More on the liberal arts & scholar academic approach to curriculum

Two recent op-eds appeared in perfect timing for our discussion of Adler’s Paideia Proposal and the idea of liberal arts/great books approach to curriculum. Tonight in class we’ll take some time to read and discuss both:

Heather Mallick, “Liberal arts degrees teach synthesis, the skill that lasts” (Toronto Star, September 20, 2015)

John Kay, “The benefits of a liberal education do not go out of date” (Financial Times, August 25, 2015) (paywalled, so reposted below):

The belief that study should be focused more on job-specific knowledge is misconceived t is hard to imagine life without digital search and the internet. This is as true for me as for anyone else: the greater ease of obtaining and checking relevant facts and data has transformed the life of the columnist. Pulling books from library shelves and turning their pages was never an efficient search technique, even if sometimes an entertaining and instructive one. But exercises that once required hours in a library, and were often unproductive, can now usually be accomplished with a few mouse clicks.

This change, which has taken place in the 20 years since I first wrote a column for the Financial Times, highlights wider shifts in the nature of knowledge and corresponding methods of education. Today it is less important to know, and more important to know what is known. The options trader need not be familiar with Black-Scholes equations, though he must know that they exist, and that others give them weight: the lawyer need not recall the judge’s reasoning in Bloggs v Bloggs, but must still have the higher-level knowledge that guides her search for relevant cases.

At the frontiers of knowledge, the finance academic who seeks to find a more advanced option pricing model, or the judge who must determine the case to which Bloggs v Bloggs applies, must still acquire personal mastery of all relevant information. But writing newspaper columns, running businesses, managing assets and advising clients in legal disputes are activities whose primary demand is synthesis. The ability to make connections between disparate sources of information is more critical than detailed familiarity with any specific source. This is the task that modern technology has made so much easier.

That is why the widespread belief that education should be focused more on the acquisition of job specific knowledge is especially misconceived in the 21st century. Those who argue that more resources should be devoted to teaching Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) have a point, but not the point they generally make. It is beyond scandalous that so many people in positions of influence, especially in Britain and the US, are not only functionally innumerate, but do not feel embarrassed by that innumeracy. But this is because education is excessively specialist, not because it is insufficiently vocational. In England it is possible, and common, to abandon the study of any scientific subject at the age of 15, and the knowledge that they can opt out of any quantitative discipline allows young people to avoid applying themselves to these subjects at an earlier age.

Fareed Zakaria’s book this year defending liberal education — a tradition that introduces undergraduates to a wide range of subjects and approaches to knowledge — is very much to the point. And so is his refutation of philistine Republican governors (just Google Rick Scott, Rick Perry, or Patrick McCrory), who draw cheap laughs at the expense of philosophy and anthropology. A little capacity for reflection might reveal that morality is not simply a matter of common sense or reading a sacred text, and that an understanding of other cultures — or simply an acknowledgment that there are other cultures — might have led to better outcomes in, for example, Iraq.

It is a mistake to focus basic education on job-specific skills that a changing world will render redundant in a few years. The objective should be to equip students to enjoy rewarding employment and fulfilling lives in a future environment whose demands we can neither anticipate nor predict. In 20 years, we will probably not be using the Black Scholes model, or referring to the case of Bloggs v Bloggs. But the capacities to think critically, judge numbers, compose prose and observe carefully — the capacities that education can and should develop — will be as useful then as they are today

Thoughts on BC Education Ministry’s new curriculum

We will most likely be discussing and perhaps investigating various aspects of the BC Ministry of Education’s overhaul of the provincial curriculum across the term.

Reaching back a few years, you may be interested in this post from my personal blog (written in September 2012). There have been many new developments the past three years, but the fundamental dynamics of curriculum change remain the same.

The post (and see related links) here.


Curriculum/Pedagogical Autobiography Assignment

Exploring Images of Teaching and Learning about Education: A Reflective Account. A Curriculum/Pedagogical Autobiography.[1]

You are at an important stage in your formal study of and work in education by virtue of your enrollment in graduate studies and work in a classroom with students. This is a time when you may find it useful to think about your reasons and perspectives for your work in education and your thoughts about what teaching and learning in schools are, will be, or ought to be. One strategy to uncover your thinking may lie in examining your own life story. Think, for example, of the first point at which you thought about becoming an educator. Do particular people, experiences, or incidents come to mind? Who or what was it that influenced you? How might these have an effect on your views of curriculum? schooling? If no particular incidents stand out, was it a general feeling you had? In what situations did these thoughts emerge over time? What might these have to do with your educational beliefs? With the curriculum experiences you design for students as their teacher?

