By 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 Standards become outdated and need replacing over time, but the needed changes are often slow in coming even in a vitally important field such as cybersecurity, partly because the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…
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