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  • They take so much time to create that they are often obsolete, outdated, or not keeping pace with the changes in your school and students/families.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)

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