The Value of Curriculum Cores

John SenerBy John Sener

My previous article described my struggle to decide whether or not we really need a core curriculum.

While writing that post, I had an interesting discussion with a colleague about how colleges and universities offering cybersecurity education are struggling to deal with the proliferation of multiple standards such as CNSS, DoD 8570, and DHS’s “IT Security Essential Body of Knowledge” among others.

This issue also illustrates some of the shortcomings of trying to define a core curriculum. Various constituencies need different knowledge “cores” which reflect their particular needs and interests. Standards become outdated and need replacing over time, but the needed changes are often slow in coming even in a vitally important field such as cybersecurity, partly because the knowledge itself is changing so fast.

Even so, we agreed that determining a knowledge core which is common to all the relevant standards in cybersecurity education would enable colleges and universities to develop programs which meet those multiple standards. They could create different specializations to meet different standards’ “core” requirements. (To our knowledge, there are efforts underway to do this, but it does not currently exist.) This won’t eliminate all problems; some standards may have conflicting requirements. But it would certainly make things easier.

So does it make sense to distinguish between “core curriculum” and “curriculum core(s)”? It may be a stretch semantically – the two terms may be too much alike. But there are definitely two distinct processes being described here.

It makes sense to define core knowledge (“curriculum core[s]”) within a field which has direct ties to a workforce. Curricula in fields such as cybersecurity education are defined in a larger, real-world context through the interaction of education providers, industry leaders, and government. Developing multiple cores also encourages collaborative differentation; a curriculum core can identify broadly-defined competencies while also distinguishing different sub-cores for different specializations. The National Association of Manufacturers’  Advanced Competency Manufacturing Model is a good example which is being applied in a wide variety of business sectors.

By contrast, developing a single core curriculum tends to encourage conglomeration. For example, as Harvard education professor Chris Dede has explained, in U.S. K-12 education the use of siloed knowledge to determine content standards causes a huge problem: experts in each subject area determine “core” content as if each student was going to become a professional in that field. The collective result is a huge mass of uncoordinated content and skills which is impossible for students to master in the time available.

As it happens, earlier today I experienced this firsthand while reviewing some online courseware for different mathematics subjects. The courses were designed to meet various state mathematics standards at the K-12 level as well as college remedial math requirements. One course had over 100 topics, and another had even more. Are all of these topics really “core” knowledge?

Standards based on siloed knowledge is driving online courseware development in college and K-12 academic subjects. The vendors are simply and necessarily responding to market need, which unfortunately is being driven by an excessive reliance on standards-based approaches. As Dede also notes in his paper, “the concept of standards, assessments, and accountability makes sense at a fundamental level,” but they are highly problematic as currently applied, encouraging instruction which is inadequate for preparing today’s children for the world they will experience and the skills they will need as adults.

A “curriculum core” approach might be one way to remedy this issue. Instead of making every child learn “core” knowledge as if they were professionals-in-training in every subject, academic disciplines could identify the core knowledge which every child needs to know for specialized purposes: to pursue a career in that field, to develop higher-order thinking skills, to be an informed citizen, to get a glimpse of that field, etc. Common sense tells us that the actual core of knowledge which everyone needs to know in a society which is fundamentally built on division of labor is relatively (and I suspect to some, shockingly) small. The core skill set which everyone needs is rather large and steadily growing by comparison.

The capabilities of digital technologies are creating the illusion for some that we can finally cram all that content down our students’ throats. The reality is otherwise. Standards provide a healthy influence on education, but the application of standards-based approaches in the extreme is a disaster in progress…

7 Responses

  1. John makes an incredibly poignant point in this ongoing debate. Why must we kowtow to “experts” who insist on setting standards as though every student were going to major in their particular subject?

    It’s more critical than most realize. In my field, science, professors are concerned about students knowing how to manipulate burets and operate Bunsen burners, both 19th century equipment, than to think as scientists do.

