“A common curriculum (whatever that means) is the wrong idea when we’re about ready to develop school of one–not just a 6th grade math program, but fully customized engaging learning sequences for every student,” writes Tom Vander Ark. His post at EdReformer.com is in response to yesterday’s call signed by 250 educators, civic and business leaders for a common core curriculum.
There are fewer ideas more seductive than the vision of customized education, where all children remain blissfully engaged solely by the ideas and subjects that interest them, and soar to ever-higher standards on tech-driven wings. But this splendid vision ignores an inconvenient truth: all of our most cherished goals for education are a function of the knowledge we possess and have in common with others. To say that a common curriculum is the wrong idea is to say literacy is the wrong idea. Let me not mince words: If you don’t think a common body of knowledge is important for all children, you don’t think it’s important to teach children to read with understanding, think critically, collaborate, or solve problems. You can’t have one without the other.
You may not like it, but you cannot ignore it. Want to build your reform agenda around technology, structural changes, or accountability but take a hands-off approach to curriculum and content? May I suggest a name for your group? Try ”Ed Reformers for Illiteracy.”
Vander Ark is obviously a smart guy. But his vision for education is all about delivery systems. Like many would-be reformers, he tacitly endorses a false and content-neutral, skills-driven notion that how children learn is more important than what they learn.
“Rather than a common curriculum, learning platforms to come will support not just ‘multiple pathways’ but customized playlists. Customized learning will be facilitated by comprehensive learning platforms surrounded by application and service ecosystems. Learning platforms will replace today’s learning management systems (LMS) that run flat and sequential courseware. Like iPhone and Android, these platforms will unleash investment and innovation.
Dazzled yet? Before you call your broker and load up on Apple and Cisco stock understand that if we don’t attend to what we put through these brave new pipelines, playlists and service ecosystems–or say it doesn’t matter–we will make no progress. Zip. Zilch. Nada.
In a speech in Virginia last month, E.D. Hirsch, Jr. invoked Jefferson’s admonition that we “follow truth wherever it may lead.” Where it leads — inevitably, incontrovertibly — is to understand that ”a coherent and cumulative early curriculum will raise in a systematic way the knowledge and the language of our students to a much higher level, and greatly narrow the unacceptable achievement gap between blacks and whites and between other demographic groups.” If you want to raise a child’s general level of reading skill, you must raise his or her “domain specific” knowledge. There is no way around it. As Hirsch put it,
“The domain specificity of skill is one of the firmest, and educationally most important, findings in modern cognitive science. It means that if you have learned a lot about chemistry, that won’t help your critical thinking skills in history. Cognitive scientists have become quite skeptical of concepts like “critical thinking skills” as though they were a formal acquisition that can be applied to all subject matters. Science has pulled the rug out from under the entire edifice of the anti-fact, how-to theory of education which has dominated in our schools for many decades, and was the chief cause of the verbal decline that appeared in the sixties that gravely weakened our nation.”
As Hirsch noted, you may not like where this leads, but you can’t pretend the facts aren’t there and the path isn’t clear. “Consider then what the principle of domain specificity means for educational policy,” he said. “It implies specific content in the curriculum, and a cumulative building up of the most enabling knowledge and language for all students. The human capital of our people, the skills that our students will have will be dependent on the specific knowledge they have. We cannot afford to leave the choice of specific topics and their cumulative sequence up to chance and whim.” [Italics mine.]
Hirsch was being polite. I will be less so. If you are opposed teaching a common body of shared knowledge to all children, you are opposed to teaching children to read. You are in favor of illiteracy, either by choice or indifference. You favor damaging our most vulnerable children by denying them the most critical thing: the functional knowledge they need to succeed.
Deal with it, don’t ignore it. Follow the facts where they lead. Not just where you want them to take you.