Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Curriculi, Curricula-The Great Curriculum Debate

On a list for Jewish songleaders/music educators that I manage, one member asked around if people had curricula for music programs for their supplemental synagogue religious school. My first response to that discussion was this:

I'lI add my two agorot to this discussion. As a Jewish Educator/Administrator, and also a member of ASCD (formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development) though I do believe very strongly in the use of curricula, my personal experience in supplemental Jewish education has taught me that following secular models of using curricula in our settings is often not the way to go.  Their value comes, mostly, from both having some coherence in your school, and also enabling underpaid, over-worked and often under-trained or experienced teachers to have an easy framework with which to work. It's nice to be able to hand a new teacher (or a sub) a truly well-thought out lesson plan built as part of a massive curriculum.

However, the primary weaknesses of a structured curriculum are:

  • (Unless really well written and developed) they don't give supervisors the option of building upon and utilizing particular strengths of particular teachers at any given time.
  • They take so much time to create that they are often obsolete, outdated, or not keeping pace with the changes in your school and students/families.
  • With so many Jewish educators who do the work as an avocation rather than a vocation, they don't always have the vocabulary and background to grasp the curriculum (again unless it is well written and in plain language.)

In short, they often aren't flexible enough, and especially so in our rapidly changing social environment.

I've been brainstorming with colleagues for years to find something that works better than a typical secular school model of curriculum for use in Jewish supplemental education. I haven't found it quite yet, but I'm still looking.

All this may be a matter of semantics, but before you go looking at creating an actual "curriculum" maybe it's worth considering whether something less formal (an outline with goals and mileposts and methods of assessment) might be a better use of your time in creating it.

Also, and here's the special caveat when it comes to a separate "music curriculum." If it isn't integrated into the core curriculum of the school, it's sort of like whistling into the wind. In fact, the whole idea of separate curricula for different disciplines within the supplemental school seems an oxymoron, and antithetical to what curricula are intended to be. (On a side note, this is why I think Hebrew fails a lot in supplemental education - it has its own curriculum separate and apart from everything else. Can that really work? I don;t think so.)  If they're not "all-encompassing" then they're not really a curriculum! Now there are plenty of professional educators who disagree with my viewpoint, but you'd also be surprised how many (even in secular education) actually agree and now see curriculum development as an exercise to which we devote way too much time taking away from the time we need to do the things we really need to do on a daily basis.

I should talk, being as verbose as I am, but why create a big, thick binder when a simple list will do? Our rabbis have devoted a lot of time to whittling down the essence of Torah to three things (or less.) Backwards design (i,e, Understanding by Design) also seeks big picture pieces (essential understandings) from which to create the more particular lesson plans. I've often found that by using backwards design concepts, you can almost completely avoid the need for curricula. Get to the essence of what you want to teach, and figure out the best way to teach it. You don't need a 500-page binder to do that.

Always the gadfly.

Kol tuv,

About the same time I was composing that email, another person wrote in to the discussion sharing a music “curriculum” he had created for his synagogue. It was a really nice effort, and had much to be admired, but here’s what I wrote:

That looks great and I applaud the effort and the approach.
But to put on my educator hat, and apropos to the post I just made in response to this question, I would say that what you have written isn't, by strict definition, a "curriculum." It's a bit more than the simple list I've talked about, but I think it's really closer to that in style and feel than to a formal curriculum. I think it's great that you have clearly attempted to integrate the music into the broader whole of what the school does (though it doesn’t seem to go very much into the individual classroom level in particular,) but I maintain that as long as it, like Hebrew and Judaics, are some sort of separate curricula, it's still very much operating in a silo rather than a big barn.

I would encourage folks to create the sort of thing you've created, but I wouldn't take it much further than that (and might even trim it back a bit to give it more flexibility.)
Also, calling music a "tool" sounds like a nice thing to say, but I'd ask you to reconsider how people frame that in their minds. I think it's much more than a tool, and we shouldn't be afraid to call it such. Music is a core component of Judaism, and must be included in all efforts to teach and impart Judaism. Period. That it might reinforce is just icing.

There's a lot of recent research that debunks the claims that the arts community in education has been making for years that having arts in school improves student skills in other areas like math and science. The latest research simply doesn't support that thesis anymore. As artists, we need to stop playing to the NCLB crowd ("no child left behind") and stop trying to justify the inclusion of the arts in schools because it improves test scores! We need to make our case on the merits of the arts as being of value intrinsically, and as a core part of education.

If we keep playing the "it helps kids do better in other stuff" card, we're liable to lose big time as the evidence mounts that it doesn't really do that, at least by the yardsticks of NCLB and those who see education as "teaching to the test" and "necessary for us to beat the pants of the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans." We need to stick to our guns (and in Judaism even more so) that education is about creating educated, informed, well-rounded citizens of the planet. Not test-taking automatons.

