Thursday, April 06, 2006

Bringing curriculum to the forefront

You see the funniest things driving around Jakarta.... As my friend Pat and I passed Kemchicks in Kemang a while ago, Pat spotted a man on the back of a motorcycle wearing a World War II-era gas mask. How bizzare! I could almost hear the man saying, "It's too bloody hot to wear a helmet -- so to hell with the risk of traumatic brain injury! But I'll be damned if I'm going to breathe this Jakarta smog!"

I tried to capture him with my cell-phone camera, but I was laughing too hard (and hanging out of a car with a cell phone in Jakarta is probably just as crazy as riding a motorcycle with a gas mask but no helmet!). While I missed the photo op, the visual image will stay seared in my brain forever. (To make up for my failure to document this event, I invite you to check out this website, which has photos of overloaded vehicles that put Jakarta's hilarious examples to shame.)

But more than just a laugh, gas-mask guy is a metaphor for a common human condition: often we focus on the smaller issues while ignoring the bigger ones that are the heart of the matter.

Schools aren't immune to this problem. After all, it's easy to get sucked in to the day-to-day issues of running an educational institution -- the discipline, the finances, the scheduling, the substitutes..... Schools have to confront an almost endless array of problems, issues, and situations every day.

That's not to say that those issues are unimportant or inconsequential! After all, a school would fall apart without discipline, strong finances, a thoughtful schedule or qualified substitutes. But once in a while it's important that schools step back and ask themselves, "what's our main issue, and how are well are we handling it?"

I'd argue that curriculum (or whatever you choose to call the standards/outcomes a school expects of its students and the plan it puts in place to get students from point A to the final hoped-for outcomes) is the main "business" of the school, and therefore should merit serious and ongoing attention.

Yesterday I mentioned the problems parents face when trying to make sense of -- or evaluate -- the strength of a school's curriculum. If someone out there feels he's/she's got a good handle on the curriculum situation at JIS, please help me understand, because I'm still trying to figure it out.

I don't think I'm alone in this -- just look at the number of U.S. states that have established parent organizations dedicated to helping parents navigate through curricular issues.

And I don't think it's just parents struggling with the curriculum issue. Schools, themselves, find developing curriculum -- and the standards that should drive it -- can be hugely complicated, loaded with emotion and politics, and just plain difficult to wrap your arms around. (Just have a look at the blog for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) and it conference in Chicago, which just ended on Monday.)

There's no shame in admitting it. No school has figured out the perfect curriculum -- and you'd be sad if your school announced that it had! After all, educators are researching and learning new things all the time. In an ideal world, debate on curriculum hopefully makes educators -- and by proxy, students -- smarter.

So the questions we should be asking are:
  • How does JIS currently set educational standards/goals/target outcomes?
  • How does JIS currently develop curriculum? What’s the process?
  • How does JIS currently create smooth and appropriate articulation across grades in each subject area? (i.e. making sure that standards/curriculum/courses flow from one grade to the next from prep to 12th) --- gets at the concept of mapping**
  • How does JIS currently ensure that curriculum is applied consistently across classes in each grade?
  • Is JIS handling curriculum in the best way possible?
Asking these questions doesn't imply criticism. It's just trying to figure things out in the hopes of a greater understanding. Moving from good to great is hard work.

** Mapping is the concept of looking at how a school -- and individual teachers -- currently deliver curriculum across all grades in that school, and then looking for gaps or inconsistencies.


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