Can Curriculum Kill Curiosity?

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Do you like conspiracy theories?  It seems that as more recording options exist and as more “everyday” people publish their thoughts and ideas, the more conspiracy theories abound.  When I was in high school, I could count on one hand the number of conspiracies I had heard of.  But in asking my 11 year old about several plots, she has a peripheral knowledge of dozens of them.  For instance, when I was 18, I never heard that FDR may have known about Pearl Harbor ahead of time, doing nothing so as to prompt the US to go to war.  But my daughter has heard that very conspiracy theory about 911.  I didn’t hear until adulthood that Marilyn Monroe could have been killed by our own Government, likely linked to the Presidency.  But my little girl knows that our current President has dozens of allegations of misogyny, sexual impropriety, and worse.  Whether conspiratorial or factual, the myriad of claims are known to her.

Enter education.  I’ve blogged before, even putting on a large-scale Alternate Reality Game based around the ideas of how our education system has been socially engineered to create exactly what we claim we don’t want.  While some feel it's just a conspiracy, refusing to look at the evidence, I don't think it's hard to look at the blueprint used to create our academic system.  Add that to the output of education and I don’t think it’s that hard to believe we are doing our kids harm, despite what we claim to desire.

I know that I am stepping outside of my normal boundary here, but I hope you’ll stick with me, because what I’m about to explain has a direct ramification on the university / college experience.  While I have only taught high school aged kids a twentieth of my total career arc, I do teach pre-service teachers how to get ready for that context.  I hear plenty from them about the education system. 

But far beyond that, keep in mind I ran an academic research center which focused on K-20 education, the primary base being K-12.  I’ve blogged before about research ideas I have presented which were too “hot” politically, even noting one piece of research that was never published as the message was too difficult for a commercial entity to say out loud.  But also of note was that during my days in the research environment, I had opportunity to meet with several leaders of K-12 education.  I met regularly with teachers, principals, district superintendents, and even sat across the table from officials within the Department of Education at the national level.  I heard their theories and strategies.  I knew of several initiatives and implementations prior to them going live (and I also knew they would likely fail).

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If you have read my stuff with any regularity over the years, despite my blogging platforms changing, you also know this is largely why my wife (who has her Master’s degree in primary education) home-schools our little girl.  While there was some bullying by a teacher and the move to Florida and a super-dysfunctional public school system weighed on our minds, first-hand knowledge of K-12 policy making decisions was a significant determinant. 

So, as my public-school-teacher wife and I have painstakingly worked and worried about our daughter’s whole well-being, wondering if social happiness should ever trump educational attainment, we have also worked tirelessly to provide her with the best possible learning experiences.  And by we, I really mean my wife, who has turned home-school teacher into a job far more taxing than she ever had with her classroom. 

That may sound odd, so let me explain.  My wife was a heck of a first grade teacher.  She was always the teacher parents asked for their kids to have.  She was as good with the parents as the kiddos, but she took care of her students in a well-balanced, holistic way.  She took care of them physically, emotionally, academically, psychologically, and on and on.  Some came to school hungry.  She took food each day to feed them.  Some came sleep deprived.  She helped them find moments of rest throughout the day.  She knew learning was not a priority for students who had basic life elements missing. 

At the same time, she knew plenty of colleagues who were great care-givers but not great academic practitioners.  Alternatively, she knew plenty of other teachers who really knew how to inspire kids with materials, but struggled to love those tiny persons.  In other words, she knew some other great teachers, some mediocre practitioners, and some who should never have given up on their other dreams, "settling" for teaching instead.  I hope you get what I’m saying.  She was in that small sliver of practitioners who is really quite exceptional at helping all aspects of childhood, not solely teaching.

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But of course that means teaching was only part of a portfolio.  In fact, she has stated dozens of times in the past few years while homeschooling our daughter that teaching today is far more about classroom management than it is about actually teaching leading to learningBut when you add in Common Core requirements, newly defined elements of "rigor", high stakes testing, the political and process-based rules setup by people who have often never been in a classroom, as well as the operational issues needed to organize a grouping of people, genuine teaching is often quite strangled.  So it was like the proverbial veil being lifted from her eyes when she started really exploring what it takes to motivate, inform, persuade, and teach a human being in such a way that the learning “sticks”, often leaving her shaking her head stating that true learning can almost never happen in a classroom of more than 4-5.  That has almost nothing to do with the teacher and everything to do with the system and process we have created.