    This attitude destroys student interest in science. And to what benefit? It’s time to remove the shackles from our science courses. Science is a way of thinking, not a bunch of formulas, words, and procedures. It’s certainly not how to pipet.

  2. Dede’s paper and John’s response are right on. Dede says it is impossible for K-12 schools to teach the full core standards required by most states. No one knows this better than a curriculum director who tries to align a national companies curriculum to what is required in 50 states.

    As a former English teacher I looked at the Georgia state Language Arts standards and saw that every student who graduates from high school in that state is supposed to have mastered roughly the same level of knowledge that I attained after I had complete Ph.D level instruction following my MA in English. I am not sure I have met more than a handful of English teachers in my life who have the core knowledge expected of every high school graduate there.

    So why does that impact online education especially?

    Because the full curriculum of an online school is online and open to the scrutiny of state education departments who ensure that every course meets every standard. A course that falls short of meeting those standards is not approved. This ensures that an approved online course in those states will have high failure rates, since, in Dede’s words, it is “impossible” to reach those standards in the time allotted.

    In contrast, the traditional brick and mortar school teacher can make decisions behind the privacy of the closed classroom door that restore a semblance of sanity to the curriculum.

    Both John and Dede present the solution–a focus more on core skills than core knowledge. Arizona’s science standards are both skill and “big picture” based, eschewing the “factoids” (the word used by the state science director in explaining it to me) in favor of big concept understanding and skill.

  3. Thanks for your comments, Harry and John. Re Harry’s comment, I have also long questioned the need for every science student to “smell the formaldehyde.” Every student should have access to knowing what science is about, and what a science career path might look like. But requiring learning how to operate a Bunsen burner is like requiring learning Greek, and it will soon (we can hope) be seen as similarly anachronistic.

    I find John Adsit’s comment particularly interesting in the light of the constant commentary (most recently Bill Gates in the Washington Post) about how spending on education has doubled and performance has remained “flat.” Flat in what way? Standardized test scores, of course. There is almost no discussion about how the quality or volume of learning has increased during that time period. I’d love to see this documented more concretely and specifically, because I suspect that John A. is describing something really important here.

    — John S.

  4. In contrast to the incredibly high and unreachable standards for high school students, you have the contrasting argument in the recent academically adrift discussion. At the college level, it is possible for students to have such a wide variety of experiences that are so far from what one would consider a core that it does raise some questions.

    The recent story about the Northwestern professor who “was surprised by the public outcry over the after-class incident in the Ryan Family Auditorium, where a man used a high-powered sex toy on his girlfriend in front of 100 students.” ( I suspect that many people would argue that deviant sex practices, with or without a demonstration, should not be part of a core curriculum.

    This was not mentioned as a joke. One of the reasons for the standards movement at the K-12 level and for the dramatic move from college style elective programs in high schools to the old English 1-4 programs (etc.) was the proliferation of elective courses of very questionable academic value. It was (and still is in some areas) possible for a student to hop scotch through a curriculum, getting enough credits for graduation without ever really learning anything of real value.

  5. John, your juxtaposition of Arum and Roksa’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (U of Chicago Press, 2011; see the downloadable PDF report, Improving Undergraduate Learning: Findings and Policy Recommendations, by Arum, Roksa, and Cho) and the question of a core curriculum is interesting because the issues are similar.

    My guess is that schools and colleges have taught content knowledge (as opposed to thinking knowledge) for so long that they assume thinking is just another form of content. Thus, in the end, they ask students to do little if any critical thinking.

    In fact, if they open the gate to critical thinking, they’d be shocked at the results. Students would not only be encouraged to ask about the relevancy or significance of content, but they’d question the content itself. In fact, they might question the whole notion of lock-step incremental grade levels, standardized tests, etc.

    And, god forbid, they might even question their teachers and profs about their assumptions, knowledge, opinions, pedagogy, philosophy, etc.

