Thursday, August 19, 2010

Stenhouse on Curriculum

As the new school year begins, I picked up my old copy of "An Introduction to Curriculum Research and Development," by the Scottish educational thinker and teacher Lawrence Stenhouse (1975), and found some good old thoughts about curriculum.

Stenhouse saw curriculum as both what a school (or teacher) intends to do, and what it actually does.  He takes it as given that there will always be a gap between intent and delivery, so understanding a given curriculum requires awareness of both what we're setting out to do and what we're actually doing. He thought teachers should be studying this, both on their own and together. 

Stenhouse saw curriculum as composed of three broad domains:
-- content (information to be learned, which you can pre-specify and test with a multiple choice test),
--skills (recognizing letters and words, writing a three-paragraph essay, solving mathematical problems, which you can also pre-specify),
--knowledge (using what you've learned to solve problems or meet challenges in some unexpected way that can't be fully prespecified; an essay question at it's best, a scientific, artistic or community project).

He thought that educational thinking and theory often fell short by confusing content and skills, which can be prespecified, with knowledge, which cannot. He saw the teacher as being at the center of education, contrary to the trend to see teachers as deliverers of pre-packaged curricula.

35 years after his "Introduction to Curriculum Research and Development," Stenhouse's thinking holds up very well indeed. The only substantial addition that I'd suggest is about the way teaching methods relate to the more recent knowledge about learning and the brain; for example, strategies designed to engage the left and right hemisphere, frontal lobes and attention, and the domain of social-emotional learning (individual and group strategies, etc.).

In these times, when education is so often about making sure that children can simply read and define words, do math, or pass pre-specified tests at such and such a level, Stenhouse can help us to remember that there are domains of education that connect with potentialities of human nature that lie far beyond these meager models of what learning and knowledge are about.

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