So there, in a rather long nutshell, are some thoughts and ideas I’ve been harboring for a long time.  The key points for me are these:

  • I caution strongly against assuming the intrinsic value of using massively developed and comprehensive curricula (using the standard understanding of what this means in secular education) in supplementary Jewish education. They often lack flexibility, are unsuited to taking advantage of individual teacher strengths (something one has to do when one depends on a large number of avocational teachers,) and become obsolete or out of step too quickly in our rapidly changing environment.
  • Having separate curricula for things like music (or Hebrew) is oxymoronic. The ideal curriculum is fully integrated to begin with.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that, in secular education, multiple coincidental curricula are often employed. Many schools have things like a “math curriculum” and a “science curriculum.” However, in good schools, these are really just components of a larger integrated whole, a “master curriculum” as it were.

Let’s go back to the beginning, with Bobbitt’s seminal work of 1918, “The Curriculum.” In the Wikipedia article on the subject it says:

curriculum, as an idea, has its roots in the Latin word for race-course, explaining the curriculum as the course of deeds and experiences through which children become the adults they should be, for success in adult society. Furthermore, the curriculum encompasses the entire scope of formative deed and experience occurring in and out of school, and not only experiences occurring in school; experiences that are unplanned and undirected, and experiences intentionally directed for the purposeful formation of adult members of society.

Curriculum. (2010, December 31). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 01:28, January 5, 2011, from http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Curriculum&oldid=405240841
Be sure to note the Wikipedia cautions at the top of the article.

Curriculum, to Bobbitt, was, indeed comprehensive and focused on creating good adults. Modern usage in formal education is narrower:

Curriculum in formal schooling

In formal education or schooling (cf. education), a curriculum is the set of courses, course work, and content offered at a school or university. A curriculum may be partly or entirely determined by an external, authoritative body (i.e. the National Curriculum for England in English schools). In the U.S., each state, with the individual school districts, establishes the curricula taught[4]. Each state, however, builds its curriculum with great participation of national[5] academic subject groups selected by the United States Department of Education, e.g. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) for mathematical instruction. In Australia each state's Education Department establishes curricula with plans for a National Curriculum in 2011. UNESCO's International Bureau of Education has the primary mission of studying curricula and their implementation worldwide.

Curriculum[6] means two things: (i) the range of courses from which students choose what subject matters to study, and (ii) a specific learning program. In the latter case, the curriculum collectively describes the teaching, learning, and assessment materials available for a given course of study.


Is it even possible to create such a thing in Jewish education? Many have tried. I’m not sure many have truly succeeded.


defined the curriculum as an ideal, rather than as the concrete reality of the deeds and experiences that form people to who and what they are.

Contemporary views of curriculum reject these features of Bobbitt's postulates, but retain the basis of curriculum as the course of experience(s) that forms human beings into persons.

I’ve reached a point where, though I don’t fully embrace Bobbitt’s ideas, I think contemporary views are wrong to dismiss Bobbitt’s view of curriculum as an ideal rather than a reality.  This is particularly true in the case of Jewish supplemental education. Massively researched, developed, and planned curricula should be viewed only as an ideal, and not as a plan for implementation. A rigid adherence to a formal curriculum in our settings can be deadly, dangerous, and counter-productive. We are in a fluid environment. The range of skills and experiences that our teachers have vary widely. Given these, how can any curriculum be anything but an ideal? I suspect the reality, in many supplemental programs that use formal curricula, is that they do become more guidelines than anything else. (There are exceptions to this, I know. I think they are rare.)

Given that curricula perhaps ought to be more ideals than concrete realities, I think it behooves us to look differently at what systems and methodologies we use to help guide us in running our supplemental school programs, and strongly consider what effort we put into creating “curricula.”

Is it just a matter of semantics? Possibly. However, words have power. Calling something a curriculum doesn’t make it a curriculum, but it does affect what people expect from it. Using “curricula” (in it’s contemporary meaning) makes a statement about how we approach supplementary Jewish education. Using “curricula” in Bobitt’s meaning is a whole different ballgame, but that’s generally not what people expect “curricula” to be.

Whatever we call it, it should be (and here I quibble with Bobbitt and change a few words:)

a course of deeds and experiences through which people become the people they can be,  for being a participatory and contributory member of  adult society.

What do you think?

(Remember, sometimes I posit things just for the sake of discussion-they may or may not reflect my actual views on a subject.)

