The Anatomy of a Curriculum

I love working with educators and caregivers.  People ask me if I miss working with children everyday - the answer is yes, but with a caveat.  I get to spend my time supporting the adults who support children - advocates and practitioners who want high-quality, actionable ideas for their learning environment and teaching practice.  

 Exploring materials at the  Day of Dialogue  on Mercer Island

Exploring materials at the Day of Dialogue on Mercer Island

When I work with teachers and educators and caregivers, I aim to teach in a more conceptual way, with opportunities to reflect and think about how to put ideas into action.  There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution to anything in life, and this is especially true with curriculum.  I cannot stand in front of you and give you step-by-step directions for immediate success - teaching is an art, not a science.  There are many people who are trying to add elements of inquiry based, play-heavy practice to other curricular obligations, including the Creative Curriculum and other outside assessments of space, quality, and time.  These tools are aiming to help early educators with structure and content, but real excitement and passion around teaching comes from living in the moment, seeing ideas and curiosities develop through thoughtful planning of the space, environment, and invitations to engage.  Every child, every group of children, every learning environment, is unique.  The world is full ideas to copy, but what if curriculum was designed from the bottom up, rather than the top down?


When I think about “high-quality” early childhood education, I think about curricular design.  What does it mean to learn about the skeleton and the basic principles of ideas, and then learn how they manifest in one’s own setting?  


I thought about this as I walked along the streets of Hong Kong in early December.  This is a time of year I associate with rain and wind and cold in the Pacific Northwest, but in Hong Kong, people are buying imported Christmas trees while wearing sandals. Christmas decorations, including snowflakes and snowmen and images of people in hats and mittens and scarves - abound.  Although Christmas doesn't look snowy on this tropical island, the standard imagery is snowy.  This is all understandable - Santa does live at the North Pole, after all, so perhaps we are celebrating like he does.  But the copy-and-paste culture is global: good ideas are picked up and implemented in new ways.  It is more important to focus on how we might remix those ideas.

  The flower market  in Mong Kok, Hong Kong.

The flower market in Mong Kok, Hong Kong.

I grew up in a place where you were almost guaranteed a white Christmas - I could relate to the snowy graphics that I saw.  If I lived somewhere tropical, it might feel strange to buy a tree and wrap gifts and watch holiday movies -  but I would still do it: its part of the way that I prepare and celebrate for the holidays.  Right now, in the cold and the rain of Washington state, I engage with the holiday traditions that hold meaning for me.  They aren't pointless  - they connect me to culture and place and time and people.  

When we look at the skeleton of a school's curriculum, traditions can be part of what is examined, and thinking about how to make those traditions authentic and worth the time, energy, and money that they require is really important.  We don't like to let go of the familiar, and we don't like to be the person who suggests erasing a tradition.  When I would interview for a position as a classroom teacher at a new school, I would always ask about traditions: what do they celebrate?  Some centers spend a lot of time thinking about holidays, and some say holidays are for the home.  Some centers go to the fire station every year, regardless of children's interests and inquiry; some centers wait and see what happens.  Understanding the things that a collective of stakeholders value enough to weave it into the fabric of the school - that speaks volumes about the image of the child and the priorities of the center.  Traditions can be wonderful and memorable, but they can also just be old, still in place to appease a small group.


So, where do tradition, best practice and authenticity meet?  Where is that intersection?  It seems that all of those elements are important, and would be described quite differently from school to school.  When I work with teachers, the diversity of knowledge, needs, and passion is enormous, and rather than being uncomfortable or trying to teach every last detail to every last person, I am thinking through a curricular lens: how might educators apply this idea to the curriculum they have or prefer, rather than feeling a need to make a big shift in the whole system?  


This metaphor of curriculum-as-skeleton is vivid for me as I plan for both teaching teachers, and how we might plan to teach children.  The skeleton is made up of the non-negotiable aspects: perhaps the space that we have, the mandates, standards, and benchmarks from outside sources, the weather, the budget.  The skeleton in itself is worth examining, worth understanding deeply, for biases and assumptions.  Take the example of traditions from above:  traditions are worth investigating with an open mind.  There are other systems that we can add, just as our bodies have nervous, muscular, cardiovascular, and more. Everything complements each other and interacts; the well-being of one system is often tied to the well-being of another.


I'm thinking quite a bit about the skeletal system of the workshops and e-courses that I offer, and the other systems that are supported by the skeleton.  This is a metaphor that works for me when I think about curriculum, and I hope it sparks your thinking about the possibility of building curriculum from the bottom up.


(You might also enjoy It's Not About the Branch, a post from last year that muses on implementing big ideas in individual schools.)