Curricular Knowledge: Effective Teaching for the 21st-Century Learner
Updated: Jul 22
An effective teacher must master the professional skills necessary to deliver a high-quality 21st-century education to their students. In this blog post, I will discuss the importance of teachers' curricular knowledge.
There is much confusion regarding the differences between standards and curriculum. Educational standards are the learning goals for what students should know and be able to do. As used by most teachers, the word curriculum describes the academic content, experiences, and teaching materials that make up the totality of students learning. In other words, standards are what is to be learned, and the curriculum is how it is taught. Several aspects of the curriculum, directly and indirectly, impact student learning. They are the recommended, written, supported, tested, taught, and learned curriculum. The recommended curriculum is a curriculum produced by experts in their fields and is usually published by professional organizations. For example, the National Council for the Social Studies has published standards that help guide states and districts in crafting curriculum documents at the local levels. The written curriculum consolidates documents produced by the state and school districts that indicate what is taught. This is usually in the form of curriculum guides and scope and sequence documents. Unfortunately, many state and local curriculum standards reflect the cultural majority's ideological and political vantage points that produced them. This position routinely excludes women, racial, and religious minorities (Wills, 2019).
The supported curriculum is indicated by the availability of instructional materials, such as textbooks, technology, and manipulatives. Research suggests that teachers use the textbook between 70% and 95% for all classroom instruction (Gay, 2010). That number is likely lower today due to the proliferation of web-based resources but still illustrates the degree to which teachers rely on the text to drive instruction. Teachers should be aware that textbooks are "cultural artifacts" that reflect the dominant group's hegemony by portraying "politically approved knowledge." In other words, textbooks continue to mitigate the roles of diverse actors. When people of color are introduced, it is generally a bland, conservative, conformist, and "safe" way emphasizing racial harmony rather than examining unpleasant and uncomfortable history (Gay, 2010). Many teachers lament that they would include more diverse voices if they had the resources to do so. A lack of high-quality curriculum materials is a significant impediment to introducing a culturally responsive curriculum. Continued budget cuts to education across the country will likely exacerbate the problem.
The tested curriculum is the information that is assessed on state, district, and teacher-prepared tests. Due to perennial shortages of teacher and student facetime, it is not taught if it is not tested. As a result, the curriculum is significantly narrowed, squeezing out diverse voices making room for test preparation of testable material only. The taught curriculum is what teachers do in the classroom, which can sometimes look very different than what is published in state and local standards and curriculum documents. The most crucial curriculum, however, is the learned curriculum. The learned curriculum is what students leave the classroom knowing as a result of what was taught. Two other forms of the curriculum are not visible in school curriculum documents but profoundly impact diverse learners. They are the hidden curriculum and the excluded curriculum.
The hidden curriculum refers to students' learning due to the school's culture and climate. It is not intentionally taught but based on students' perceptions of their school's priorities and objectives. For example, a school may claim to be a welcoming place for diverse learners. But upon a closer look, little is done by the school community to include students and their families in school activities, organizations, and events. How teachers prioritize time and resources are two components of the hidden curriculum. Teachers can never have enough time, and how teachers allocate, it speaks volumes about their priorities. Making time in the curriculum for diverse voices and points of view should be a priority for all teachers and requires them to make a conscious decision to include them. Teaching materials with diverse points of view should be incorporated into the curriculum whenever it is appropriate to do so. A culturally responsive approach to the curriculum means that diverse voices are interwoven into the lesson, not just "add-ons."
The excluded curriculum is what has been left out. This may occur unintentionally and result from a teacher’s lack of knowledge. Or the teacher may intentionally leave out content because they may wish to avoid controversy. Exclusion of controversial topics frequently happens in biology classes, for example, when teachers skip over teaching the Theory of Evolution for fear of offending conservatively religious students and their families. The excluded curriculum can be found in U.S. history courses as well. James Loewen, author of the best-selling book Lies My Teacher Told Me, argues that U.S. history has been “whitewashed” in public schools. Meaning that publishers intentionally remove sensitive or controversial material in an attempt to sell as many textbooks as possible. This is especially true regarding states that purchase large numbers of books, such as Texas and California. Loewen points out:
· Despite their accomplishments, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were not perfect men and made their fortunes primarily on the backs of enslaved people.
· The Civil War was fought precisely over slavery and not “states’ rights” or anything else.
· Abraham Lincoln did not believe that Black people were equal to White people and wanted to send them back to Africa.
· In the Century following the Civil War, the thousands of lynchings of African American men and women were often occasions for picnics by White people. Some even received body parts as souvenirs.
· White people were responsible for genocide against Indigenous people, and our leaders established boarding schools to try to “civilize” Indigenous children by destroying their culture.
· Several of the progressive New Deal programs (e.g., Social Security and the GI Bill) intentionally discriminated against African Americans.
Those who hold traditional views of America as an exceptional nation claim that teaching America’s past, faults and all, is little more than “revisionist” history. Teachers should spend less time focusing on America’s mistakes and more time reveling in its exceptionalism. The history v. heritage argument is not going away anytime soon. The truth is that teachers have tremendous amounts of content to cover and little time to do it. Every person, event, or concept taught means that someone or something must be left out. Here lies the root of the problem; how do we prioritize what is and is not taught? If Schools are a reflection of society, as many have argued. They should better represent the diverse actors that makeup society. And the curriculum should play a part in telling these various stories and traditions (Wills, 2019).
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