Understanding Curriculum: The Politics and Pedagogy of Curricula
ARTED 5011 (3 credits)
This course provides an overview of curriculum theory by exploring curricula as
historical, cultural, social, and political texts and practices. Teacher candidates
investigate topics such as critical pedagogy, visual culture, feminism, multiculturalism,
personal narrative, and post-colonialism. These topics are contextualized within current
art education theories and practices.
Prerequisites: Open to art education graduate students or permission of instructor.
Thinking about Curriculum
Tuesday, September 6, 2011. It’s my first day in a class entitled Understanding Curriculum. There are only 9 of us in the room. I’m nervous. My mind is busy shooing away feelings of intimidation. What do I know about curriculum? I know zilch about curriculum. Clouded with an assumption I’m alone in thinking these thoughts, my classmates and I are given a task. Using 10 words, describe what the word curriculum means. I sit for a moment before slowly scribbling the following index of words: lesson, plan, study, class, work, guide, set, time, idea, map. Phew. Quite proud of my little list, I volunteer to read it aloud. It’s recorded on to a large piece of white craft paper taped to the wall. As others begin to read their words (process, confusion, reflection, flow, experience), a small light turns on inside of me.
Prior to participating in this class I understood curriculum to mean a plan, probably made by someone other than the person enacting it, to be followed. I understood curriculum to be set in place, where the teacher has a lesson mapped out and expected guidelines are to be met by his or her students. Curriculum, to me, meant something having to do with organization, calculation and expectancy. Interestingly, I also only connected the word with elementary and high school level education. I’m guessing this has to do with a personal experience of associating my college years with studio classes that felt meaningful in the formation of my identity as opposed to anything calculated.
The humdrum thoughts on the meanings of curriculum I held before starting the semester, I realize now, were sort of in line with what I’ve come to know as traditional transmission models of teaching. The small light that flicked on inside of me on that very first day, has grown more intense over the course of this class. Over the last fifteen weeks we’ve read and discussed articles and chapters examining problems of and offering alternatives to these models. Before going into depth in considering some of these other possibilities offered by 3 specific readings, I will first attempt to define what a transmission model of teaching is.
Before the Reconceptualization of the field of curriculum (1970-79), “the majority of educationists, education practitioners and scholars active in curriculum reforms [were] oriented toward improvement, rather than understanding, action and results rather than inquiry” (Mauritz Johnson quoted in Pinar, Reynolds, Slattery, Taubman, 2004, p. 15). This strict focus on advancement and results as opposed to self-awareness and exploration is a good place to start in constructing a definition of a transmission model of teaching.
My understanding of a traditional transmission model of teaching is one likened to an image of a teacher as a giant water jug and students as empty containers. Without the jug the containers will remain waterless. Knowledge is imparted onto students who are waiting to receive it as if they are empty without it. Knowledge is positioned as an object and attainable only by following a linear path. Efficiency is the goal and problems are solved quickly or expelled. A transmission model of teaching presumes all students learn in similar ways.
The Reconceptualists, opposed to traditional transmission models of teaching, are committed instead to understanding how students make meaning out of knowledge. Pinar, et. al. write, “the development of self-awareness and personal growth [constitutes] the two basic thematic movements in the Reconceptualization, which would begin in May, 1973 at the University of Rochester conference” (Pinar quoted in Pinar et al., 2004, p. 192). The Reconceptualists view curriculum as not just an objective but as a way of framing reality and understanding experience of that reality in relationship to the rest of the world. Particular backgrounds of students and teachers are taken into consideration and valued as an important part of the learning process. The Reconceptualists encourage educators to think of curriculum as a political, racial, gender, phenomenological, poststructuralist, deconstructed, postmodern, autobiographical/biographical, aesthetic, theological, institutionalized and international text.
