The Curriculum Fallacy, Part I | Peter Mott | 4 Min Read

The Status Quo

The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.

Abraham Lincoln

Humanity is at a tipping point… Right now, given inertia and lack of capacity to act collectively, the odds favor extinction of the human race and the planet… As we know them… [most] of all we desperately need a new kind of education — one that mobilizes us to learn about the world as we change it for the better… Our precarious future is a system problem; it requires a system solution that involves us all.

Michael Fullan’s blog in Education Week, 08.25.2019

Few would dispute that we live in a stormy present or, even more ominously, that humanity is faced with existential challenges that may result in our extinction if we fail to act “anew.” We are not at peace, reason struggles to survive in a world increasingly threatened by fundamentalist beliefs and conspiracy mythologies, and our “mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam” (Carl Sagan) is itself at a tipping point, unable to sustain the damage we inflict on it daily, both individually and collectively.

We live in a world suffused with innovative, creative energy. I can’t think of an organization, company, institution, or, for that matter, country that does not include “innovation” somewhere in its mission or vision of the future. We are told that we must be “nimble” and “agile” if we want to remain “successful.” Many schools’ “Mission & Vision” statements happily embrace these buzz words and echo the language of systemic change. And yet, beneath the veneer of our supposedly progressive civilization, there is a growing perception that the deplorable state of our world is also attributable to a colossal failure of education.

With few exceptions, the educational model perpetuated in schools hasn’t changed substantially since the Industrial Revolution, and so far at least, technology has not turned out to be the paradigm-changing panacea. The model suffers from fallacies that have blunted and frustrated our efforts to re-invent an outdated, ineffective, doggedly resilient, and dangerously inappropriate system.

Why is ‘school’ as we know it dangerously inappropriate? Because we have confused education and learning by believing they are the same thing; because we have standardized everything in school; because our children are “instructed” (we call it “taught”) to adapt to social, economic, cultural, and political realities rather than learning to call “what is” into question and create a world with a hopeful rather than a precarious future. And because, in Seth Godin’s words, “the status quo is there because we’ve accepted it.”

Clayton Christensen put it succinctly in Disrupting Class:

“…the current educational system — the way it trains teachers, the way it groups students, the way curriculum is designed, and the way the school buildings are laid out — is designed for standardization.”

Clayton Christensen

Seth Godin, on the other hand, proposes a liberating, altogether different learning experience:

Learning is different [from taking lessons]. Learning is something we get to do, it’s a dance, an embrace, a chance to turn on some lights.”

Seth Godin

Schools, despite their protestations to the contrary, are often inadvertently designed to turn off lights and, instead, glorify content coverage which Howard Gardner calls “the greatest enemy of understanding.” And so, at the root of the fallacies which have hobbled substantive change lies the curriculum. Its premises include the assumptions:

  • that there is/should be an accepted canon of knowledge which must be absorbed by all students;
  • that this canon of knowledge prepares students for “life after school”;
  • that “getting well educated” is synonymous with requiring everyone to jump through identical curriculum hoops;
  • that success in mastering the curriculum is a prerequisite for “success” in what comes after school.

There is something oddly circular and ultimately paradoxical about these assumptions since they blithely equate the existence of a standard curricular model with the attainment of qualities and expectations which remain undefined: what exactly do we mean by “life after school,” “getting well educated” and “success”? And whose “canon of knowledge” are we supposed to adopt?

Although schools embellish their curricular ambitions with noble individual goals — risk-taker, creative and critical thinker, independent learner, empathic collaborator, etc., etc. — the disconnect between these aspirations and the underlying curricular premises which fuel a school’s educational model is evident: the collective standardization with its ill-defined outcomes trumps — and often enough — belies the lip service given to individual growth, passion, interest, and curiosity.

This also helps explain the mental and emotional stress experienced by so many students who, for most of their life, have been relentlessly spoon-fed by their parents’, teachers’ and society’s concept of what “life after school,” “preparation for college” and “success” ought to look like. That the term “curriculum” derives from the Latin word for “the course of a race” is starkly illuminating in this context.

The unfortunate fact is that the insistence on a supposedly “shared” and universal canon of knowledge was not designed to produce critical, independent, and creative thinkers but, rather, to ensure compliance with things as they were — and are. Conrad Hughes, Principal at Ecolint (Geneva), in a recent podcast postulated that schools should be

“places of leisure, opportunities for thinking, a community of learners… a place to become a richer individual, a better human being.”

Conrad Hughes

For far too long we have tacitly assumed and endorsed the insidious argument that the curricula by which we habitually measure the performance — and “ability” — of learners foster these qualities by definition when, in fact, the precarious and stormy state of our world suggests otherwise. Thus, if schools continue to cling to curricula that fail to address what ought to matter in our world, they become dangerously inappropriate.

(This is Part I of a two-part article on Curriculum Fallacies. Part II will suggest a “Paradigm Change”) 

Peter Mott

Peter C. Mott has more than 40 years of experience as a Director of International Schools, a Director at the New England Association of Schools & Colleges (NEASC), and numerous educational Board leadership positions. He has conducted workshops at the Principals Training Center and has presented at virtually every regional conference for international schools. He has led dozens of accreditation visits to schools on every continent. He has developed innovative new curricular pathways and, together with his colleagues Kevin Bartlett and Greg Curtis, is the author of ACE Learning, NEASC’s groundbreaking new accreditation protocol which aims to transform rather than simply improve learning communities. He was instrumental in developing a symbiotic partnership with KHDA in Dubai which oversees and inspects private schools.Peter is passionate about shifting mindsets in education and challenging cherished assumptions and premises that have shaped K-12 education for more than a century. This is why, in 2017, Peter founded TreeTopVisions, a consulting and advocacy firm dedicated to looking at and re-imagining education from different perspectives and vantage points.

2 thoughts on “The Curriculum Fallacy, Part I | Peter Mott | 4 Min Read

  1. Enjoyed this one Peter. We need to ‘shake the tree’ but to do so with success requires people (leaders and managers) in schools to completely change the way they perceive and implement education regarding curriculum content and nature of delivery. To quote a wise man, how do you do that (shift paradigms) without leaving the rest of the flock (teachers, managers, leaders, governors) behind? In many instances you need the wisdom and experience of ‘doing the job’ over and above the comparative simplicity of a post-graduate qualification based on rhetoric and often sterile, entrenched or outmoded practice, to achieve that change.

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