Becoming a Dynamic Teacher with an Emergent Curriculum
Becoming a Dynamic Teacher with an Emergent Curriculum Melanie Meredith November 5, 2002 Many teachers aspire to having a series of units neatly filed away in tubs andcabinets that they can pull out at a moment’s notice. When they make a general plan forthe following year, they look at lesson plans in those units and mark off the number ofdays for each unit on their calendar. They know what books and videos to check outahead of time, and what worksheets to send to be photocopied. I know teachers do thisbecause I have strived to be like the teachers who have these finished units tucked awayand waiting. I write down my lesson plans and keep track of how long each activity andlesson really took my class. The next year, if I am lucky enough to be teaching the sameunits, I pull them out and reuse them. Until just recently, I would have said that mygoal was to have a complete series of units like this; units that I was pleased withbecause they were full of quality activities, lessons, and assessments that had workedwell. I was not unwilling to make some additions or changes here or there, but for themost part, these units would be set. I would, in a sense, be done with most lessonplanning and curriculum development. There is a major assumption grounded in this practice. The assumption surfacedwhen a friend, who is a retired teacher, said to me that he had disliked how certainthings he had planned for his classes became institutionalized. He felt pressured to dothe same things every year, while he wanted to be designing things that had thepotential to be even better. A light went on in my head! By assuming that I can pull thesame unit out of my filing cabinet each year for any given topic, I am assuming that mystudents are the same from year to year. I am assuming that they have the same skills,the same abilities, and the same interests. I am assuming that the way I taught the unitthe first time will be the best way to teach the unit again. I am assuming that I could notdevelop anything better, even though I have gained more experience. Where did this assumption come from? Why do so many teachers strive for thegoal of a “finished” curriculum? I believe there are several factors leading to thiscommon assumption. First, as a teacher, there is never enough time in the day for all thewhole-class teaching, planning, correcting papers, working with students individually,phone calls, and meetings that should occur. If teachers can save time on a time-consuming area like lesson planning and curriculum development, then they have moretime for everything else. Also, if a teacher invests many hours in planning a good unit,then she wants to be able to use it more than once. Teachers are currently under a greatdeal of pressure to raise test scores and follow district-mandated curricula. Losingcontrol over their creativity has caused some teachers to “accommodate to the pressuresthey themselves are under from external mandates by choosing instructional processesthat they think will lighten their workload” (Short, 1990, p.203). Additionally, in mostschools there is not an emphasis on reflecting on one’s own teaching in order to createever-improving curriculum. Although staff development often focuses on improvingteachers’ practices, teachers do not usually have time in those workshops to think about
what they have done in the past, only what new things they can use in the future.Lastly, although it seems rather obvious that schools should be “student-centered,”idiosyncratic children often are not the focus of curriculum development. Personally, I think I came to my assumption from watching other teachers who Ibelieved to be “good teachers” and from my own experiences as a student. I rememberfriends who were older than I am and my younger brother doing many of the sameprojects in their classes that I did in mine. Many of my teachers were known for theassignments they gave out, so they could not have changed very much each year. By thetime I became a teacher, I saw the same type of thing in my peers. The fourth gradeteachers always had a metric Olympics after the measurement unit, and I knew ateacher who could start making copies in June for what she would do in the nextSeptember. I thought I wanted to be like that. I was motivated by the time-savingaspect, too. I was striving to contain my teaching job into something approximating aforty-hour work week. I found that I got much closer to that goal in my second year ofteaching algebra and pre-algebra because much of my curriculum was set. I had writtenall the lessons my first year and only made revisions in the second year. I did add a fewprojects and change things that had not gone well, but overall, I did vastly lessplanning. At that middle school, I met a teacher who was much more dynamic with herlesson planning in a math-science block class, and although I knew Sydney was a veryeffective teacher, it seemed like so much more work. Now I see it as a different kind ofwork, and what I didn’t realize at that time was that Sydney was reaching all of herstudents much more often than I was. Even though I used cooperative learning andbelieved heartily in my students, I was often guilty of creating a teacher-centeredclassroom, not a student-centered one. “A student-centered classroom is a place wherestudents are encouraged to explore their own interests, and to view school not as theimposition of an alien agenda, but as an organized means to articulate their own”(Levine, 1995, p. 55). Students should be the first consideration when teachers plan curriculum, andsince students are changing all the time, it makes sense that lessons need to be dynamicalso. Instead of striving to make “finished” units, teachers should be setting the goal ofplanning lessons based on students’ abilities, questions, interests, and current events.Our assumption would then shift to the idea that it is not possible to create a qualitylearning experience for students without having specific students in mind. Steven Levy,a Massachusetts Teacher of the Year, states in his book Starting from Scratch (1990) thathe tries to find the genius in every child, “the essence of who he or she really is” (p. 4).Levy works on “shaping the learning environment to enable each child to manifest thegenius that he or she brought to the classroom” (1990, p. 4). Also, we should set a goalfor knowing more about what our students really learn from the lessons we plan. AsCarol R. Rodgers notes, “Once students begin to reveal the truth about their experienceas learners, it is difficult for a teacher to pretend that learning is happening when it isnot” (2002, p. 233). We should make a commitment to take responsibility for our ownprofessional development as teachers who are continually trying to improve ourteaching for the sake of our students’ learning (Zeichner & Liston, 1996).