If the Reconceptualist call for thinking about curriculum as a place of understanding and meaning-making shines a bright light on the flaws of the transmission model, why, then, has the latter held such traction and for such a long time? Considering some of the readings from this semester, I can think of a few poignant reasons. Inviting students to share their inner worlds is risky. What will they say? How will I, the teacher, know how to react? Uncertainty is frightening. Treating the learning process as a shifting spiral may create unintended outcomes. Navigating through an unstable environment may seem tricky. Making space for talking about conflicts may mean giving up time allotted for other tasks. Changing directions in the middle of a lesson may seem disorienting. Understanding knowledge as a relational concept is unsettling and may seem like an overwhelming undertaking.
It’s one thing to challenge a transmission model of teaching and to label it distorted or defective and to leave it at that. Taking into consideration the points mentioned above, it’s another and more difficult thing to actively engage in a model of teaching that allows room for risk, unpredictability, surprise, loss, and the unexpected. According to three specific texts we’ve examined this semester, it is difficult but necessary. Engaging in these uncertainties is essential in order for meaningful learning to occur. In the next few pages of this essay I will describe and reflect on Deborah Britzman’s thoughts on the need to allow room for worries, doubts, and wild thoughts in the classroom, Jonathan Silin’s ideas about how learning may mean giving something up, and, finally, currere, as discussed in “Understanding Curriculum as Autobiographical/Biographical Text”, as a method for “intensify[ing] one’s experience of education” (Pinar, et al., 2004, p. 522). All three texts offer alternatives to traditional transmission models of teaching and view learning as a way to move teachers and students closer to seeing themselves as active meaning makers.
In her article “The Arts of Inquiry”, Britzman discusses the need to allow room for worries, doubts and wild thoughts in the classroom. She asks, “what is it about wild thoughts that place it as a disruption to education” (2001, p. 13)? I think the answer to this question goes back to the notion of fretting the unknown. If students’ wild thoughts are welcomed into the classroom discourse, there is no way of knowing what they will say. The teacher may need to respond to ideas he or she is uncomfortable with. The teacher may be asked to reflect on his or her own worries, doubts or wild thoughts, causing feelings of vulnerability. This then lessens the teachers all-knowing authority. Can a teacher who questions herself along with her students be considered an expert in knowledge?
I think what Britzman is getting at here is that this feeling of vulnerability or doubting oneself is an important factor in being able to think well. Things are uncertain, questions are flying and the teacher does not claim to have all of the answers. Problems arise and may not be settled right away. Sounds like an unnerving situation. Why, then, does Britzman advocate for the inclusion of worries, doubts and wild thoughts in education? They have the potential to become resources for thinking. She states, “it is only through doubt that one can question the differences between thoughts and things, between the adequacy of symbolization and the experiences of objects in the world, and between feelings and perceptions” (2001, p. 14). Through doubt, teachers and students are able to think about themselves thinking. Why am I worried about making a mistake? What am I afraid of? In my opinion, making space for this kind of thinking and questioning in education opens possibilities for students and teachers to relate to one another. Inviting doubts, worries and wild thoughts into the classroom enables teachers and students to share inner worlds. The classroom then becomes a social network with these complex human relations at its core. This is quite a different picture than the one a transmission model of teaching offers.
While Britzman helps us consider how curriculum becomes a context for thinking about our thoughts, Jonathan Silin in his article, “Reading, Writing and the Wrath of My Father,” makes a claim that teachers need to be mindful of losses students may experience while learning. Acquiring new skills and ideas may mean giving old ones up. This may cause students to feel anxious or off-balance. They may appear unfamiliar to themselves and to others. They may experience fears of being disappointed or disappointing others, wonder whether or not they will survive, or come up against notions of feeling like a baby.
Taking into consideration these justifiable concerns, a student’s potential resistance to learning becomes more clear. Silin notes, “students may defend against a loss and the sense of being lost. In response, teachers need to embrace resistance and the conflict it causes inside of students and with others” (2006, p. 234). How does one do this? I think Britzman would insist that making space for worries, doubts and wild thoughts in the classroom is one way.
Silin argues that if learning most likely means experiencing a sense of loss, “teachers need to allow time and space for children to take responsibility for their own learning and the difficult emotions it may entail” (2006, p. 239). If students are undergoing pains of experiencing loss in the learning process, shouldn’t the work involved at least have meaning, personal relevance and perhaps even be pleasurable? It’s impossible for teachers to know what this work looks or feels like without the input of their particular students. In my opinion, teachers must allocate time and provide opportunities for students to voice their wants and needs.
