Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Curriculum Reform: The Spark we Need

“I have no time!”

This is one of the most common frustrations I hear from teachers.

This lack of time often impedes innovation and change.  Pedagogical improvements such as project based learning, assessment for learning, technology integration (substitute whatever you like here) are shelved because of a stated lack of time.

To be perfectly honest – I tend to have little patience for the “time” complaint (perhaps this will be a different blog post).

Nonetheless, I do empathize with teachers who feel overwhelmed by the breadth of some of our current curriculum documents - particularly those curriculums that are laden with facts and information.  Many of our current documents are heavily prescriptive – often burdening teachers and students with an overabundance of learning outcomes.

Why are these documents a mile wide and only an inch deep?
Is it necessary, in our information rich age, to have our students remembering information that is at their immediate disposal 24/7? 

I wonder, like other educators I have spoken to, if the current state of curriculum documents is a collective exercise in “covering our back sides” by all educational stakeholders.   
I am also left wondering if our heavily prescriptive curricula stems from fundamental lack of trust in teachers.

Should we be teaching student the skills to access, evaluate, discern and communicate about the information at their disposal?

As we continue to talk about the reforms to our education system in BC, I am hopeful that one of the first and most tangible things we look to reform is curriculum documents. 

(For what it’s worth, I think new curriculum documents should be a 100 meters wide and 100 meters deep with an emphasis on skills.)

This tangible change might provide the momentum and spark for other changes to our system as well!

Of course, I’m still figuring things out and any thoughts and suggestions are welcome!


  1. No question that curriculum bloat is a problem - but consider this. According to the School Act, an "educational program" is "an organized set of learning activities that, in the opinion of [the Board] is designed to enable learners to become literate, to develop their individual potential and to acquire the knowledge, skills and attitudes needed to contribute to a healthy, democratic and pluralistic society and a prosperous and sustainable economy." it is not the set of learning outcomes in an IRP, which is simply a resource document. As far as I know, the idea that all the bullets in the IRPs constitute the "curriculum" and must be taught is false. In fact, the organizing concepts in the introduction to the IRPs are a better guide to what should be taught than the individual outcomes. I believe that provincial exams may be largely responsible for the wide-spread but unnecessary and counter-productive focus on coverage of specific outcomes. Whatever the reason, perception is reality and that perception traps teachers, but perhaps their emancipation can come from within and not from without.

  2. Great comment Bruce. I know that teachers sometimes feel that the bullets in the IRPs, but reasoning like yours will help us break out of that mindset. The curriculum is not our purpose, it is our tool, we should master it.

    Johnny, COMPLETELY agree. Cannot emphasize enough how much I think that our bloated, one size fits all curriculum is not the way to go for the future. If we want true "personalization" of education, we need to set aside the notion that every child needs to know the same thing as every other child when they graduate. Some core skills are important, but only through a diversity of opinion and ideas will we find the solutions to the problems which challenge our planet.

  3. Bruce I really appreciate your comments! Very insightful. I agree that provincial exams have had a role in the obsession with covering all of learning outcomes. Your idea that emancipation starts from within also hits the mark. I would add that we need courageous leaders (school based and beyond)to give permission to teachers to be free from "crush" of learning outcomes.

    From my experience, your perspective on this issue is a breath of fresh air - and one not widely shared.

    Thanks again

  4. David
    Thanks for taking the time to comment. I do believe that sometimes, in a change initiative, you need to pick one strategic and tangible thing that will cause constituents to take notice and start a shift in thinking. At my school, we started the shift in thinking about assessment best practices by moving to an "open grade book" concept whereby terms we no longer averaged. This simple change did have a cascading effect for deeper changes in our assessment policies.

    I am starting to think that the updating of curriculum documents can have the same effect on our school system.

  5. I have found the initial post and the resulting responses extremely enlightening. Some of the points I disagree with and others are fresh, new perspectives that make me think "that sounds right" or "I never considered that before." In both instances, the comments have stimulated further thought be provoking a defense of held beliefs or nudging me to consider different perspectives. (good signs, of course).

    A couple questions I'm curious to know more about:

    John: A rather naive comment/question, so my apologies in advance but I need to ask. I get the impression from your post that you feel the curriculum as it currently is sets up heavy a reliance on prescriptive outcomes and the classroom of today needs substantially more emphasis--something presently lacking--on teaching skills. My question is if the current situation for BC teachers negates a happy medium between the two from occurring? I ask because I've seen both ends of the spectrum, when pursued almost exclusively, produce some real problems.

    Bruce: I really liked your post but I'm scratching my head a bit (forgive me, it's late!) and I'm hoping you could clarify if I'm reading you correctly: it's not so much the curriculum in general but rather how it's being interpreted and used. Would that be a fair interpretation?

    Thanks in advance!

    Kelly B.

  6. Johnny - love this post! I often wonder if the curriculum is set up due to a lack of trust in educators. When I look at the Finland model (I know, we are all getting sick of hearing about Finland) I see teachers and schools with the trust and autonomy to participate in learning that is meaningful and relevant to students.

    When did we lose this trust with the public?

    When did we STOP being accountable to our students? I say this sarcastically but why do we, as schools, need to prove through narrow lenses that we are educating? Can we, as parents and educators, work together to educate... without having to use the curriculum as a crutch to proving that we are teaching?

    Anybody can teach the curriculum but takes an true educator to facilitate actual learning.

  7. Chris, I appreciate your comments and your questions. As I reflect on your comments and my post even further, I begin to think about the ramifications that curriculum reform could have on things like teacher training, school calendars, and teacher evaluation. It really can be a catalyst for many shifts in structures and attitudes.

  8. You have just articulated a lot of my concerns and questions too, Johnny! And now all of you have me thinking about 10 things at once!

    Somewhere along the line it seems the "ante was up-ed" with accountability. I am not sure where it came from the most--government, the public, economics, shifts and pressures in society? The competitive edge in so many things? Just so much to worry about now...(somewhat sarcastic).

    Here is an experience I often recall: My daughter's Gr. 2 teacher (who we still love dearly!) needed to let me know that my daughter was struggling with naming all the months of the year in sequence. She needed to check off a box in the curriculum expectations in time for the report card. So, did I panic? Did I run home and drill the months with her? (here I was with the kid who would often pull out of some activity she was absorbed in and ask me if it was morning or afternoon...:)). So no, instead I eased the teacher's concern that I would be concerned and replied that I didn't think she would go through life not knowing the months and that I was ok with giving her some more time to figure that out. :)

    So yes, I have had great concern about the crutch that has been created with curriculum, as Chris related to as well. There are so many other things I think we can focus on to "prove" teaching and learning. I hope we can make a shift from being limited to tracking the learning outcomes that can be checked off in a checklist. I hope we can build confidence once again for teachers and parents in this ahead. Can we bring it back into the "here and now" for the needs and support of how students learn?

    So just wanted to share that little story here!

  9. according to Jan Unwin,


    The End of Teaching Everything

    Teachers can’t teach everything listed in provincial IRPs, and they don’t have to. In fact, research shows that teaching that focuses primarily on coverage of the curriculum

    • Rarely gives students “a sense of the whole” of a subject area,
    • Leaves students unexcited and unengaged in their learning, and
    • Often results in learning that is never transferred to long-term memory.

    Instead of focusing on curriculum coverage, there are better ways to focus your education programs on the big ideas, and the deep understandings you want students to achieve.

    This should involve many ways to choose projects, etc. and many ways to represent learning. A great place to re-introduce the Principles of Learning which are actually in the IRPs.


    Jan Unwin, SD42