The purposes of this writing assignment lie in several areas. First, this serves as a way of getting to know each other. Part of the “curriculum” of the course, of any course of study, is the relationships we form with one another – not just the topics or concepts we read, discuss, and construct meaning about. Our discussion in this assignment can be a good beginning. The assignment is also a record for you of your thoughts right now, a place to begin the semester. By reconstructing the events and processes by which you have arrived to this place, by identifying key events and influences that contributed to your decision to teach and study education, and by examining the connections of these to your beliefs about curriculum, teaching, and schools, you may discover important aspects of your knowledge, skills, and dispositions which may prompt you to continue to learn over this semester. Linked together, these form part of your teaching and learning biography or story. These also often carry with them your own implicit or personal theories and philosophy about education, which a teacher must be in touch with in order to design effective, meaningful, relevant, and satisfying curriculum for students.

Using the following framing questions –- and please feel free to add your own or modify these –- (re)generate the incidents and insights that led you to where you are today.

1. Biography and Social Context

Has your upbringing – or your present home and family life – influenced your choices to be an educator and study education, or your views about it? If so, how? If not, why not? Think about the whole context – personal, social, political, cultural, and economic – in which you became an adult. What factors might have influenced your decision to become a teacher? What did your decision mean to you at the time? What does it mean now? If there have been changes (you may define “changes”), what might have affected your thoughts and decisions?

Consider events that may seem to be outside your immediate world (e.g. public opinion, societal and world events), but consider also your own schooling experiences – the kinds of teachers you had, other children with whom you had relationships, the kind of student you were in elementary, secondary, and higher education. Did these, what we might call an “apprenticeship of observation”, influence you? If so, in what ways?

2. Formal Preparation

If you are a teacher or have been a teacher, what was your formal preparation for teaching? Do any courses or field experiences particularly stand out? Can you recall your impressions of teacher education and how well it prepared you for teaching? Do you remember what you thought teaching would be like based on your preservice experiences?

How did you learn to plan, develop, and craft curriculum in your preservice teaching experiences? Were these experiences meaningful and applicable to the “real world” of teaching?

If you are not presently teaching, address your undergraduate education. What was it like? What courses stand out? What impressions did you have of how well this educational experience prepared you for your chosen profession?

3. On the Job Experience

Recall your first job (in teaching, if applicable, or in other areas). What was this like? Were there helpful colleagues to rely on or mentor you? Did you have to “go it alone”? What did you learn during your first year of work, and how has it shaped the kind of teacher/other worker you have become? If you are a teacher or have taught, how did these shaping influences connect to curriculum work?

If you have been in teaching or another career/job for awhile, how have you changed over the course of your career? What professional experiences or continued education have influenced your development as a teacher? Do you teach/work now in the same manner you did at an earlier time in your career? Why or why not? What growth or evolution has occurred? What contributions have inservice or continuing education activities made to growth and learning in your work? Have particular assignments or colleagues been salient? How has educational reform affected your professional practice? What leadership roles do you play in your school related to reform agendas? What more have you learned about curriculum and curriculum matters as these relate to teaching, relationships with students and peer teachers, or other?

4. Other

What other experiences or contexts might have been involved in your quest to complete this reflective assignment? Have other jobs you have undertaken influenced you? Do you have children of your own? Are you close to children of family members or friends? Do these relationships enter into your vision of education, teaching, and learning? A particular cause or advocacy? Have you undertaken jobs or engaged in volunteer work (either involving children/students or not) that have influenced your decisions to teach and further study education? Include, too, experiences at the university. What has there been in the form and content of coursework, social experiences, part-time work, or other experiences, that continues to contribute to your plans, views, and goals about teaching and education?

Family life, friendships, jobs, and other life and educational experiences – these are some of the possible rich sources of influences on your professional choice and on your views of teaching and learning. What stands out for you?

Write a paper—roughly 8-12 pages, or 2000-3000 words in length—that is your curriculum/pedagogical autobiography. There is no set format for the paper. You could:

  • Organize your account chronologically, devoting a section to each phase of the continuum that brought you here. However you do this, please use headings to indicate what you have addressed.
  • Or, you could approach the task as a biographer, selecting an event to serve as the outcome of your story and arranging and linking critical incidents together to produce an intelligible account of how you came to teach and study education.

Be specific! Work in your writing to showcase:

  1. What your experiences have been like.
  1. How these experiences have helped form and shape the kinds of views, philosophies, and beliefs about education, curriculum, teaching, and learning that you hold.
  1. The ways in which you have evolved or changed over time and the influences or impetuses for those changes.

Using the grading rubric in the course syllabus, write a brief self-assessment at the end of your paper and assign yourself a mark between 0-20.

As background for this assignment, please read: Kanu, Y., & Glor, M. (2006). ‘Currere’ to the rescue? Teachers as ‘amateur intellectuals’ in the knowledge society. Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies, 4(2), 101-122. (Available from: In addition,  you can read a version of this assignment, which I have written, here.

[1] This activity was originally developed by Dr. Ann Larson at the University of Louisville.