Methodological and Philosophical Pathways in Traditional K-12 Schools & Universities

Over the last fifteen years, I’ve visited many distinct and diverse schools. I’ve visited self-directed learning academies, classical schools, project-based learning schools, STEM academies, place-based learning schools, game-based learning schools, and many more. These experiences are largely what inform my conviction that there is no one perfect model for all students. Many models work, but none of them are the right fit for all students. Because education is values laden and shaped by our beliefs and philosophies, it isn’t adequate to measure the efficacy of the modern school system by some single set of outcomes. This is because not everyone agrees upon the outcomes, but also because much of what people value about learning communities is not what we often think of as traditional educational outcomes. Too often, we’ve oversimplified our definitions of success to the point of meaninglessness, or at least perceived irrelevance to certain stakeholders. We’ve also largely seem the pathway to a given learning destination as far less important than the destination as defined by some set of measurable outcomes.

As I speak at various conferences, many are intrigued by my stories of these incredible and distinct schools, but most struggle to imagine how to do something similar in their own school. I continually suggest that start by simply getting informed about the possibilities through as many direct experiences with different types of learning communities as possible. Some do that, but then what? Unless they are going to start a new school or maybe content themselves with a few tweaks to their current system, most struggle to figure out what to do with this newfound insight about what is possible.

Some high school districts offer a creative solution to this. They create multiple schools within the larger school. For several years, I served on the advisory board for a project-based learning school housed in the same building as the “legacy” high school. Yet, there was also a arts immersion school in that distinct along with another school that focused upon those aspiring to future careers in health professions. Students can apply to one of these schools, but still have access to some of the AP courses, extracurriculars, and other benefits of the legacy school, all while being part of a sub-community that better connected with a particular student’s goals and values.

The idea of choosing a major in college functions a bit like this in most US higher education institutions. Students typically complete general education requirements with students from other majors, but they have a distinct and specialized learning pathway when it come to the major. This is a distinct disciplinary pathway. One student focuses upon biology while another American literature, graphic design, or chemical engineering. Each of these disciplines also often have certain philosophies of teaching and learning that are more dominant than others.

There is yet another possibility when it comes to higher education “pathways”, however, one that I am beginning to explore and hope to have the chance to help experiment in the future. Consider a model where are not only distinctions by content or discipline, but that there could be another way to categorize courses, by the dominant educational philosophy and pedagogy (or choose your favorite -gogy substitute). In this sense, there might be some who value project-based learning. Others value experiential learning. Still others are champions for service learning, place-based learning, Socratic dialogue, adaptive learning, game-based learning, writing-intensive learning, or a hundred other potential emphases. A community could emerge around one or more of these, establishing a shared vision and set of standards. Then, imagine a situation where courses can be designated and designed to align with a particular approach. At a college, you might have ten sections of a general education course like world history, but one could be taught as part of the adaptive learning pathway, another as a service learning course, and still another as a game-based learning course. Students could choose to navigate their way through college by selecting courses that fit a particular pathway, or they could go the eclectic route. Not only that, but it would provide a means by which teachers and students could form sub-communities around a set of shared educational values and philosophies.

The seed for this idea was first planted when I listened to a presentation almost a decade ago from some faculty at Dominican University in Chicago. They created a “service learning” designation for courses that agreed to function by a shared set of practices. When students went to sign up for courses, they could see which sections of a particular were designated as service learning, and opt for that section…or opt for a more traditional approach.

This is not entirely new. I’m sure that there are ample examples of this practice already at work on some schools, but rarely in this more formal method. I’m excited to explore this further. My own University is already doing a bit of this, and I look forward to learning about others who are doing something similar.

This strikes me as an incredibly promising approach to valuing different educational philosophies and practices, but doing it in a more school-wide, systematic way. This would leave room for requirements or planned experiences distinct to a given philosophy bout extracurricular or non-credit. There could even be some sort of badge, endorsement, or designation upon graduation if a student meets a certain set of expectations set within a given pathway. This doesn’t call for everyone to be on the same page, but it empowers a small or large group within the larger school community to create something truly distinct, capitalizing upon the many benefits that I’ve discovered amid my visit of distinct schools over the years.

I’ve represented the concept in the rudimentary visual below. At this point, I’m posting this to get insights from readers like you. I would love to hear from people. What thoughts, questions, potential challenges and opportunities come to mind for you with this approach? Also, have you seen something like this already in place at a school?

Should Young People Still Learn Handwriting and Cursive in School?

My family and I went to Williamburg, Virginia a few weeks ago. As we walked from house to house, learning about the beliefs, practices, and perils of colonial America, I often saw eighteenth century documents sitting on the tables for visitors to view. It was not easy to work through the creative spelling of the eighteenth century, but with a little time and effort, I could make sense of the words enough to share a few ideas with my son.