Always the gadfly,

Adrian (aka Yoeitzdrian aka MigdalorGuy)

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Social Net Works

Crossposted from my Tech in Jewish Ed Blog, Yoeitzdrian

The media have given a lot of attention to this past week’s (Dec. 29) report from Hitwise that social network Facebook has surpassed Google as the most visited website (in the U.S.) There are many levels of spin and criticism being built around Hitwises’ measuring yardsticks, which don’t really create a totally fair comparison.  Questioning of Hitwises’ apparent bias favoring Facebook was questioned as early as this blog posting from last March. However, let’s put all that aside.

Even if Hitwises’ pronouncements are a bit premature, or utilize considerable spin, or are even biased for some reason, in Facebook’s favor, there is clearly a trend. Facebook is becoming a rather dominant force on the internet. It may never challenge Google’s full breadth of internet presence, nevertheless it is likely to remain an important and influential piece of contemporary society.

Though many will probably view this through dark lenses as a portent and proof of  society’s inevitable fall into the abyss of becoming like the Matrix, or Tron, and others of the that genre, I see this through rose-colored glasses (which, I’ll admit, has its drawbacks as well.) For many years I have been a strong proponent of technology and the internet. I have been an early adopter, and consider myself a digital naturalized citizen, not a mere digital immigrant. In all this time, though I have my own worries and concerns about “big brother” and the many dangers inherent in the technology, I have believed with all my heart that the aether (and by extension, the internet) carries on it more than mere bits and bytes. Well-done radio dramas made people laugh, cry, be scared, etc. Modern TV and cinema depend upon the ability of the audience to indentify with the characters. A well-crafted e-mail can convey very subtle levels of emotion and understanding-especially if there is already a shared language of this between the correspondents.

While most people I know have viewed the internet, and things like e-mail as impersonal and anti-social, I have never truly believed that electronic communication (and therefore electronic socialization) are inherently so. Yes, as a long time user of email, I’ve been caught many times in the trap of electronic communication’s general lack of body language and other subtle clues that help us understand one another. I have to say, though, that this has definitely been occurring with less and less frequency as the years pass. Chalk some of that up to my own self-awareness, but also credit the slow evolution of how we communicate electronically that is enabling us to find other ways to include the pieces of unspoken subtext, body language, etc. Digital natives seem to have far less trouble making the subtext obvious, and while it may take some effort and learning, digital immigrants can do it too. I know that with people I correspond with on a regular basis electronically-even ones I have never met in person-there is a shared understanding that allows us to have subtext and more in our messages back and forth.

I still believe that electronic socialization can never fully replace in-person socialization and communication. There will always be a need for people to socialize and communicate. (I’m aware that I may eventually have to eat my own words, because there are pundits and futurists who do posit that technologies may advance to the point that “telepresence” may prove just as efficacious as in-person, and become an accepted norm. I sort of hope this doesn’t happen. I’m not keen on something like the “orgasmatron” from Woody Allen’s “Sleeper” although even in that case, there was in-person participation-so perhaps that’s not a great example. In any case, I hope that humans will always have a desire to do things together-in person, and in real-time. I’m not ready to go fully virtual, although future generations may be.)

Cautions aside, I see the prominence and success of Facebook as support for my understanding of how technology is changing the definition of “social.” I think the fact that more people seem to be seeking “the social network” now rather than searching or data mining suggests that the technology is not a roadblock or an impediment to human relations, and, in point of fact, may be enhancing it. If the worst-case scenarios were coming true, then people would be turning more and more to solitary rather than communal and social activities on the internet.  Multi-player games are rapidly overtaking single-player games. SecondLife has demonstrated that entire communities can exist virtually, along with their own social dynamics, commerce, etc.

Facebook (and other services like Linked-In, Twitter, etc.) have made me a better person.  Reconnecting with people I haven’t connected with in ages in refreshing and enlightening. (It also allows me to relieve a certain amount of guilt at not being as good a correspondent as I could have been.) I have discovered all sorts of interesting things about people from other times and places in my life, as well as many interesting things about the people in my life, personal and professional, currently. Maybe some of it is just the joy of nostalgia, and some of it the pure joy of vicarious living, or innocuous voyeurism. At the same time, it exposes me to new things, new ideas. It can serve as a reinforcement for my worldview, or a challenge to it-even from those I believed shared my worldview completely. So, at least for me, it’s not just pabulum.

