Last week I wrote about how design principles should apply to curriculum. I’ve been thinking about one of those elements in particular: the idea of white space. This isn’t really a new concept, but I think it bears some examination.
Curriculum today is very full. We do our best to stuff every little thing that may have some importance or relevance to a subject into the 180 day school year, and since it won’t all fit, we assign the rest as homework. Any teacher who has been teaching for more than a year knows that there is no practical way to complete the entire prescribed curriculum in one year, even if you take the tour bus approach and just point out the highlights to the students as you cruise by at seventy miles and hour.
I’m no longer convinced that the purpose of curriculum is to assemble in one place all the important “stuff” that a kid should know by the end of the school year. There’s too much that’s important anyway, we won’t all agree on which things are truly important, and the volume increases almost daily.
So what if curriculum instead were designed with holes, with a certain amount of white space? In visual design, the white space does a few things: it brings attention to the other elements of the design, it allows them to breathe, and it helps make them dynamic. Taking out some stuff and leaving more space in the curriculum can do similar things for the student.
Invite. Curriculum should first be built so that the student wants to engage with the content. It should be active, it should be interesting, it should be personal. Make it real and relevant. Start with where the students are. Connect to their interests and their worlds.
Inspire. Next the curriculum should motivate students to want to learn about the subject. The word inspire originally meant “to breathe into” or “to infuse life by breathing”. There is very little breathing room in today’s curriculum. Kids have no time to breathe in and reflect on their learning. They just have to cram it in and move on.
Ignite. Finally, the curriculum must light the fire. Leave students at the end of the unit or school year feeling like there is so much more to explore and so much deeper to go. If we ignite their passions and their natural curiosity, they will continue to pursue it on their own.
I remember so many times “discovering” a subject as a teacher that I thought I had no interest in learning about, but when I really engaged it (because I had to teach it), I found it fascinating and went on to study it on my own. I think a well-designed curriculum can do that for students.
Understand that I don’t believe curriculum can do this alone. None of these things can or will happen without an excellent teacher. Curriculum doesn’t live until students and teachers interact and engage it. But a strong curriculum will give the teacher the tools and resources to accomplish these things more easily.
Accomplishing this is the real challenge, of course. How do we create a curriculum that does these things? How do we anticipate where kids are when there are so many different varied experiences around the world? Perhaps this is an argument for purely locally designed curricula, but I’m not sure that’s practical. What do you think? How can we make this happen? Or is it just a fantasy that will never become reality?
I agree that our curricula is quite full. I teach a series of classes called Health Science Technology which essentially is a 4‑year program culminating in students spending their 11th & 12th grade years in high school in the Health Care field engaged in real-world observations with doctors, nurses and other allied health care providers. I know that at the end of every year I always feel that we could have done more.
Students have a tremendous amount of activities, both in school and out, that compete for their time. We have a 45 minute time period in a single day, out of 7 or 8 class periods, to try to teach what we think is important and in many cases what supports the standards of of our state or local school boards.
I enjoy your thoughts about Invite, Inspire and Ignite. As a teacher, that’s what I strive to do. I’m not always successful, but I think it’s what I strive for and the standard we as teachers should aspire too.
There is so much worth teaching, that we’ll never be able to teach it all, so we have to stop trying. Let kids start driving more of what gets taught. Keep the core curriculum really core—only the absolute essentials (though agreeing on what those should be is part of the problem). I think part of my point is that if we design that core properly, kids will naturally and automatically pursue the rest on their own.
As an aside, I’m thinking teacher professional development needs to do the same, but that’s a whole other blog post… 🙂
This is an excellent post! Thank you for getting me thinking about curriculum and planning again. I like your ideas and approach, now I need to figure out how to implement them.
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