Inquiry-based learning and reflecting on one’s own teaching can help teachersaccomplish the goal of creating dynamic, emergent curriculum units. There are a widevariety of meanings implied with the phrase “inquiry learning,” so let me explain thedefinition that I will use here. To me, inquiry-based learning is learning that starts withan authentic question, whether generated by the students, the teacher, or a text. Thegoal of inquiry-based learning is for students to actively generate explanations andprovide evidence for the answers to the question. Often looking for answers to the firstquestion leads to many more valid and interesting questions that are worth studying. Using a process of inquiry forces a teacher’s lessons to be dynamic because onemust allow for unexpected ideas and questions. It is impossible to fully predict wherethe inquiry will lead, although the teacher can (and should) have goals for the unit.“Robust and fruitful questions” (National Research Council, 2000, p. 24) generatemotivation for students; they want to find the answers to these type of questions. Thequestions can be in any subject area, as long as they allow for real study and a range ofresponses. The questions lead to activities so that students can create experiences fromwhich to learn. These activities usually have students working together so that they canco-construct meaning from what they are doing. This incorporates Vygotsky’s idea ofthe zone of proximal development, which implies that all learning is collaborative(Wells, 2000, p. 57). Halliday notes that talking and writing about activities is essential;“language is the essential condition of knowing, the process by which experiencebecomes knowledge” (cited in Wells, 2000, emphasis in original). A teacher can still planfor activities, although she may be planning quite close to the day of the lesson, ratherthan months in advance. But she needs to be flexible so that the activities can beadapted to serve the questions being asked. In an ideal situation, especially with olderstudents, the students can design some of the activities that they believe will furthertheir goal of answering their own questions. To show what they have learned, studentscan be assessed based on the quality of their explanations in writing, projects, ordiscussions. Ideally, the teacher becomes a “co-inquirer” in the process so that a communityof collaboration and inquiry permeates the classroom (Wells, 2000). The teacher’s jobchanges from delivering fixed information to helping students refine their questions,providing support for seeking out the answers, and challenging students to provideevidence for what they have come to know. These tasks require being focused on themoment in the classroom, but does not require planning time. The teacher does notneed to have all the answers, just some ideas of how to find them. In this way, a teacherbecomes an agent in helping students learn to learn, one of Dewey’s primary goals forcurriculum (Gill, 1993). Inquiry-based learning can help a teacher create more emergentcurriculum units by allowing him or her to lay out a framework for a unit, with specificlearning goals, and then working collaboratively with the students to drive and createwhat happens within that unit. It can never be exactly the same twice, even if some ofthe activities and lessons are the same, because the students are pulling from their ownexperiences and moving forward based, at least partially, on what they are motivated tolearn.
