What are you teaching?
Anna Deese, Associate Director
September 23, 2017

I recently read a lot about Abner Peddiwell's classic, The Saber-Tooth Curriculum (Peddiwell, 1939). I didn't actually read the whole thing but went on a winding road where I read mostly about other people's take on it (here is one great resource The Saber-Tooth Curriculum is a parable that forces the reader to reflect on the modern educational system. It starts with the first curriculum designer, New-Fist, identifying certain needs for his society that form the objectives for the schools: Citizens need to be well-fed, sheltered, and safe. In order to be fed, sheltered, and safe individuals must meet certain goals. They must catch fish with bare hands, club horses in order to obtain their hides, and effectively scare away saber-tooth tigers. Schools taught these skills but, over time, the world changed. Outside of the classroom, these activities no longer occurred. Debates over next steps occurred: Do we side with progressives and update the goals within the current reality (i.e., focus on capturing bears vs. scaring saber-tooths to secure the citizenry?) or do we side with traditionalists and continue teaching what’s been taught because it allows for a common experience and heritage? The debate is settled by the ruling elders who decide to prescribe requirements based on what they feel is important instead of what seems to be best for society. Students continued to be assessed on clubbing horses despite antelope-snaring being the hallmark of a college and career ready citizen. The citizenry thus becomes more unprepared for success and society struggles with greater inequality and competition from other tribes.

And with just that short paragraph, I'm sure you're reflecting on what parts of your school or classroom relate to saber-tooth tigers and which have to do with antelope-snaring. The key thing is there isn't one particular set of right answers: It will vary by subject, by groups of students, by region of country. But I bet that interspersed between crucial facts that serve as a foundation for going deeper (or building up? I'm mixing metaphors here so you can pick whatever one you prefer) that you're thinking of some authentic, higher-order thinking skills. Elementary, secondary, whatever-ary--students need to learn how to think and problem-solve and evaluate.

So I'm curious - does your district curriculum reflect this? Do your lessons reflect this? Does your board of ed understand what a curriculum really means and the flexibility it needs? Do you know what your board of ed believes?

I emphasized that last question because I'm a trustee in the town where I live (the town does not do anything with CRISS; I avoid conflicts of interest). Recently, though, I was in a setting where someone was just bashing their school board (not mine). Honestly, they were probably out of line for the audience and generally using very disparaging language so it was hard to listen to it objectively but I have little doubt that there is some kernel of truth in there. Not all boards are functional. But here's the key: Most boards are made of elected volunteers from outside the world of education. Their varying perspectives are incredibly valuable. When we talk about college and career ready, the "outsiders" have an idea of what that looks like and often they'll agree: there are few careers that require you to remember what the endoplasmic reticulum does but it is important to identify and compare and contrast the relationships between the ER and other cell organelles because in many settings, you'll need to be able to identify and compare and contrast relationships. The board generally impacts the curriculum through policy adoption, the people they hire, and how they allocate funds (which is often decided, in part, by the people they hire). They do this at open meetings. Go and participate. Have your say. Or at the least, go and listen to hear their perspective. It might be that the board is advocating for deeper learning skills but it's getting lost in translation as it trickles to your classroom. If it's not, maybe they need someone else contributing on curriculum councils or at board work sessions. This is true whether you're a teacher, parent, or random community member reading this blog.

I'm very fortunate that in my town, our board members are all active participants and eager to learn about learning and willing to think creatively. No one has a set-in-stone agenda. We discuss. The discussion informs administration. They move on to do what they know is best for the kids and the school based on their experiences and research with our discussion in mind. When we need to push back on something, or need more information, we make it clear. As I said, very collaborative and very functional. It's really a wonderful and rewarding experience.

And you know what? We LOVE when the public participates. So if you're looking around and seeing a focus on saber-tooths when really we should be catching bears then find a way to get involved and make it known. I realize board meetings in large districts can be very intimidating but often the committee meetings are also published and open and much smaller. Go and ask questions. It can't hurt. Go be a leader!



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