Tag Archives: new curriculum

Teaching from textbooks

This Atlantic article isn’t a fan. I’m split on this. In general I think multidisciplinary learning centered around a topical theme engage students more than reading a textbook. The problem arises when there’s a certain body of knowledge that has to be mastered, for example to pass the USMLE. You just have to master a broad range of topics, and I think it can be hard to teach  that effectively without one. Plus, there’s something to be said for having a framework in which to put your existing knowledge. It’s easier to incorporate new facts when you have a skeleton on which to put them. Otherwise there’s a lot of randomness. The flip side of this is that when you have a survey that’s too broad, it also feels random–this was how I felt about introductory biology, for example: at one point you’re learning about organelles, then a neuron, then the heart’s chambers, and it doesn’t all feel like it ties together.


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Topic Tuesdays: African-American History and Civil Rights

So to flesh out what the new curriculum might look like in practice, welcome to the first Topic Tuesday, where I provide a theme as a jumping off point for learning. The core of the topic is a list of subheadings with questions. It’s not meant to be an exhaustive or complete list of things that should be known, nor are these learning objectives that should be memorized. It’s just a list of questions I think are interesting, what I’d like to learn more about myself, along with some ideas for projects, readings and media, and other resources.

For this week, we’ll be taking a look at two important and interrelated stories that have shaped our country: African-American history and civil rights. Both of these are topical this time of year, between Martin Luther King day and African-American History month.

What did I overlook? Let me know in the comments section!

Starting points:

1. Origins of the slave trade

Discovery questions: How did the slave trade originate in the Americas? How was it different from indentured servitude? How was it different from slavery in the Ancient World? What drove the demand for slaves? What parts of Africa did slaves come from, and what aspects of the political situation there facilitated the export of people? How were slaves transported to the New World?

Readings and resources:

2. The Institution of Slavery in the United States

Discovery questions: What was life like for slaves in the US? How were their freedoms limited? How did the US compare to other countries during this time?

Readings and resources:

3. The abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad

Discovery questions: Describe the origins of the abolitionist movement. What was life like for free blacks? Escaped slaves? Research the life of Frederick Douglas. Read Uncle Tom’s Cabin – how did this book inspire the anti-slavery movement? How did it perpetuate stereotypes? What was the Underground Railroad?

Readings and resources:

4. The Civil War

Discovery questions: Was slavery the primary reason for the Civil War? What were some of the key sources of friction in the years leading up to war? What prompted Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation? How does the portrayal of the Civil War in Gone with the Wind correspond to real life?

Readings and resources:

5. Reconstruction and Jim Crow Era America

Discovery questions: What constitutional and legal changes were supposed to guarantee the rights of citizenship to African-Americans? What was life like for newly freed slaves? What legal, political and social/cultural mechanisms were used to keep them out of mainstream society and for intimidation?

Readings and resources:

6. The civil rights movement and integration

Discovery questions: What are civil rights? How are they protected by law? How did the civil rights movement start? Who were its leaders? What triggered the Montgomery bus boycott, and was it effective? Who was the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr, and what was the I Have a Dream speech? How was the American civil rights movement perceived by the rest of the world? Research the life and baseball career of Jackie Robinson. What was significant about Plessy v. Ferguson, Brown vs. Board of Education, and what were some of the struggles related to integrating schools?

Readings and resources:

7. Notable African American writers, musicians and other contributions to the arts and culture

Discovery questions: Read some of the below works of literature. How were the writers reflective of the time they lived in? How did jazz evolve? How does it differ from blues? Gospel? What are some of the subgenres? Listen to examples of each. Read about the life of Ray Charles.

Readings and resources:

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Evaluating character education

So lots of people besides me think character education is important. (There are books written on the topic.) There are a ton of different curriculum options. The Department of Education promotes it. And yet the Wikipedia page starts with the less than positive comment that “many of these [character education programs] are now considered failed programs…” And the What Works Clearinghouse has only 13 programs that even had rigorous study, and several of those showed no effect on kids.

The problems, to summarize from the internets, seem to be twofold. One is related to some of the programs themselves: things like giving students prizes for “being good”, which emphasize external motivation over internal, which is essentially the opposite of character. The other problem is related to the quality of research on these interventions. Here the government has some sensible suggestions in the publication called Mobilizing for Evidence that explain how to study the effectiveness of a program. There’s also this document, which is pretty bland in its conclusions, but has a bibliography that includes lots of the research on character education.

