Such a question is usually satisfied with a simple, quick, response like, "fine" or "cold." The question, "What was the last time your discussed the rationale for what you teach?" may also be answered with one word. Never.
The pressure on schools to cover more and more content is universal, increasing and well-documented. The consequences of this trend are teacher burnout, the elimination of any subject not on the standardized tests and reduced student motivation.
I'm increasingly creeped-out by a profession clinging to standardized curriculum with religious zeal and a neurotic obsession with what every human under four feet should know. We should be concerned both by the arrogance of curriculum and the intellectual laziness of it. Curriculum should be the buoy rather than the boat. In far too many schools, it has become the Titanic.
A New Jersey teacher recently lamented that he is handed a script he must read at his students for three hours each day. A recent script commanded this former professional to recite, "Boy, it's cold outside. I wonder how cold it is? I wonder if it is below freezing." The only problem is that it just so happened to be 84 degrees that day. Never the mind, the superior intellects that created this direct instruction assume that since it's November, it must be cold outside. The teacher was saddened by how incompetent this "teacher-proof" curriculum made him appear to his students.
Leadership is as much about subtraction as addition. Outstanding school leaders have the courage to eliminate curricular topics that have outlived their use-by date.
Curriculum decisions should be made by asking, "Does this topic have a reasonable likelihood of leading to the construction of a larger theory or the asking of a bigger question?" Is the topic useful? Can it be learned while exploring a more powerful idea? Simplify this rubric further by asking, "Who cares?"
Let's explore a random topic, such as weather. A review of the science standards of California indicates that "weather" is "taught" in five different years before high school. North Carolina, four times. Everything is bigger in Texas so "weather" appears in their standards a bronco-busting six times.
What the heck does a kid need to know about weather? I mean really need to know? There is a magic box in nearly every room in every home that will tell you the weather. It will even tell you whether to wear mittens. Is the teaching of "weather" necessary? My exhaustive research indicates that the teaching of weather costs American taxpayers $4,694,378,216.14 a year.
Why teach weather? My hypothesis is that weather is taught because it is free and there will be more of it tomorrow. An alternative theory is, "because."
Some students will grow up to be interested in meteorology. At that point, educators should be able to channel their interest toward resources for learning about weather scientifically.
MacCarthur Genius Stephen Wolfram has written a revolutionary new 1,280-page book, A New Kind of Science. The book illustrates his theory that the universe and countless disciplines may be reduced to a simple algorithm. Scientists agree that if just a few percent of Wolfram's theories are true, much of what we thought we knew could be wrong. Wolfram believes that a human being is no more intelligent than a cloud and both may be created with a simple computer program.
You do not have to take Wolfram's word for it. With the $65 software, A New Kind of Science Explorer, you and your students can explore more than 450 of Wolfram's experiments. The visual nature of cellular automata-the marriage of science, computer graphics and mathematics-allows children to play on the frontiers of scientific thought while trying to prove, disprove or extend this great scientist's theories.
For the first time in history, children have the tools to be scientists and to engage in scientific communities. Science should be about wonder and making sense of the world. If we were to clean out the educational attic and drop low-level concepts like weather, we could use the time and existing technology to engage children in ideas that are much more powerful.
Gary Stager, firstname.lastname@example.org, is editor-at-large and an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University.