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Trivial Pursuits

January 01, 2003 3 min read
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Content standards should favor depth over breadth, and help students make connections between ideas and concepts.

It seems obvious that any serious restructuring of a school in need of improvement has to begin with substantial restructuring of the curriculum. The curriculum profoundly influences the way schools are organized and run by determining how time is allocated, how space is used, and how students and teachers are grouped.

In the late 1980s, the fledgling standards movement raised for national discussion a question that gets to the very heart of education: What should students know and be able to do at various points in their academic careers? The founders of the standards movement recommended “parsimony” in establishing the content standards that would undergird curricula. They urged that these new standards focus on the relatively few key concepts that provide a discipline with structure, leaving it to teachers and schools to fill in the blanks.

I saw this as a marvelous opportunity to rethink the purposes and priorities of K-12 education and to restructure curricula accordingly. Unfortunately, the opportunity was missed.

At the national and state levels, in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, specialists from each discipline were convened to draft standards. Not surprisingly, these writers were inclined to find important virtually everything in their fields of study. Geographers wrote national standards that would challenge Ph.D. candidates, and historians couldn’t find a battle they didn’t consider crucial knowledge.

This example, taken from a California commission drafting science standards, makes the point: It claims that students should know “that the force on a moving particle (with charge q) in a magnetic field is qvBsin(a) where ‘a’ is the angle between v and B (v and B are the magnitudes of vectors v and B, respectively).” Furthermore, they should be able to “use the right-hand rule to find the direction of this force.” I submit that that is not something every high school student must master.

The sacred cow known as “coverage"—cramming intokids as much knowledge about any one subject as possible—drives these state and national standards. It’s no surprise that a federal laboratory in the Midwest estimated that students would need an additional nine years of schooling to meet the national requirements alone.

If we had commissioned historians to write the math standards, scientists to write the history standards, and so on, they probably would have come up with a much better measure of what kids need to know. The slavish commitment to coverage results in facts and information being valued more than reasoning and understanding. It has prompted schools to isolate bits of knowledge rather than connect them in interdisciplinary ways. And knowledge out of context is trivia.

William Schmidt, the U.S. research director for the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, has argued that curricula are crucial to student learning and that the most important characteristic of an effective curriculum is coherence. During a recent conference, he said that “when the internal structure of the discipline is apparent to students and to teachers—whether mathematics or science or history— it becomes clear that the discipline is not an arbitrary collection of topics, but rather a very structured,sequenced outline of the way one proceeds to the deeper structure of knowledge within that discipline.” American education, he added, tends to consider curricula arbitrary collections of topics.

It may have been reasonable to expect students to master humankind’s accumulated knowledge when all that we knew about science would fit on one shelf in Thomas Jefferson’s library. Today, a student can barely scratch the surface of the disciplines, and much of what he or she learns is likely to become outdated quickly.

Any curriculum should favor depth over breadth; it should help students make connections between ideas and concepts; it should help them see the relationships between knowledge within and across disciplines. And students should have the opportunity to apply what they learn in school to their daily lives. If that were to occur, perhaps more of them would know how to go on learning for a lifetime.

—Ronald A. Wolk

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