At one point, a man next to me declared that he is a second grade teacher, and he is proud to be one of the few teachers who never stopped teaching students how to write in cursive. After all, how would they be able to read some of the most important documents in our nation’s history if they could not at least read cursive?

Debates about the future of handwriting (and cursive more specifically) has grown ever since keyboarding demanded a space in the school experience. Proponents of handwriting defend their stance in many ways, and advocates for burying the practice of cursive or handwriting at large have a response to each one.

Defense of Handwriting and Cursive #1 – Handwriting, especially cursive, is necessary for maintaining a close connection to our founding documents and American history, including the recent past.

Response #1 – You do not need to be able to write cursive to read it. At most, it only takes a few days, sometimes even just a handful of hours, to teach someone how to read cursive.

Defense of Handwriting and Cursive #2 – What will come of the wonderfully personal handwritten cards and letters of the present and past?

Response #2 – This is already an increasingly uncommon practice today. It will probably fade away, but something else will take its place. Besides, people can still teach themselves cursive outside of school or on their own.

Defense of Handwriting and Cursive #3 – The fine motor skills associated with learning handwriting and cursive are an important part of early brain development, not unlike the benefits that come from learning a new instrument. There are other developmental benefits as well.

Response #3 – This is one positive result of handwriting in the literature, but even the comparison to learning a new instrument shows that there are multiple ways to achieve such benefits.

It is an interesting debate and I see convincing arguments on both sides of the issue. There can be benefits and there are other ways of looking at it, but I offer the following questions for consideration and reflection about the matter.

  1. Common Core does not mention cursive after second grade. For those schools that have reshaped what they do according to the CCSS, this seems to be at least one nail in the coffin of cursive.
  2. Why not involve students in researching this question and deciding for themselves? This could make for a fascinating journey into the past and exploration of communication. Even as I write this, I could see a fascinating game-based learning experience created to set this up.
  3. What, as a culture, do we value about handwriting and cursive? Who values in and who does not? Why?
  4. Who are the winners and losers if we keep teaching cursive? What about if we stop?
  5. Right now we are in a middle time for this issue. If you cannot write, it can still be a disadvantage in some situations, but how quickly is this changing?
  6. What is the role of handwriting outside of school today? Who uses it? Who does not? How is this changing and why?
  7. What are the similarities and differences between handwriting and cursive? These are obviously not the same, so our answer to the above questions might be different when we are talking about learning to print versus learning to write in cursive.
  8. Maria Montessori and many others write about the value of learning handwriting for children. If we are indeed moving away from this, what are the research needs and gaps on this subject?

I’m a Part of the Curriculum and So Are You: From Tame to Wild Learning

I’m part of the curriculum and so are you. This is an important truth that allows us to journey from tame to wild learning, from contained and constricted to incredible and unexpected journeys of transformational learning.

In a traditional sense, a curriculum consists of the course of study on any educational level. Or, many people today start with defining curriculum by the learning objectives, what students need to know and be able to do at the end of a course or program. Go to a typical school and ask teachers to show you their curriculum, and they will likely show a digital or physical book of lessons and learning experiences, perhaps a textbook, and other related learning experiences. Others will explain that the curriculum consists of standards, courses, units, learning objectives, content and learning resources, along with assessments and other graded assignments or activities. Yet, I’d like to suggest that all of these definitions miss an important part of the curriculum.

I value the definition used by AV Kelly in The Curriculum: Theory and Practice (p.13). “The curriculum is the totality of the experiences the pupil has as a result of the provision made.” I appreciate such a broad definition based upon the way that I represent the “essentials” of a learning experience. The only two critical elements for a learning experience would be a learner and an experience.

As such, as much as people today focus upon the content, the standards, the objectives, and the assessments as critical elements of a curriculum, perhaps we are wise to not forget yet another important part of the curriculum, the learner. While most people don’t think of the students themselves as part of the curriculum, they are critical to understanding what is learned and why it is learned. In that way, it is impossible to separate the learner from the rest of the curriculum.

If I am part of a learning experience, then I am part of the curriculum. The latin for curriculum refers to the idea of a course, as in a race course, a road, or a pathway. It comes from the metaphor of learning as a race, but I like to think of it even more as a journey. We all know that you don’t have much of a journey without a person going on it. Also, even if you have ten people on the same journey but at different times, we all know that it will be a qualitatively different journey because of the people involved. Each person brings different goals, values, beliefs, and experiences. Each person will learn something slightly different from the same journey. Each person will add something new to the experience of fellow sojourners.

There are certainly shared experiences and common lessons, but in the wilds of real life, you can’t control or manipulate a course or journey so that everyone has the same experience and there is the exact same outcome. In fact, if you achieve that, you probably do so by taming the journey, by making it something less real, less wonderful, less like a journey. We risk doing that when we only think of curriculum in terms of the controllables, the objectives, the assessments, the carefully considered plans.