    Why, they might even decide that schools and colleges, as they are, are useless and they’d be better off designing and pursuing their own learning.

    The thinking wouldn’t stop at the school gate. Students would begin to question their parents, their politicians, religious leaders, etc.

    Once we open the gate to critical thinking, students might actually begin to think and solve critical problems on their own — or throw rocks at people who are paid by taxpayers to think and solve problems but are extremely poor at doing so.

    Imagine if the U.S. decided to go to war again! The young might question the decision because they’re the ones who will be asked to pay the ultimate price with their blood. They might decide to change the rules and send those over 40 to do the fighting since they’re the ones who are so gung-ho about it.

    Critical thinking’s a dangerous thing because citizens so trained would actually vote and turn government into a useful tool, for a change, to solve real-world problems and question most of what politicians do in the name of the people.

    If schools and colleges are to survive in this new era of critical thinking, they would have to perform some radical surgery on themselves. They’d have to figure out what the real issues are that interest and concern the young. They’d have to provide access to and procedures for gathering and using information that could be used to address these issues and concerns. They’d have to provide different kinds of forums to allow students to air their assumptions, methods, problems, preliminary findings, etc.

    Educators would need to provide students with the rhetorical skills they’d need to present their arguments and sway their listeners.

    Once students are given the freedom to think, to question, to probe, to seek truth, to discuss their findings, they won’t let it go. It’s intoxicating, this thing they call critical thinking. It’s a voice that’s given to them to make sense of their world on their own terms — and the schools, colleges, and educators that survive the revolution will have done so because they’re a step ahead in figuring out what their students want to know and what they’ll need, in terms of skills and knowledge, to learn.

    So, as you can see, schools and colleges would be crazy to really offer critical thinking in their classrooms. They’d be forced to toss their dusty curricula and methods into the trash bin and actually listen to the students, and the students would be telling them what they want to learn and why, and if the teachers and profs can’t deliver, the students would would toss them in the bin, too.

    And that would be unthinkable. -Jim S

  6. Back in the early 1990’s, when we were pushing hard to put thinking skills into the curriculum, the pushback against it was enormous, and much of it sounded like what Jim said, although unlike Jim they actually meant it. The religious right was especially adamant that it was not the job of the schools to teach thinking skills, because doing that would lead their children to question the solid moral values they were giving them at home. G.Gordon Liddy and his talk show led a crusade against it, a crusade filled with outright lies. There was talk about this being part of a United Nations conspiracy to take over America. One handout being given the parents of our school was blatantly antisemitic, claiming it was part of a Jewish conspiracy as well.

    What was significant about it was that it was clear they did not know what thinking skills were. They thought we were not going to teach them HOW to think–we were going to teach them WHAT to think, which is the opposite, of course, of what thinking really is..

    It reminds me of Ralph Waldo Emerson and his arguments for transcendentalism. People asked him about a transcendentalist party, platform, leadership, etc. He said that if you are talking about that, then you don’t understand what it means. You cannot have those things if your central belief is that everyone has to learn to think independently.

  7. I have been thinking about this issue a lot recently while exploring the influences of standards on American education. One of the key drivers is the tension between authority and freedom, which Erich Fromm explained so well in his book Escape From Freedom. In American society and education, we are slowly but surely moving from a model of imposed authority to a model of negotiated, shared, and self-initiated authority.

    But the authoritarian strain in education remains alive and well. My reaction to the resistance against teaching critical thinking skills is a little different — I suspect that fundamentalists and other authoritarians understand very well what thinking skills are, which is precisely why they oppose teaching it: once you teach someone how to think, you can no longer tell them what to think.

    But your comments remind me that advocating improving education by promoting critical thinking skills or by growing “self-initiating” learners is not going to be well-received in all quarters. It may seem like it should be a universal aspiration, but it’s not in our world which is still emerging from the shadow of authoritarianism…

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