On Alternatives to Fractured (Fractious?) Curriculum

March 22, 2014 § Leave a comment

In his seminal, Horace’s Compromise: The Dilemma of the American High School, Sizer defines a new organizing approach as an alternative to traditional departmental silos.

1. Inquiry and Expression
2. Mathematics and Science
3. Literature and the Arts
4. Philosophy and History

In essence, these quadrants are the building blocks of an education for citizenship — each element a contributor to a student’s capacity to define and express his or her own values.

Reorganizing has the ancillary benefit of helping to contextualize knowledge more authentically, moving away from what Sizer characterizes as the, “Splintered view of knowledge that usually confronts high school students.”  Indeed, Sizer continues, “their world rarely uses the fine distinctions between academic disciplines” (134).  Neither does the adult world, I would argue.

In a consolidated landscape, teacher training transcends the disciplinary, opening more room to focus on techniques to foster the development of essential student skills. Sizer utilizes the paradigm of coaching to describe effective student and teacher training — a skill we who work in residential boarding schools appreciate and apply on a daily basis.  To Sizer, “good coaching cuts across academic specialization” (134).  Instead of investing our energies in defending our departmental garrisons from incursion, teachers have the opportunity to find common ground in the ways that we think and see in our fields, and to help students better appreciate these connections.

One can imagine the forging of a transdisciplinary framework where students gain the building blocks of curricular knowledge — or what we call “requirements” in our current parlance — in common seminars organized around a theme, or a real-world problem.

  • Communication: English, History, and Arts combine to approach essential skills of communication through writing, oral and digital storytelling both creative and historical, and other visual media.
  • Inquiry and Reasoning: Arts, Math, Science and History combine to approach the quest to derive meaning from diverse sources of information and data.  Infographics and other forms of data visualization are great examples of structuring intelligible meaning from static sources. 
  • Movements as Patterns of Thinking: A variety of the traditional disciplines can combine to form a chronological or thematic look at major thought movements, equipping students to study these ideas both within the world at the time of their conception, but also as critical lenses through which to evaluate the development of modern thought, and human artifacts of various descriptions.  Romantic Thought in Poetry, Art and Science could be one example. 
An idea that I have been toying with here as a bridge to more of this sort of work in our curriculum is a common essential question for school-wide, or grade-wide, consideration.  
  • What is the “good life”?  
  • What is the proper role of a just person in an unjust world?  
  • How does the velocity of the modern world impact our relationships– human and non-human? 
  • What are the hallmarks of a robust community? 
  • How do we know when “enough is enough?”  
While a more substantive reorganization of our curriculum — and with it the comfortable, recognizable rhythms of our lives in schools — requires far more thought and debate (justly so, I’d add) asking each class to ponder a common question initiates a dialogue between teachers about shared skills and ideas. On behalf of our students, who have been dutifully plugging away, trying to assemble coherence from the fractured menu of high school content, it is about time we searched for this common ground. 
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