Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Secondary System was Designed by a Male Brain

At a recent summer session, our room was given an opportunity to "wonder" what education might look like in the future. This was my contribution to the discussion, sent out in a Tweet of course.

Allow me to clarify. Secondary school curriculum has been heavily influenced by the Carnegie Unit, which measures learning by counting instructional time using the "credit hour". Our system has divided content into course categories and then we present them to students in yearly allotments, typically 120 hours of English instruction, and the same amount for math instruction and the same for the six or so other things that students are required to take or get to choose. We have generally been giving students in BC 1 credit for every 25-30 hours of instruction, with 4 credits for a full course in grades 10 through 12.

A result of organizing learning in this manner is that it becomes pretty difficult to combine different curricular areas if we want to assess students, report out to parents, and "give credit" for learning in project work that crosses curricular borders. Recently, while enjoying this amusing video clip of speaker Mark Gungor on the differences between the male and female brain, I've noted a connection to our education system. Watch for a few minutes, and you'll see what I mean.

Clearly, our secondary system was designed by a man, because none of the boxes ever touch any of the other boxes! For example, students go to biology class, pull out the biology box, and learn biology. Then they put away the biology box, head down the hall, open the socials box and learn social studies. Rarely does anyone talk about biology in social studies, and it is rare when anyone intentionally connects content learned in one course to another. This is very limiting, because all joking aside, when students (of either sex) explore and learn, they don't do so in neat little boxes that can be divided up into specific curricular categories. Real learning moves across curricular areas, and connections are made well beyond the limitations of course category. This issue runs much deeper than mere culture. This is an issue of design, and when it comes to curricular and reporting design, we need to get to a place at secondary where the boxes touch each other, and as Gungor describes the female brain, "everything is connected to everything!" Elementary teachers seem to get this, and the structure of elementary schools and elementary curricula seems better suited to support it. It also might be the influence of gender.

I'm excited about some of the work that is going on in some secondary classes in regard to cross-curricular and blended learning and the fact that many districts are pushing the limits of reporting practice, but even the bravest of secondary educators is going to be constrained into box at some point because of the way our current (and upcoming) curriculum guides and reporting requirements are designed. In practice, curriculum, instruction, and reporting and everything else are closely connected, and its time for our official processes to catch up.

Who knows what future curriculum guides are going to look like, or if the idea of breaking down the boxes is even plausible. I can tell you, however excited as I may be to see this next iteration, I have no clue how to go about designing them, especially given my secondary teaching experience and the compartmentalized nature of my male brain. This mighty task will needed to given to someone who able to connect "everything to everything". Even thinking about it right now is hurting my head, so it is time to take a little break. If you need me, I'll be in my nothing box.

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