Although reflecting on one’s own teaching and teaching using an inquiry-basedapproach may not seem connected at first glance, when I looked closer at the two topicsI found them inextricably linked. The Education Development Center uses the phrase“diagnostic teacher” to refer to the concept of a teacher who is constantly assessing andobserving what is happening in his or her classroom, with the intent of selecting thebest practices and designing curriculum for the students (Soloman, 1999). “Diagnosticteachers…actively assess students’ understandings, misunderstandings, interests, andskills in the light of teaching goals” (Soloman, 1999, p. xvii). In inquiry-based learning,these assessments have to be occurring all of the time in order to keep the learningmoving forward productively. “It is as much a part of teachers’ professionalresponsibilities to review classroom happenings and try to learn from that experience, asit is to plan thoroughly, organize carefully and strive to interact thoughtfully andsensitively with children in the classroom” (Hart, 2000, p. 7, emphasis in original). Adiagnostic teacher looks at students’ needs and curriculum goals before constructingteacher practices (Soloman & Morocco, 1999), which is ideally the same in inquiry-basedlearning. Reflecting on one’s teaching is really more about reflecting on the students’learning. It should take the focus off of the teacher and onto the students. As Rodgers(2002) states, this type of reflecting requires the ability to observe carefully and thinkcritically about students, before taking action on the new understanding that emerges.One way that teachers can reflect is by asking students specific questions about theirown learning. Asking questions like, “What do you think you’ve really learned?” and“How do you know you’ve learned it?” give a teacher incredible insight into his or herstudents. Rodgers (2002) points out that it is important to help students learn todistinguish between what they learned, what was taught, and what they did. Once ateacher knows what has really been learned, then he or she can make other decisions.Perhaps the students learned the content in the teacher’s goals and answered their ownquestions about the topic. Perhaps they are lacking some important knowledge, and theteacher can then adjust his or her strategies and focus further student investigations onthat goal. This is only possible if a teacher stops assuming what his or her studentsknow. Teachers can then “differentiate their teaching from their students’learning…[and] become more sensitive to the fact that good teaching is a response tostudents’ learning rather than the cause of students’ learning” (Rodgers, 2002, p. 250). Teachers can create their own daily professional development by utilizinginquiry-based learning and reflection. Teaching is always hard, time-consuming work,but it can become more joyous by letting students in on the construction process. Ourstudents are unique individuals and our teaching should reflect that. If we use the samematerials each time we teach a unit, we are discounting our students’ life histories andexperiences. Think of how much richer and more effective learning is when it links tosomething we already know. I am not advocating dumping everything out of ateacher’s file cabinet. I am not planning on doing that with my own library of lessonsand units. But, I am planning on revising the starting point for many of my units and onfinding ways to let my students’ questions drive the journey of learning. I will find outmore of what my students already know, so that we can move forward from there. I
will continue to create my own curriculum, rather than relying on packaged curriculumbased on someone’s idea of a few basic types of students, but now I will let my studentsin on the planning. It is unlikely that all of my teaching will be inquiry-based andreflective, especially at first, but now that my assumptions have shifted, I can’t go backto creating curriculum that I can pull out and use “as is.” I want my students to feel thepower of authentic learning, where knowledge is constructed out of a desire to knowsomething. ReferencesGill, J. (1993). Learning to Learn: toward a philosophy in education. New Jersey: Humanities Press.Hart, S. (2000) Thinking through Teaching: A framework for enhancing participation and learning. London, U.K.: David Fulton Publishers.Levine, D. (1995). Building a Vision of Curriculum Reform. In Levine, D., Lowe, R., Peterson, B., and Tenorio, R., Eds., Rethinking schools: An agenda for change (pp. 52- 60). New York: New Press.Levy, S. (1996). Starting from Scratch: one classroom builds its own curriculum. Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann.National Research Council. (2000). Inquiry and the National Science Education Standards: A Guide for Teaching and Learning. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.Rodgers, Carol R. (2002). Voices Inside Schools. Harvard Educational Review, 72(2), 230- 253.Short, E.(1990). Challenging the Trivialization of Curriculum Through Research. In J. Sears and J. Marshall, Eds., Teaching and Thinking About Curriculum: Critical Inquiries (pp. 199-210). New York: Teachers College Press.Soloman, M. (1999). The Diagnostic Teacher: Constructing New Approaches to Professional Development. New York: Teachers College Press.Soloman, M. and Morocco, C.C. (1999). The Diagnostic Teacher. In M. Soloman, Ed., The Diagnostic Teacher: Constructing New Approaches to Professional Development (pp. 231-246). New York: Teachers College Press.Wells, G. (2000). Dialogic Inquiry in Education. In C. Lee and P. Smagorinsky, Eds., Vygotskian Perspectives on Literary Research (pp.51-85). New York: Cambridge University Press.Zeichner, K. and Liston, D. (1996). Reflective Teaching: An Introduction. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.