curriculum dynamics

Someone once, when attempting to complement me on a lesson, told me that it was the kind of lesson that “you put in a can and put on a shelf, and then take it down for next year, it’s that good.” I may or may not have given him an incredulous look, because that isn’t what I aim to do – that particular lab has gone through a different iteration every year since I first tried it three years ago.

Since then, I’ve been noticing when people around me say things that imply that very thing – that at some point, curriculum design is “done”.

A non-teaching friend, when I told her the above story, basically said “Oh- I thought that’s what teachers did. I had no idea that wasn’t the case.”

Last week, my chemistry students complained about how much work their bond energy homework was (keep in mind that they had 20 min in class to start it and it was a total of 4 bond energy/reaction enthalpy calculations). When I said that I didn’t think it was that bad, they responded with “well, you don’t have to do it!” And I gave them that incredulous look (and let me tell you, I have a great incredulous look) and said “you guys know I write the assignments I give you, right?” They thought that I got the worksheets out of a workbook or something and just gave them the photocopied pages.

The next day, my physics students commented that we kill a lot of trees for freshman physics, and one girl said “well, that makes sense because we don’t have a textbook.” Then we got into a discussion of if there are freshman physics textbooks (they know they’re in the minority of having physics first, though I think it’s becoming more common) and I commented how I don’t really like textbooks. Another student responded with “oh, so Ms. Park just thinks she’s better than a textbook”, to which I gave a snarky “well, yeah” but then mentioned how we piece together curriculum from a variety of sources for the physics class and go in a different order than most textbooks, which again, they had no idea about. (We then got into a sidetrack of plagiarism vs. educational copyrights and attribution.)

I find this interesting because even my students don’t realize that the materials I give them are not things that I just “got” from somewhere. And I hate using curricular materials “as-is” because there’s always something I want to change about it – often things go either too far in depth into a certain topic or not in depth enough, they spend more time or not enough time on a subtopic than I’d like. I’ve heard complaints about Process Oriented Guided Inquiry Learning (POGIL) activities because the written assignments are very reading-heavy, which may be hard for students with lower reading abilities to access, and the files that you get from POGIL when you purchase the materials are all PDFs. The American Modeling Teachers Association (AMTA) sent out a survey earlier this school year asking if modeling teachers were interested in a pre-printed “course pak” with all of the worksheets in a single bundle that could be ordered per student. I’m not going to lie, I’ve re-typed the POGIL activities I use into Word or Google Docs so that I could modify the materials to my liking. And the AMTA materials are given as Word docs for that very reason, so I have no interest in a pre-printed course pak for my students (also I don’t use every worksheet in either the Modeling Physics or Modeling Chemistry curricular materials, because they don’t fit our school’s curriculum exactly). I also don’t always trust “canned” curriculum, even from respected sources such as POGIL and AMTA, because they don’t know my particular student body and I know they’re designing curriculum that can work as broadly as possible. I kind of hope to never be one of those “edu-proselytizers” for any one curricular resource, because I like to see as many different ideas as possible and I want to keep that open mind. I actually love thinking about curriculum,  developing concepts across a unit, and learning progressions. I get jazzed up about finding a new activity that will work better to help students learn a certain concept, or supplementing existing activities, or presenting existing activities in a new way.

So the curriculum is constantly evolving, but we don’t start each year from complete scratch. We have folders upon folders stored in the Google Drive from previous years, and we pull and copy and modify and add to the folders for this year. There’s probably too much repetition in the Drive, but there’s something nice too about having that historical record- maybe the thing I tried this year doesn’t work as well as the thing I tried the previous year, so next year I’ll start from the previous version. Maybe we take a topic out of the curriculum this year but decide to put it back for next year. (The challenge is keeping the Drive organized in a way to make it easy to find things, which can be rough. Things are a little scary in there, as they would be in any real filing cabinet.)

The physics curriculum I work with was started 12 years ago by my colleagues, and it’s continuously changed every year. Some units change more than others, and I think that’s natural- we only have so much time and energy, and some units we have more ideas for changing than for others. But I’m wondering – is there ever a time when a curriculum is “done”? If I believe I have an awesome curriculum, why should I change it? Should I aim to be “done”?

My gut reaction is that curriculum should always be dynamic and evolving, because we keep learning more about how students learn and how to help them learn better, because new ideas and new technologies come out (although I believe in taking technologies with a grain of salt and not just using something because it’s shiny and new). I also believe that our curriculum, while I like it, has so many places where it can be better. And I think that there’s probably always ways to make teaching and learning better (but that gets into the discussion of “what does ‘better’ look like?”).

I take a lot of pride in the work I’ve done with the curriculum that I currently teach, because I think I’ve put in a lot of (hopefully good) work in making things better every year. And I do think that curriculum should be continually evolving, and I’m always keeping an eye out for a better way to teach what I teach. But it’s hard to give up a way of teaching that seems to work reasonably well for a different idea that may or may not work or that I may or may not be comfortable with. So I’m reminding myself to keep an open mind about things and to take a critical eye to my own work as well as to other people’s work, to cull the bad, keep the good, and make it better. And I’m ok with it never ending – otherwise, I think teaching might become boring and that it never is.