One particularly helpful thing was this list of standards from Character Counts. It breaks down some kinda vague concepts such as “responsibility” and “self-awareness” into the same kind of discrete, measurable objectives as you get with such things as the Common Core.

The bottom line, I think, is that it makes intuitive sense that we should be teaching kids character–but we’re still waiting for the research to fully back it up.

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Why character matters, part 2

When I was in high school, there was a day when my English teacher was absent and had left a test for us to do under the supervision of the substitute teacher. Only, for whatever reason the sub didn’t show, and a couple kids found the test and started reading out the questions.

The next day our teacher was almost in tears when she spoke to us about the incident–about what had happened, about how she was disappointed in not just the active participants but also in those of us, like myself, who had just watched the scene unfold, and not tried to speak up. But the thing that really stuck with me from this talk was when she described an incident from her own youth, when she was working at a movie theater and her coworkers had persuaded her to go along with a scheme to collect and resell tickets, pocketing the profits. And she admitted to having gone along with them initially, until she told her friend about the plan, who immediately ripped the tickets in two and told her it was dishonest.

The point she made was that people can change. We can reflect on our actions and decide to act differently next time. And somehow, even though I grew up in a home with parents who are very honest and ethical people, this was not something that had ever occurred to me. I was usually considered a “good” kid, because I went along with what adults wanted and behaved in class–but it was coming from a place of passivity and self-interest. It was easier, and I usually got what I wanted. It was most certainly not coming from character, the kind that would stand up to pressure.

I’m glad my English teacher took advantage of the episode to make it a teachable moment. But thinking back, there weren’t many other times when we discussed right and wrong during school. In medical school, on the other hand, we spent quite a bit of time on medical ethics, and while some of the scenarios were quite abstract and unlikely to happen to us, we were given some concrete guidance on things that might: what to do if a colleague is impaired, for example. And even for the more abstract cases, we were taught to think them through using the specific principles that form the basics of medical ethics–respect patients’ autonomy, do no harm, do good.

What would it look like to have this type of instruction explicitly build into K-12 education? It might mean reading and discussing stories from Aesop’s Fables or something similar. (William Bennett tried to collect a bunch of these stories in one place in The Book of Virtues.) Or discussing stories from the news. Reading literature brings up a lot of topics for discussion. But regardless, if the goal of school is to prepare kids for adulthood, it means giving them the tools to handle the situations they find themselves thrown into–and character is a tool they can always have.

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Why character matters, part 1

So I didn’t have trouble in school growing up. With the exception of a couple years in middle school when I ended up in an exam school-like place, I mostly got straight A’s without much effort. In my AP history class, we had to write a short essay every single week as practice for the exam’s writing prompts. I usually wrote them the morning of, rattling them off while trying not to be late for school. (Which, come to think of it, was probably good preparation for testing conditions.) And this was at a supposedly excellent urban high school.

And then, I got to college, and I floundered a bit. I was able to keep my head above water, because of the naturally-good-at-school part. But my first year transcript had a lot of A-/B+ type of grades on them. And more importantly, I started to notice in classes that were cumulative, like math or French, that I just didn’t know as much as some of the other students. I was not a bad student–I was not struggling to pass the so-called “weeder” introductory classes that are so prevalent at big universities. But I was just…mediocre.

I got better, gradually…I took some hard classes that interested me, and really worked to master the material. I also got my first ever C as a final grade, and that lit something of a fire under me. But for years after, I would be reading a book for a French class, and there would be a word or grammar point that I knew I was already supposed to know, or an integral I should have known how to do, but didn’t. And it was all due to my mediocre, cram-heavy study habits.

In his book, How Children Succeed, Paul Tough talks about what I was missing. The subtitle of the book is Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character. The character he references isn’t really about moral values – there’s not much discussion of honesty, or compassion, or anything like that. What there is is a lot of emphasis on noncognitive skills, and in particular, conscientiousness. This is obviously a pretty broad concept, and the book talks about it in some different ways–self-control and what he calls grit, aka the determination to grind something out–being the biggest two. The book talks about the famous marshmallow experiment, where preschoolers’ ability to not eat a marshmallow ended up doing better in life down the road. The book also starts to get into how schools can help students improve these skills, although not to the degree I was hoping.