I’ve never seen a lion in the wild, but I’m told that it is a completely different experience than seeing it in a cage or in a circus. One is distant, controlled, and incapable of displaying its full potential. It is beautiful, even majestic. It might not be tame, but it is contained, and that changes the experience for the viewer, but so much more for the lion. The same thing is true with our curricula.

This is not just some esoteric musing about how we are all part of the curriculum. It is a hard fact that has important implications for how we imagine the nature of education and schooling in the modern world. Yet, it is a largely foreign concept for many of us in education today. At the same time, it is wonderfully familiar if we only take a moment to reflect on the best and most valuable parts of our own learning journeys over the years. Now, what would it look like if our classrooms and school reconsidered the ways in which we went about education in view of this fact?

Curriculum: What One-billionth of a Percent of Content will we Teach in School?

Let’s talk about curriculum. What One-billionth of a Percent of Content will we Teach in School? This is my continued reflection on Will Richardson’s 9 Elephants in the Class(Room) That Should “Unsettle” Us. If you have not done so already, I encourage you to check out his original article. It is definitely worth the time and would make for a great discussion starter among educators.

“We know that curriculum is just a guess.”

1 Billionth of a Percent

Richardson quoted Seymour Papert who asked, “‘what one-billionth of one percent’ [of knowledge] are we going to choose to teach in school?” The point is that we have access to an immense amount of information today. Beyond that we have access to more knowledge as well. We even have access to rich sources of wisdom that extend far beyond what was available to many in past ages. We have access to countless books, databases of journal articles, video lectures from leading voices around the world, rich music and film, and so much more.

Yet, Richardson poses a question about who gets to decided what to include and not include in the formal K-12 curriculum. Some argue that we should just go with what the state or national standards tell us. Many base these standards upon certain categories of knowledge, some of which respected scholars contest. Should we teach social studies or should we teach discrete disciplines like history, sociology and American government? If we are to study history, what do we focus upon and at what age?

Competing Viewpoints

Some would like us to think that there is no real disagreement among highly educated and informed people, but that is not the case. There are competing viewpoints from many angles. It is not as simple as just listening to the insights afforded by the “experts.” The more you look into such matters, the more nuance and diversity we can uncover. There are certainly some basics that we can agree upon in many communities and contexts, but this again comes back to the question about who gets to decide what goes into a curriculum and what does not.

How to Decide?

How do we really determine what students most need to learn? Also, by what standard do they rank this knowledge? Even today, some districts decided that music and the arts must be given a lower priority than math and language arts. Some argue that computer science is a critical literacy while others disagree. Yet, even amid all of this, I contend that there is far less of a debate and rich dialogue than such a topic warrants.

Coming back to the Papert quote, there is also the consideration of how our understanding of curriculum should adjust given the current status of knowledge access in the world. Of course, there is new knowledge emerging all the time. What we knew about the human brain twenty years ago is considerably different than what we know today. This could be said for many disciplines and areas of study. As new knowledge is discovered, what is the process by which schools or others are deciding when and if to include it in the “curriculum”? Who should have a voice in this conversation? Should it be experts, academics, educators, parents, politicians, community members, students, board members, others?

Curriculum and Power Struggles

Curriculum is full of agendas and power struggles. Even as some argue for separation of church and state, the same people are championing the inclusion of certain value systems, moral sensibilities, belief systems, and perspectives on epistemology. There is not neutrality on matters of religion and belief in schools. Curriculum in public schools is ripe with that which has historically been within the domain of one’s religious convictions. This is about power and influence of one’s ideas over the ideas of others, using the school system to gain traction for one’s ideas. Yet, many are unwilling to be open and candid about these realities, opting to use rhetoric and vocabulary that cloaks true intentions, motivations, and personal agendas. This is true across ideologies and belief systems.

Much of this musing might be extending far from the intent of Richardson’s initial comments, but this is an important issue that gets little support. I’ve concluded that choice and diversity of schools is likely the only viable option that does not force a certain group’s sentiments and convictions on the masses. Of course, many disagree, preferring to have their agenda driving the curriculum for as large of a population as possible.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Given all of this, some argue that we must focus far more on models, frameworks, and heuristics today. We must make the curriculum first about helping students learn how to learn. The argument goes that doing so with equip them for a lifetime of learning. Others argue that our focus should just be on nurturing curiosity and a love of learning. From that will flow the desire to learn the rest. Others argue for an established cannon of knowledge for all. And there are dozens of other such perspectives. How do we decide which will and should inform the curriculum at a given school?

This is a topic that demands more debate, discussion and reflection today. There is too much at stake for us to just accept what is given, to follow suit with whatever is included in the dominant textbook or educational resource providers, or to give up because it is a large and sometimes overwhelming issue. As I see it, this is an important democratic issue of our age.