Education’s Most Dangerous Idea: Curriculum


Let’s trick ‘em into learning!

© 2006 Gary S Stager

A friend called a few months back and asked me to tell him my most dangerous idea. What a great question! My answer, “Curriculum is bad.”

Allow me to make the case.

I can turn to almost any page in a textbook, article or website and find an outlandish, inaccurate or confusing idea some curriculum writer thought was brilliant. Even the most well intentioned efforts at relevance or context stretch credulity, often in a hilarious fashion.

recent article in Edutopia (July 2006) presented a new method for making connections between art and math, called Aesthetic Computing. The following example demonstrates how the method might be used to teach teens about slope intercept form.

Aesthetic computing attempts to reach those frustrated by traditional math instruction by presenting abstract mathematical concepts in a more creative and personal way… For example, a standard equation for graphing lines on a slope such as y = mx + b might become a hamburger, with y representing the whole burger, m referring to the meat, and x standing in for spices. Multiplication is indicated by the fact that the meat and spices are mixed together, and b is added to represent hamburger buns. Students then write a story about the burger or draw a picture of it.

What? How is drawing a burger related to slope? One abstraction (slope) is replaced by even greater abstractions. The concept of variable is muddled and equations are presented wrongly as recipes. Worst of all, this is referred to as a hands-on project when it’s just coloring. (Note: If you think this is just one out-of-context example, I encourage you to read the primary sources on aesthetic computing. There you will find profoundly confusing examples of pedagogical tricks masquerading as constructivism.)

Corporations often write curriculum tie-ins to their products. Some are shameless marketing ploys while others are more altruistic. The NFL recently announced a $1.5 million marketing campaign to get kids more active and fight obesity –  a noble public service gesture. It’s not their fault that curriculum is bad. They’re just playing along.

A language arts lesson has students create and perform a rap that demonstrates action verbs. A science lesson has kids play scooter tag, with one group of students representing cholesterol and another representing healthy hearts. (Associated Press, 10/19/06)

The NFL might solve two problems simultaneously. The Kansas City Chiefs can become the Cholesterols and the Redskins, the Healthy Hearts. Racist mascots could be replaced with scientific models while local school kids rap about vascular plaque. Multiple-choice comprehension questions appear on the Jumbotron.

Lola Falana Math
Textbook publishers use graphics and word problems to recycle old content. Units often begin with “real-life” content to help students make “connections.” One 7th grade math text has a photo of Walter Matthau dressed as Einstein. I know what the curriculum designers are thinking. Kids are just nuts for Walter Matthau!

The text below the photo reads something like, “In the classic motion picture, I.Q., Matthau plays Albert Einstein. Meg Ryan is his niece and Tim Robbins is a mechanic with a crush on her… Later in the film Tim Ryan’s character asks the niece, ‘How old is your uncle?’ Einstein overhears the question and yells from the other room, ’10 times 2 to the third.’”

Get it? They’re teaching exponents. What a hoot! All of the film stuff was unnecessary trivia that distracts from what should have been a simple arithmetic problem – not that anyone would ever express their age in exponential form.

The point of exponential notation is what? How does it work? Why?

Surely, the mere invocation of Einstein in the passage makes this a science lesson too.

I Know What You’re Thinking
Gary is against “bad” curriculum like the examples above. No, I oppose all of it. Curriculum is the arrogant folly of adults who don’t know the children who will play cholesterol scooter soccer, yet are self-ordained to prescribe what those students should know and when they should know it. Curriculum is the weapon of choice for ranking, sorting and labeling children. It is indifferent to individual needs, talents or desires. Worst of all, curriculum creates an impermeable barrier between teacher and student. Without curriculum, failure would be more difficult as would the assorted pathologies of discipline problems, drop-out rates and violence that plague far too many schools.

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