Curriculum alone is not the path from good to great

May 17, 2008

The Path from Good to Great: Curriculum . . . Not!

Imagine a high school faculty as a collection of music-lovers.

Some favor classical music. These are the sophisticates with a long history of excellence and a precision of melody rarely matched in any other genre.

Imagine many who favor popular music. These are the bedrock of community. They comprise by far the largest collection of fans (and teachers). This is the music of the majority: Among their icons are Elvis, the Beatles, and ‘Ole Blue Eyes.’ Crooners and Rockers provide the music of historical landmarks: first date, first kiss, first heartbreak, first triumph.

Band music lovers are revered in educational institutions, perhaps because band music is the music of institutions with the military and the battlefield always in view. It is the music of discipline and precision, if not of tune certainly of choreography. This is the music of celebration; the music of victory.

A few faculty members favor country music. These are the patriots and the blue-collar bedrock. This is the music of trains and pick-up trucks with the themes of troubles and moaning. This is a world of values, where honesty trumps perfection, and sincerity defeats phoniness, and, unfortunately, where critical thinking is largely disdained.

Pockets of this imaginary faculty are niche music-lovers. There are those who favor folk music, often with overtones of political activism. There are some with special tastes who favor Irish music or Celtic music, Italian love songs or German drinking songs. Drama-lovers lean toward show tunes, whether from the stage or the cinema.

A yet smaller cadre leans toward rap or hip-hop music, often defining an ethnic minority. In the classroom, the elders tolerate this genre as the choice of the immature.

In a religious institution, there are those who favor sacred music, often sung by choirs. Some favor praise music, celebrating the body and voice as instruments of worship. In many ways, the popular religious music sector mimics the secular music world, altering lyrics and themes with an eye toward God. (Unfortunately, the eye too frequently focuses on the performing ‘I’ who is doing the singing or praising.)

And in some dusty corner of the campus, there are the jazz fans. Typically, these are the least tolerated among the imaginary faculty. This is the music of chaos and improvisation. Of all genres, this is the music that defies curriculum. It is the music of nonconformists; it is the sound of the institution being challenged.

Enter the education mechanics who are laying the track for moving the institution from good to great. With their devotion to curriculum development, they leave little or no space for chaos, improvisation, and challenges to conventional wisdom. Curriculum does not easily tolerate jazz.

Please understand carefully my argument here: I am not opposing curriculum development. What I’m opposing is the tyranny of curriculum that brooks no questioning or challenging of the conformity that curriculum development demands. If it helps our understanding, let me propose an anti-curriculum component to the curriculum. Give the jazz-lovers the opportunity to improvise and experiment. A good deal of learning comes out of chaos.

When curriculum is king (or queen), an educational institution demonstrates that its goal is not education in the clearest and critical sense of encouraging the liberal (read as liberated—“. . . and the truth shall set you free”) mind; instead, it is driving toward conformity.

I write this with some passion since a favorite colleague of mine recently was refused a new contract because, as the conventional wisdom and the music-lovers’ gossip net puts it, “she didn’t follow the curriculum.” As I write this, I replay images of the arguments made against an excellent teacher—Mr. Keating– in the film “The Dead Poets Society.” Don’t try to change things, he is instructed, “the curriculum is set!”

The institution at which this woman taught postures itself as one moving from good to great, and in making that move it has developed a strong attachment to its curriculum as if curricula somehow define an excellent school. This is an idea, incidentally, that is out-of-hand rejected by those who have championed the good-to-great movement in education.

Curriculum is a guide, a sign-post suggesting the direction in which education should be traveling; it is not a lock-step straight-jacket that prevents educators from experimentation, improvisation, and—I dare say—failure.

The educational mechanics who demand strict conformity to a set curriculum unwittingly are driving toward educational fascism. As another former colleague of mine put it shortly before he departed this same school, “We’re educating the mind but not the imagination.”

I love the expression of another colleague, a younger woman who this year decided to leave her job and return to graduate school. “I’m often frustrated by the curriculum,” she told me. “What I want them to know is that in my classes I am the curriculum!”

I don’t know this for sure, but I’d guess in her heart—and in the hearts of my other dismissed or disappointed colleagues–there’s a soft spot for improvisational jazz.

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