Rather than quickly dismissing a student’s refusal of a new idea, a conversation takes place in an attempt to understand where the resistance lies, and what it means to the student. If thinking about resistance becomes an important part of the learning process, curriculum can then be thought of as an interpretive space. It becomes a cycle of losing significance and finding it again and again. Silin urges educators to acknowledge the losses students may undergo in the learning process and to recognize that learning can be painful.
Having a method that allows for loss to be acknowledged and worked through may be helpful. The concept of currere is introduced in “Understanding Curriculum as Autobiographical/Biographical Text” as an effort to search for an inner educational experience (Understanding Curriculum, Pinar et al., p. 518). What appeals to me most about this concept is that it is an actual method with 4 steps: “1) regressive, 2) progressive, 3) analytical, 4) synthetical” (Pinar, et al., p. 520). The bracketing of time as a way of analyzing more closely our present ways of thinking and knowing is also of particular interest to me. Nate and I shared in these interests after reading the chapter and decided to experiment with the method as part of our Curriculum as Reflexive project earlier in the semester. We asked the class to follow the 4 steps of currere after prompting students to remember specific moments in their pasts.
The regressive step of currere involves free writing in order to recall a specific moment in the past. The progressive step asks students to think about what is not yet present and to imagine possible futures. This step was the hardest for me to wrap my mind around during our experiment. The analytical step is a time when both the past and the future are examined. Finally, during the synthetical step the student asks him/herself “what is the meaning of the present” (Pinar, et al., p. 521)? During our Reflexive project we allotted 25 minutes to go through all 4 steps. Strangely, this amount of time felt way too long and way too short. I’d be curious to go through the process with both a shorter and longer amount of time.
Working through the steps was both intriguing and really tough. It was challenging to focus on one specific moment in the past and to then immediately jump into the future before heading back into the present. Re-calling the past in order to understand more clearly the present, lines up with Silin’s concerns about being mindful of the losses students may experience while learning. If teachers are aware of what their students may be giving up from their pasts, their resistances to learning in the present may become more clear. An imagined hopeful future may make the idea of giving something up in the present a little easier to handle.
What currere does best, in my opinion, is allow for the mind to wander back and forth in time. Madeleine Grumet refers to it as, “a reflexive cycle in which thought bends back upon itself and thus recovers its volition” (Pinar et al., p. 522). This wandering back and forth enables people to ask really good questions about themselves. Why am I resisting? Why do I doubt myself? What do I want? The answers to these questions may become clear when remembering the past and imagining the future. The idea of currere presents curriculum as a mediating concept or an in between place. This is not a linear approach to learning.
As someone only barely beginning to comprehend the complexities of teaching, these three alternatives to transmission models of teaching have provided a point of entry. Instead of thinking about curriculum as something set in place, I’m beginning to understand it as a relational concept, an in between place, an autobiographical text. If curriculum means making room for worries, doubts, and wild thoughts in the classroom, it becomes a shifting spiral. In acknowledging the fact that learning may mean giving something up, it then becomes an interpretive space. Using the method of currere to wander back and forth in time means understanding curriculum as a mediating space.
As a future arts educator, it’s becoming clear to me that in order for meaningful learning to occur, I need to welcome all of the richness involved in risk-taking, unpredictability, surprises, loss, and the unexpected into the classroom. What will this look like? How will my future students respond to a curriculum in constant motion?
Britzman, D. P. (2001). The arts of inquiry. Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 17(1), 9-26.
Pinar, W. F., Reynolds, W. M., Slattery, P., & Taubman, P. M. (2004). Understanding Curriculum.
Silin, J. (2006). Reading, Writing and the Wrath of My Father. In G. M. Boldt and P. M. Salvio (Eds.) Love’s Return: Psychoanalytic Essays on Childhood. Teaching and Learning. New York and London: Routledge. pp. 227-241.