Which of course leads to the question, should schools be teaching these things? I would argue yes, obviously. I remember talking about study skills and so on in homeroom, which always seemed to involve complicated systems involving highlighters. And there were many ways teachers tried to help us compensate for our lack of self-control, all the way through into college: breaking a big assignment into chunks, mandatory quizzes and homework assignments. What I don’t remember much of was modeling the kind of skills we would actually need: how to break up a big project into steps for ourselves, how to decide when we would study. Which ultimately, is probably the most important piece going forward.

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Structuring the new curriculum

Yesterday I talked about some ideas for what high school students should know before they graduate. But what would that look like in practice? Essentially, I imagine something vaguely similar to a Montessori school: lots of long blocks with some structure but also lots of time for exploring.

The curriculum itself is structured into just 4 classes. But instead of the traditional subject headings (math, English, science), each class is multi-disciplinary by design. Instead of having a semester-long course with exams spread throughout, the focus is on short, intense theme blocks, with the themes chosen based on interest and variety. Instead of intermittent exams, there is an emphasis on maintaining knowledge for the long term through computer-based spaced repetition, via memrise or anki, as well as in depth projects and experiential learning. And the day includes prep time to learn key facts and vocabulary, so that class together time can be focused on more productive uses.

The classes include:

  1. Citizens: this includes much of the content that would normally be found in a high school civics course, as well as American history and literature. It also includes an emphasis on local government, community service, economics, and direct, hands-on participation in politics and governance through an expanded student council and school [digital] newspaper. Finally, all-important noncognitive skills like grit and study skills are explicitly taught.
  2. Explorers: this class has two parts. The first is to build a deep relationship with one particular corner of the world, through ongoing language study, exchange programs, and focus on the literature and culture of the area. French and Spanish are both good languages for this, since they have so many countries to choose from, but others are fine as well. The other part of Explorers is focused units on a kind of “highlights” tour of world history, literature and art.
  3. Discoverers: this class emphasizes observation of the world around us, making science accessible.
  4. Inventors: this class emphasizes exploration of how things work, emphasizing both engineering and creativity.

These classes complement each other. Having a few different topics to circle back around to provides variety, forestalling boredom. Within each, there are choices for what to focus on, to respect student autonomy. The basics: reading, writing, and arithmetic, happen throughout each, building a spiral of knowledge. Instead of report cards, kids build a portfolio of work they created, and a progress book of strengths and areas to work on; the teacher can also track their computer-based work on a dashboard . And everyone learns to learn: how to approach a new topic, how to decide what interests you, how to seek help.

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Outlining a new curriculum

So what do kids need to learn in school, really? Unlike the unschooling movement, I do think there are some things that everyone should know by the time they are 18, and I think that school done right could get us there. If I think about what I would want my kids to know by the time they grow up, I think a good start would be there following:

  1. To be prepared to be active citizens. As cynical as it sounds in this day of hyperpartisanship, I really think it’s important for everyone to have the skills to participate in democracy–and the knowledge to understand why it’s important. This means being able to think critically about the issues that affect our community and our country, to make decisions in keeping with their values. It means knowing how government works: both politics, and the more mundane work of governing. And it means knowing our country’s history, because of how it shapes the present.
  2. To know the world is big. Ideally, this would encompass knowing both some superficial knowledge of geography, as well as going more deeply into the language and culture of one country or region.
  3. To understand how to manage their own finances. And something about how the economy works as a whole.
  4. To be curious about the world around them. More than any particular scientific tidbit, I would like them to know that the scientific method is how we learn about the natural world, and that it all starts with being observant.
  5. To know how their bodies work, and how to stay healthy.
  6. To appreciate that the arts teach us about ourselves and the world in a different way. Again, more than any particular form or work, to be open to different forms of expression and to have some sense of how to approach ones that are unfamiliar.
  7. To be ready for life on their own. Not so much in the home-ec sense, although there is clearly a need for that too. More in the domains that fall under “noncognitive skills”: how to perservere at something that seems boring, how to delay gratification, how to act towards others. And also, how to recognize where our education falls short, and how to self-educate and fill in the gaps.

This list conspicuously omits math and reading. That’s because I think that to be able to do everything on this list, math and reading are skills to be used, not subjects in and of themselves. I’ll flesh out more of how this might play out in subsequent posts…

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