Wednesday, 8 July 2015

What should a teacher do if they don't like parts of their curriculum?

This post was originally inspired by an email conversation with @GuardianTeach earlier this week, about a high school English teacher who said she no longer wanted to teach Shakespeare because she felt it wasn't relevant to her students. Also, she happened personally not to like Shakespeare. I found this latter point more disturbing; considering what is or isn't relevant for our learners is one thing, but picking and choosing curriculum based on our personal preferences is quite another. The teacher's original comments can be found on the Washington Post's The Answer Sheet blog here. There is a response by the blog's editor here, which I find myself more in agreement with. 

Any teacher will naturally have some sections of their curriculum that they prefer over others. They will also have opinions as to which aspects of their curriculum are more relevant, and those that are less relevant to learners' lives. These opinions, however, may be based on assumptions about learners which turn out to be incorrect. There are also different preferences among learners from year to year. 

As a biology teacher my curriculum encompasses a wide range of topics. Do I like them all equally? No. Do I feel that they are equally relevant to all of my students? No. For example, the thorny issue of teaching botany. (Who said plants aren't fun!) I personally find plants fascinating, but in my experience many learners don't see plants as being particularly relevant to their daily lives. This is not helped by a curriculum which demands a detailed knowledge of the intricate aspects of the reproductive strategies of the four major plant groups (non-vascular, seedless vascular, gymnosperms, and angiosperms). Then there are the pages and pages of dry details about each of the various plant phyla. In a pre-Google world maybe it was worth memorising these discrete facts - it isn't anymore. These sections of the course could usefully be done away with. Fundamental processes on the other hand, such as photosynthesis and transpiration, play an important role in cultivating an understanding of how the natural world operates, and these should remain as part of a high school biology course. 

Many educators will agree that curricula around the world are in need of, or are already undergoing, change to make them more relevant to the current generation of learners. This is clearly a step in the right direction. I would happily see several chunks removed from my curriculum, even those sections that I prefer, if it would give more time and space to what was really useful and relevant to today's learners. However, I don't think that can necessarily be achieved simply by jettisoning what we ourselves happen not to like.  

It is up to us as educators to try to find ways to make a topic relevant. This could be by extending learner voice and choice, or by tackling current issues such as genetically modified crops. What this does not mean, though, is that we should be simply dropping those topics we don't like from the curriculum, using as a smokescreen the argument that they are not relevant for our learners.