The Curriculum Fallacy – Part II: Learning Liberated | Peter C. Mott | 6 Min Read

As Abraham Lincoln made abundantly clear: we not only need to think anew but, equally important, we need to act anew. There has been plenty of “thinking” about new directions for learning, but pitifully little “acting” on what we’ve learned. That gap, as T.S. Eliot reminds us, is the malady of Hollow Men:

Between the idea

And the reality

Between the motion

And the act

Falls the Shadow.

T.S. Eliot

And hollow men and women aren’t going to fix the existential challenges which we and our children are summoned to grapple with. Instead, we will continue to stumble around in the shadows.

So, since existing curricula perpetuate the century-old fallacy that they lead learners out of brutish ignorance (the Latin root of “educate” literally means “to lead out”) towards a promised land of wisdom, ethical behavior, and becoming a “better human being”, what does it mean to abandon the “canon”, and all of the trappings (assessment, standardization, classification, and categorization) associated with such curricula? Don’t all children need to master literacy and numeracy skills, and gain an understanding of the scientific method, reasoned analysis, creative technique, and so on? Of course they do. And is it not a commendable goal, as someone wrote, to “expose children to things they do not yet know they love”? Of course it is. Pundits of “traditional education” often accuse progressive thinkers of dismantling fundamental educational principles, thereby leading us into an arid and barren intellectual landscape. They claim that we aim to break what isn’t broken — and fail to see that the circular logic implicit in their stance (“things have worked the way they are because the way they are things are working”) sustains the status quo and stagnation.

The issue is not whether common learning principles and mindsets are or are not worth building into our children’s DNA, as it were; the issue is the narrative (the “canon”) to which essentially human characteristics such as curiosity, imagination, passion, creativity should be attached. Should it be a Procrustean bed that forces minds into a one-size-fits-all scheme, or should it be a story in which countless paths to discovery and epiphany open up, which re-writes itself constantly as we live it, which encourages us to create and uncreate structures, patterns, and understandings, and which, in Samuel Johnson’s words, has a “conclusion by which nothing is concluded”? This is the “dance of learning” to which Seth Godin (see Part I) invites us and our children; this is the “interactive museum of learning opportunities” of which Yong Zhao writes; this is liberated learning.

It is our destiny and life-long desire to make sense of the world and our role and identity in it.  It is what makes us human. But our world and our understanding of it differ significantly from the context which defined our parents’ experience, and our children’s sense of self, priority, and urgency differs significantly from ours. Of course, there are commonalities at the most basic level: love, fear, hate, anger, hope, and the ability to imagine alternative worlds — but the stories which encapsulate, empower, and shape these commonalities hold meaning for our children only if the narrative illuminates and reflects the world they inherit from us. And that world is in peril. It is therefore incumbent upon us to ask what is worth learning and why.

This question guides the conceptual map of Kevin Bartlett’s Common Ground Collaborative initiative which alludes to both “pressing challenges” and “promising opportunities” which an appropriate curricular narrative must encompass: socio-economic stratification, environmental degradation, climate change, artificial intelligence, terrorism, migration, homelessness, human trafficking — and we could add others, of course: systemic racism, gender identity and inequality, truth and “alternative reality”, democracy and totalitarianism, science and religion, etc. To what extent are the narratives which embrace these challenges and opportunities embedded in our current curricula? A history or social studies course, an after-school club, an occasional “project,” or an annual “day” dedicated to human rights, women, LGTBQ awareness, and others like it simply won’t do; these amount to little more than token, check-list gestures and demean rather than elevate the issues to the prominence they deserve and need.

This is why Heidi Hayes Jacobs and Marie Hubley Alcock,

assert that we need to cultivate interest, curiosity, and fascination in contemporary curriculum design. We believe that if students know they will have an opportunity to conduct a legitimate inquiry with support in the learning environment, they are more likely to develop questions. If, on the other hand, a school has an antiquated “coverage” approach to curriculum, it is understandable for a student to ask, “Why bother?

Bold Moves for Schools: How We Create Remarkable Learning Environments

It is why David Perkins (in Learning that matters: An expanding universe) postulates six “beyonds” to which modern curricula should commit: beyond content, beyond local, beyond topics, beyond the traditional disciplines, beyond discrete disciplines, beyond prescribed content. And it is why Ian Gilbert in a blog in Independent Thinking includes, among his 32 recommendations for building a new school, such suggestions as “use real-world dilemmas as most of the curriculum,” “ask unanswerable questions,” “don’t cover, dig,” “create families, not classes,” “teach the history of the ones who lost,” and “celebrate independent thinking.”

In other words: instead of focusing on what curriculum should look like, we need to ask and agree on what learning should look like and then create an environment that encourages individualized learning to flourish, liberated from the constricting demands of “knowledge acquisition” and “content coverage.” By the same token, perhaps we should rewrite the moniker quoted earlier into “expose children to things they do not yet know they should care about” rather than assuming that children will come to “love” what their teachers have decided is worth “loving.”

Schools concerned about students forgetting what they “learned” when they return from summer vacations (or long breaks imposed by the current COVID pandemic) might even arrive at the realization that much of what their compliant youngsters “learned” deserves to be forgotten. This is not a matter of discarding important learning principles (like cultivating the famous “three R’s”). It requires schools to align teaching and learning with the skills to which they pay lip service without understanding their implications for the sacred cows of curriculum content, delivery, and assessment. Rather than identifying a particular “curriculum,” the WEF describes as the Top Ten Skills 2025: analytical thinking; active learning and learning strategies; complex problem-solving; critical thinking and analysis; creativity, originality, and initiative; leadership and social influence; technology use, monitoring, and control; technology design and programming; resilience, stress tolerance, and flexibility; reasoning, problem-solving and ideation.

Only when there is finally a marriage between the “story of life” which our children experience and seek to make sense of and the habits of mind and heart which our turbulent times call for, will schools — or learning communities as I prefer to call them — begin to liberate learning rather than “educate” for standardized compliance.

In Act 2 of Ghosts, Henrik Ibsen’s play, there is this:

I almost think we’re all of us Ghosts…It’s not only what we have invited from our father and mother that walks in us. It’s all sorts of dead ideas, and lifeless old beliefs, and so forth. They have no vitality, but they cling to us all the same, and we can’t get rid of them…There must be Ghosts all over the country, as thick as the sand of the sea. And then we are, one and all, so pitifully afraid of the light.”

Ghosts, Act 2, Henrik Ibsen

So, will we choose to remain ghosts, hollow men and women, clinging to dead ideas and lifeless old beliefs while the world is careening towards a tipping point and a precarious future? Or will it dawn on us at last that the flickering light of liberated learning might dispel the cobwebbed shadows that have robbed our curricula of vitality — and allow us to act anew?

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.

One thought on “The Curriculum Fallacy – Part II: Learning Liberated | Peter C. Mott | 6 Min Read

  1. Much food for thought Peter; especially from our perspective here in rural Cambodia where our students start school with no prior “knowledge” and yet so much “knowing” as humans.

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