Educators generally think of curricula as being designed from a theoretical perspective. In the past, two basic perspectives were taught in faculties of education, vertically and horizontally organized curricula, but unfortunately the courses are increasingly rare or watered down so they are unrecognizable.
Nevertheless, there are still many classical books that teachers and student teachers can use to learn about designing curricula so that students learn subjects at increasingly complex levels. Books like The Systematic Design of Instruction by Walter Dick and Lou Carey and Curriculum Planning: A Handbook for Professionals by David Pratt provide excellent guidance.
Unfortunately, these textbooks were last published in the mid-1990s.
Nevertheless, there are two general theories about designing curricula with a multitude of variations. First, some curricula are designed so that they are vertically integrated. In this design, students must master the first unit in a curriculum before they can master the second unit (which is at a higher level), and they must master the second unit before they can master the third unit, etc.
Obviously, high school and college mathematics and physics courses are most often designed this way.
The second way of designing the curriculum is to integrate the units in a horizontal manner. In this structure, students do not need to master the first unit before then can master the second unit. In fact, they often do not need to master any unit before they can master another unit; each unit is unique, and each often begins at a basic level.
Obviously, middle years social studies and physical education courses are most often designed this way.
Recently, Diane Ravitch, the eminent American historian of education, has published The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education (Basic Books, 283 pp.) in which she is justifiably critical of much of what is going on in American education.
Everyone who cares about education in North American should read this book.
In fact, she has two basic arguments that parents, citizens, student teachers, and teachers need to understand if they want schools to improve. Surprisingly, these issues are not that schools have too many tests or that parents have too much choice, which is suggested in the book’s subtitle.
Rather, the two things that need attention are, first, the curricula in North American schools has shifted from being vertically integrated to horizontal even for disciplines that are, by nature, vertical; math and physics, for example. This shift in the design of curricula has resulted in students not getting to the higher levels of understanding the subjects that are often required in colleges and universities. No wonder so many students flunk out of college and university before they graduate.
The second thing that needs to be understood is that, unfortunately, teacher education programs have also changed substantially over the last thirty years so that their programs are organized in a horizontal manner. The programs are much too simple to be helpful for teachers in real classrooms. This is an extremely serious problem because student teachers become certified teachers who are not very knowledgeable and not very skillful in many of the things they need to know and do in order to be effective teachers.
Specifically, student teachers do not know that the horizontally organized curriculum they have experienced throughout their careers in school is not the only design for curricula. They may think that mathematics and physics, for example, should be organized horizontally even when their own students are not as proficient as students in China and Japan, for example, where the curricula is organized differently.
In addition, these student teachers are not knowledgeable, or skillful, in the ways of fairly and reliably assessing their students’ academic performances. In the horizontal curriculum design that is now almost universal, it is not necessary to use reliable ways of assessing students because each unit starts and ends at roughly the same place. The lessons are not very complex so it is relatively easy to see if the students grasp the point.
Frankly, this is why standardized tests, graded essays, and work-sheets, are increasingly discounted in both public schools and teachers’ colleges.
Nevertheless, the solution to these problems is very simple. First, we need a national, or better yet, international curricula so that children can more easily move from school to school across provincial boarders and from country to country without losing too much or being too advanced for their class-mates.
Second, we need curricula in elementary and secondary schools that are vertically integrated in virtually all subjects, including history and physical education.
Third, we need meaningful, reliable, and standardized tests to ensure that when students pass from one level to the next, they can actually do the work specified at the previous level and required at the new level.
Finally, we need teacher education programs to become vertically integrated themselves so that their courses build on one another. These redesigned programs will ensure that student teachers actually know and practice some of the higher-order thinking and skills that are necessary for effective teaching.
In addition, such programs will help prepare student teachers to actually function in schools that are serious about having their students learn the core curriculum at levels that stretch them beyond the basics.
Ravitch thinks that these changes will help improve education in North America. So do I. But, if we are going to do it, and not just talk about improving education, we have a lot of hard work to do.