It is possible to get too wrapped up in Facebook, too involved in the minutiae and quotidian things of the lives of others. Each user of Facebook needs to seek and find their own balance, their own equilibrium. There’s no single hard and fast formula for how much is enough and how much is too much. In this way, Facebook is modeling good education for the 21st century, in which the learner gets to set a lot of the agenda. Yes, Facebook has its flaws, and one has to spend a lot of time to really learn how to tweak things. (And Facebook’s constant changing of the rules and interface doesn’t help in that regard. Somehow, though, we all seem to manage to adapt in time.) Also, to some degree, we can potentially be the slaves to the technology of Facebook rather than the master of the tool that is Facebook. That is a danger inherent in all technology. Remember “R.U.R” and similar cautionary tales. I struggle each and every day with finding software and technology that gives me as much control as possible, so that I am not adapting my work methodologies to the technology, rather the technology is working for me as a tool to enhance my abilities. If there is one thing that we are all having to learn to give up in this new age, it is the simple dependence on technology as underlying magic. We can longer be a world in which we don’t understand any more than that flipping the light switch turns the light on. We must be a world in which RTFM (read the effing manual) becomes an archaic term because we all recognize the value of doing so.

Yes, Microsoft, Apple, and others have sought for the longest time to do just the opposite-create operating systems that enable us to simply be end-users with little understanding of the underlying technology. Sometimes they’ve gone too far, preventing users from doing any serious tweaking. Yet, all along, MS, Apple, and others have, for the most part, created operating system interfaces that make it easy for end-users, yet still allow power users to open the hood and fiddle around.  It’s still not their strong suit, which is why, for example, Vladimir Putin has ordered the Russian government to shift completely to open-source operating systems and software (think Linux) over the next few years. Let’s hope we never get to the point where the user is totally locked out from the underlying code and technology.

I’m lucky. Having been in on the personal computing revolution from the very beginning, I’ve never been afraid to look under the hood and make adjustments. I won’t pretend to any deep understanding of how the operating systems and microprocessors work, but I do know enough to twiddle and tweak, and I think that all of us need this level of skill. It’s something I think our schools should be teaching our students-not to just be end-users, but masters of the technologies. Fortunately, many students I know are unafraid to dig into the technologies they use. However, not every student has an equal opportunity to gain that knowledge, at least, not yet.

Digital natives have certainly mastered some skills that give them power over the technologies. While it’s a somewhat trite example, just watch any teen texting. Watch the ease with which they snap a photo on their phone and instantly share it, post it, blog it, etc. Watch how creating a Powerpoint for school is second nature. Notice how many teens know and use standard keyboard shortcuts on popular programs that most digital immigrants never quite get-figuring that the switch to a Graphic User Interface (GUI) sort of requires them to use the mouse instead of their fingers. Watch a teen deftly set their Facebook security settings.

Facebook is being used somewhat different by older adults, younger adults, and teens. The common thread between them is that the use is, primarily, social in nature-it’s just that they have different needs for and ideas of what socialization is. And that’s the point. The technology is being used for a purpose that fulfills personal and social needs. That need is universal and strong, and Facebook’s rapid growth simply reinforces the point.

So the success and popularity of Facebook serves to restore and maintain my faith in humankind in the face of rapidly advancing technologies. The desire for connection to others remains strong, strong even, it seems, than the thirst for knowledge and information. (Just to be the gadfly, there may be a down side to that as well.  We already have a woefully under-educated, or rather not-well-informed society, and if we do not take advantage of the gift of the information age-even with its inherent dangers of unfiltered information-we risk own very existence. If we wind up frittering most of our time away on Facebook, and less on Google and Wikipedia and all that, we will pay the price in the end, and it won’t be a pretty one. Facebook could just become one permanently addicting “orb,” another “Sleeper” reference. We’ll spend all our time obliviously socializing while the universe goes on wreaking havoc all around us.

However, one of the strengths of Facebook is its interconnectedness. Through its ability to allow people to connect and log-in to other sites and services, and its ability to allow those services (like Twitter, YouTube, etc.) to share information through people’s Facebook accounts, the service has a good start at overcoming my previously-stated concern about it stealing our time and attention away from all the rest of the things in life.

Who knows but in a a decade (or even less) Facebook may become a thing of the past. It may be replaced or supplanted by something better (or possibly surreptitious.) However, the internet and social media are not going away.  I hope and pray that Facebook’s continuing success and growth portend a good future for us, as our society adapts to new paradigms, new concepts of being social, while never losing the desire to be the social animals we are.

I’ve already spoken about one way in which I think education fits into this picture-the need to teach students to be masters of and not slaves to the technology. Jewish education also needs to reinforce this. There are other roles Jewish education can and should play in this evolution and revolution. It can and should serve a cautionary  role, but that should not be its exclusive and sole role. As socialization changes, Judaism must adapt to those changes, or be left behind. Jewish education can be at the forefront of enabling Judaism to adapt to the changes in socialization and society. It’s way past time to start examining how we can do that.

Your thoughts?

Adrian A. Durlester (aka Yoeitzdrian, aka Migdalor Guy)