Teacher Education and the Curricular Slice
We have a manifold problem. American schools (and their constituents) generally resist a common curriculum, for all kinds of reasons. In fact, many schools have no curriculum to speak of; teachers end up writing curriculum on the fly, year after year. Teacher education programs, for their part, place little emphasis on subject matter. Thus teachers often enter the classroom with minimal preparation in their subject (or other subjects). Or even if they have a good educational background, they have not spent time thinking about the subject matter as teachers. Couple this with an impoverished school community, and the overall level of education will be difficult to lift.
There are important exceptions to the above. Some teacher preparation and education programs–such as Bard MAT, SUNY Geneseo’s Ella Cline Shear School of Education, the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, and the Teachers Academy at the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture–deliberately emphasize subject matter and its fundamental place in teaching. Individual schools and school networks, for their part, have developed strong curricula that they sometimes publish. The situation is not entirely dire. Still, it calls for redress.
What if teacher education programs required teachers to learn a curricular slice–that is, a representative fraction of what a full curriculum might include–across the subjects? Then schools could elect to include that slice in their own curricula. That way, teachers would enter schools with a thorough understanding of certain topics, problems, and works that would actually be taught. They could then expand this portion over time.
This idea has several advantages. First, teachers could master these curricular topics in a way that is rarely possible during the school year, with all the rush and mayhem. They would examine each topic from many angles, considering how to understand it, what to ask about it, how to address misunderstandings, how to appreciate it, and so on. They could develop some basic curricular and lesson plans. The schools would then have an exemplary curricular portion that could inform the other parts. Yet they would retain curricular autonomy, aside from that slice.
Teachers would be responsible for learning a portion of topics across the subjects, but the portion for their own subject would be larger. That is, an aspiring ninth-grade teacher might studying a cluster of geometry problems; the information, questions, and works pertinent to the medieval era; two Shakespeare plays and a collection of sonnets; the grammar of dependent and independent clauses; topics in electricity and magnetism; and select works in another language. Schools would elect to include this entire slice in their curriculum.
If many schools did so, they would have these curricular elements in common–and could share resources, student samples, and ideas. Professional development could focus on subject matter itself (in interesting and challenging ways). Teachers’ meetings and conferences would have intellectual substance.
Why would teachers need to study topics across the curriculum? For one thing, it is good to understand what is happening in other classes; this adds to the school’s cohesion and purpose. For another, this would enhance the teachers’ own education and their ability to consider and present material in different ways. Third, you never know when you might be called on to teach a class (temporarily) outside of your subject–and it’s that much better when you have some inkling of what you are doing, or at least a point of reference.
This idea of a curricular slice might be old hat (to mix metaphors), but I have not seen it anywhere else. I was heading in this direction a few years ago in my article “The Spark of Specifics,” in arguing that even a full curriculum does not specify everything that will be taught. But I am finding the slice idea increasingly attractive (and feasible). What do you think?
Image credit: I took the photo myself. It’s not quite a “slice,” but I had no apples handy.