agree with your post however, apart from PBL, in what other ways could teachers go about assuming this ‘designer’ role? Do you have any ideas or strategies of how teachers could implement the individualised, interest driven curriculum within the context and resources of a contemporary classroom?

    1. Mary, PBL is one expression of a learning framework that focuses on each child by personalising the learning. You often hear about experiential learning, rich tasks, fertile questions etc. At the heart of these constructs is a view that you can challenge young people and stretch them by engaging them in real world issues. I’ve seen these sorts of approaches in schools across the world and I think Montessori takes a similar approach. The important thing for me is that schools and teachers are trying different things outside of the off the shelve curriculum packages. It seems to me that if we want to provide relevant schooling, our teachers need to seek new ideas and try new approaches.

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