10 Basic Principles of Our School System, Part 5: The Curriculum

  1. homework
  2. class tests, tests and exams
  3. grades
  4. schoolbooks
  5. the curriculum
  6. 45/90-minute lessons
  7. class size
  8. age-based classes
  9. subjects
  10. teacher focus

Ugh, the curriculum. Of all the topics I dreaded this the most, so maybe it’s good not to put it off much longer. The curriculum is this weird thing that is something completely obscure for students, who nevertheless hate it because many teachers use it as an excuse for doing boring topics. “Why do we have to do this?” “Because it’s in the curriculum.” It’s a comfortable answer for teachers but basically a non-answer for students. To them it’s almost a myth, that mysterious guidelines which teachers follow all the time and which tells them exactly what to do. Does that sound like reality?

The reality is much more sober and boring. The curriculum first of all is not just one thing, but (depending on the subject) either like a draft that’s work-in-progress or a document that’s so old that the content is nowhere near the student’s present reality. There has been a change in recent years, away from explicit things students are supposed to learn to “competences” students should have. In the past, the curriculum for example stated that students in English should have learned certain aspects of grammar at a certain age or should have read certain works of fiction (drama, novel, etc.) or should have discussed certain topics. And presentations, always, everywhere presentations. It doesn’t tell you which books to read (sometimes there are “recommendations”) or which textbook to use.

As I explained last time, the strong use of textbooks makes any inspection of the curriculum irrelevant, because teachers normally don’t check the curriculum, they follow the schoolbooks. And the books pretty much follow the curriculum, so there is really no need to follow any new developments. It still seems problematic to me that publishing companies, whose main interest is making money, decide upon what most teachers teach, even if their content is based on the curriculum.

But are the contents of the curriculum actually relevant? It depends on your point of view, I guess. I would put it this way, most of it doesn’t really hurt, but I wouldn’t say that most of it is helpful for anyone’s future life. I mean, why are presentations such a central element of the curriculum in any subject? What’s with all the eras of literature (which I find interesting personally, but mostly from a culture history perspective)? What about stylistic devices? These questions of course depend on the underlying question of what the point of our school education actually is. You’ll get many different official answers for this, but looking at the curriculum doesn’t really show a connection to finding the right job or being prepared for living in our society. Looking at it, we somehow know this is all supposed to be important, but even students are doubtful that most of it will be relevant for their future. I don’t want to get into the actual, real purpose of our school system versus what we are told (which I will eventually, but maybe not even in this series), but the curriculum definitely doesn’t give you a satisfying answer.

One thing is certain: the curriculum is not written with the interests of students in mind. They don’t look at it (as I have shown it to classes) and say: “This is what we want or should learn.” Of course you can argue that they don’t know better because they are too young, but, well, I think that’s nonsense. They know much more than we grant them. But in our school system, this doesn’t matter. If you think about it, it’s very simple. Everyone just cares about grades, so whether the lesson material is actually part of the curriculum doesn’t really matter to anyone. And since students forget everything anyway after the exams (because it doesn’t mean much to them), it matters even less.

In my 6-8 years as a teacher, the curriculum has been present, but most of the time was just something I had to remind myself of. In teacher’s training we had to look at it and realized quickly that it is not very helpful. It gives you a certain guideline, but normally you know most of these things already. In my current routine, the curriculum doesn’t really matter to me. It is conceived in such a vague and general way, that it is hard not to do something that’s part of it. It allows for a lot of freedom or let’s say all the freedom I need to do whatever I want to do with my lessons. We co-exist peacefully, more or less, not needing each other but also not fighting. And so much is guaranteed: I will never say that the main reason I’m teaching something is because it’s in the curriculum. I teach what is interesting to the students and no curriculum can ever tell me what that is.