Which is really what I want to share with you today.  We as college professors have students who struggle to think critically, problem solve, and act in ways we might label “mature.”  More and more students come to us wanting to be spoon-fed the answers so that they can pass the test, not caring that they will never remember the material past the term end.  Learning often has no excitement or value to them.  They are on auto-pilot. 

For some lecturers this arrangement is perfect.  After all, real teaching is extremely demanding, involving strategy, intentionality, use of learning science, and so much more.  So, for some professors the metaphor of “bank vault learning” (The expert is the vault and the student must unlock it to find riches) is perfect.  This arrangement allows any educator who values research, subject matter, service, summers off, or anything else above teaching / learning, an easy way out.

But for other professors – the subset of higher education professionals who give a damn - this is a massive struggle.  We want to provide underpinnings, foundations, and scaffold so that our students go on to be more than just productive and satisfied, but successful.  But how do we fight against the baggage of bad learning experiences for these students?  How do we combat their indoctrination into spoon-fed education?  My answer is important for both K-12 and higher ed teachers.  I hope you’ve stayed with me so far.

I write a lot about what real learning “looks” like.  I talk about the cognitive science good teachers leverage, the learning research they ground themselves with, etc.  But I want to talk about the importance of curriculum.  HoweverI want to start by looking through the lens of a mother / wife / teacher who is constantly seeking curriculum models and experiences to leverage.

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My wife and I desperately want my daughter to understand “why” as much as “how.”  In the simplest terms, one major issue we have with education is the idea that most curriculum requires students to practice the mechanics (algorithms) constantly, with very little help regarding why they would use these mechanics in the first place.  There is NO frame.  There is a horrible assumption that going over material again and again or that algorithmic practice somehow crystallizes the context over time, when study after study shows this not to be true.  This applies not just to classroom work, but homework as well.  As stated so effectively in Make It Stick (Brown, Roediger, McDaniel, 2015), "A common myth about learning is that re-reading is an effective study strategy – but it’s not. Re-reading gives students confidence that they know something when they actually don’t, a key example in which “learning" is misunderstood.”  But almost any teacher worth their salt knows this.  It’s one of the massive struggles between teachers and curriculum requirements, often being explained with catch-phrases like “teaching to the test”, etc. 

Want to see it explained pragmatically?  Here's one from our daughter's middle school curriculum.  Do a Google search regarding why the algorithm of long-division works.  See if you can find an easy to understand reason behind it.  I’m sure you can do the math.  I can too.  But WHY does it work?  How do you deal with things like place value when trying to contextualize long-division?  If your answer is, “you don’t, just do the problem like we show you,” then you aren’t a master teacher. Plus, not understanding numeracy, but instead just being able to do the algorithm creates almost no platform for more advanced mathematics.  

Want another example of it in real life?  Ask 10 people you know what exactly the equation ½ X ¼ = __ is seeking.  In the past few weeks I have asked more than 25 people (all with college degrees) what that equation is trying to accomplish.  TWO answered the question correctly. 

See what I’m getting at?  If you don’t know the why (what I refer to as the “frame”), then just knowing the "how" (mechanics) isn’t learning.  It’s practicing an algorithm without context, which will likely not be extrapolated later in life, when it matters. 

I’m proud as heck of my wife.  She is likely the best educator I know.  She reads about learning voraciously, but she scours numeracy, literacy, history, science, and other curricula all the time.  She seeks out experts who can help explain they “why”, as much as the experts who can help younger minds assemble the “how” in unique ways.  She tries to channel Dan Meyer, Derek Muller, Debbie Miller and others every day, while focusing on the specific needs of our little girl as a learner. 

So, to my colleagues (K-20) out there, here’s the tough love.  Retrain your students.  No matter their background, no matter how great or not-so-great their previous architects of learning have been, retrain them to care more about learning than a score.  Help them seek the frame as much as practicing the mechanics while re-indoctrinating them to value failure as much as success.  My other hat is as an innovator.  Every book on innovation you will ever read tells you that without failure, innovation does not exist.  The same goes for learning.  In fact, you might say that failure IS learning, because failure often leads from the mechanics to the frame.  Don’t let the curriculum kill curiosity, critical thinking, or cognition. Teach past it if you have to

Good luck and good learning.