Curriculum Opinion

Does Curriculum Constrain Teachers?

By Diane Ravitch — February 26, 2008 4 min read

Dear Debbie,

Words are slippery things.

Take the idea of “constructivism.” Yes, I agree with you that we all “construct” knowledge as we encounter new ideas. We try to make sense of new ideas by fitting them to what we already know, using the vocabulary and experiences that we have already accumulated. If we have a meager vocabulary—or none at all, as when we visit a foreign country and are unfamiliar with the language—and if we have no experiences that are connected to the new ideas, then we will not be able to do much constructing of knowledge.

So the job of the school becomes one of conscientiously, purposefully building the vocabulary and background knowledge of students so that they can use them dynamically to understand new ideas and enlarge their knowledge.

There is another sort of constructivism in which students are busily discovering whatever they want to discover or trying to figure out through inquiry what the teacher knows but refuses to teach them or sitting around idly because they don’t know what they feel like discovering today. This is not the sort of classroom I admire. I have never much cottoned to the idea of the teacher as a “guide on the side, rather than a sage on the stage.” I tend to like the happy medium: the teacher who has clear aims, who knows what knowledge he or she is trying to convey, and who figures out imaginative, creative, innovative ways to teach it.

I don’t think that teachers are hamstrung or hampered by knowing that the 5th grade social studies curriculum will be focused on the Colonial era in U.S. history or that in 6th grade the curriculum will be focused on the Ancient World. It would seem to me to be helpful to teachers to know, in a general way, what they are expected to teach. My own children went to a progressive school where the 5th grade every year was devoted to the study of ancient Greece. The kids loved it.

I don’t imagine any circumstances in which my “ideal curriculum” would interfere with the imagination, professionalism, or creativity of any teacher, unless he or she wanted no curriculum at all.

It troubles me when I learn of surveys where American teenagers say that Oprah Winfrey and Marilyn Monroe are among the 10 most important figures in American history. Or surveys showing that Americans select John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan as the best presidents in history. These surveys lead me to believe that people are identifying figures they have heard about or remember or saw on television, and that they actually have little or no knowledge of American history. I shudder to think how little most people know today about world affairs, world history, or geography.

I have always believed that one of the most important jobs of the schools was to provide equal, democratic access to knowledge. I confess that I do believe in the value of a fairly traditional curriculum, at least in the subjects that I know most about, history and literature. It may be that reading the writing of other students is a wonderful classroom activity, but I would hate to see kids graduate from high school and college without ever reading classic American, British, and world literature. Maybe they will pick it up on their own, but I doubt it.

I do believe that it is possible to make a distinction between more and less important knowledge, information, and skills. If there were not, how could we educate, how could we decide what to teach every day?

I recall reading a passage from John Dewey in his book “The Way Out of Educational Confusion” where he said that it was futile to establish a hierarchy of values among studies, to say that one was more valuable than another. Thus he argued that there was no reason to favor a course in zoology over a course in laundry work, since either might be narrow and confining, and either might be a source of understanding. In theory, I suppose, this might be true, but in reality, the children who were studying zoology were learning the principles of science, while those in the laundry work course were learning to wash and press clothes.

Far be it from me to take on John Dewey, let alone Deborah Meier on these subjects. We do disagree.

And yes, I think it is bizarre to mandate constructivism, as Joel Klein did in New York City. But please note that phonics is not doing fine in the New York City schools. The last time I checked, no education school in the city was even teaching phonics to future teachers, except for special ed teachers. The mandated reading program was and is “balanced literacy.” There were no gains in reading for New York City kids on NAEP over these past four and a half years in which balanced literacy was mandated.

I need your help to figure out the small school puzzle. I know that the Gates Foundation pumped a billion dollars into small high schools. In every urban district, maybe in suburban ones, too, small schools are in. For reasons I don’t understand, there seems to be a convergence between the small school movement that you pioneered and the interests of the billionaire philanthropic sector. Why? Help me understand how this happened.


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