Core Curriculum: Why?

In my last post, I stated that I would like to begin explaining the basics of what researchers historically referred to as the core curriculum. This core curriculum, now easily confused with the current national core curriculum, was a progressive movement that emerged in the 1930’s pre-WWII. Now, to appreciate the potential of a core curriculum to change how and what students learn, you really must move you mind away from what you believe school to be. You must first agree that k-12 education, in its current form, does not do enough to prepare students of today for the uncertain future of tomorrow. If you believe that there is nothing wrong with the current model, then an investigation of core curriculum isn’t for you. You should, in fact, just continue doing what you are doing and keep thinking what you are thinking. But, if you know there must be more to education and believe in the potential of educators to change lives in meaningful ways, then the core curriculum concept may provide some answers.

Before I explain what the core curriculum is, or was, let me first make the case for it to exist. Hopefully, if you’re still reading, you accept the fact that some amount of real change is needed in our schools to meet the needs of students. So first, let’s consider why some of the problems educational systems are faced with exist in the first place.

An education through high school was not a popular choice for most students 100 years ago. But, over time, and largely after WWII, compulsory education through 12th grade became popular as the nation and states saw a need for providing all youth with a common experience that would prepare them to be successful members of society. The system that was already in place within high schools was simply expanded to take on the influx of more students who were required to attend. And the system that was in place was created to prepare students to attend college. In this preparation, the world was divided into classifications and taught as individual subjects. These subjects were intended to prepare students for further, intense study at the university level. And, beneath the high school level of public education emerged the junior high, which was intended to prepare students for the subject area study they would conduct at high school.

The division of the natural world into subject areas is needed at the university level as students are exposed to advanced concepts that require intense levels of investigation. However, by creating a high school system, and then a junior high system, and later a middle school system based on the model of artificially dividing knowledge into fields of study, students are presented with material in ways that separates it from the world in which they live. In a student’s lived experience, there is no separation of math from social studies, science from english, or technology from language. The division of knowledge creates artificial barriers between pieces of information that are otherwise connected. Learning, is largely about making connections and these artificial divisions make those connections difficult for students to form.

The disadvantages created by designing all secondary schools to be college preparatory schools are many. However, perhaps the biggest disadvantage of making middle and high schools mini colleges is that students are presented with information in artificial blocks that do not connect to their own lives. The core curriculum attempts to combat this artificial presentation of knowledge by connecting educational experiences to what students want to know and what they need to know. In future posts I will explore how the core curriculum sets out to accomplish these goals.

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