January 16, 2016
From time to time the Independent Curriculum Group will use this space to muse on our own meta-learning as we go about our work. Here ICG executive director Peter Gow expands on one of the ICG’s newly published Principles of Independent Curriculum.

Notes on an Independent Curriculum: The Requirements of Students

We’ve had a great deal of positive response to our Principles of Independent Curriculum, but one friend questioned our use of the word “requirements” in Principle I:

Independent curriculum serves the actual students in each classroom and is designed and implemented within a context of high academic standards, intellectual challenge, and a deep understanding of these students’ interests, abilities (both developed and developing), aims, and requirements.

Requirements here, our friend suggested, seemed perilously close to including by implication those externally imposed curricular and graduation requirements, “standards,” and testing regimens that the Independent Curriculum Group was founded to interrogate, reject, and even resist. It is our mission, after all, to create communities in which we think more deeply about these very things.

Initially, the word requirements seemed the least noxious of a number of more perilous options: desires, wants, needs. Each of these carries its own baggage in the world of educational discourse, although needs has its own established place and might even be seen as more appropriate in the intended context. It’s just that the denotative power of “needs” has been to a degree warped by our tendency of use the word in education largely in the context of “special needs”—real needs indeed, but the ICG wishes to speak here for all students—and eroded connotatively by the common use of the word “needy” as a dismissive descriptor of emotional expression or an impolitic word for the under-resourced.

Keep in mind that we are speaking here of students’ requirements. To us these include not onlyMaslowsHierarchyOfNeeds.svg safe and engaging physical and psychosocial environments in which to learn but all the levels of Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of [Human] Needs—in his context a noble and even redemptive use of the word. Students, all students, need what Maslow enumerates so well, and perhaps we might simply have used the word in which he famously trusted as part of our Principle.

But our friend’s query sharpened our thinking about the other, external kind of requirements in students’ lives: that all such requirements can and must be understood as two-way streets. Colleges, for example, may require certain kinds of curricular experiences for their applicants, but the Independent Curriculum Group believes that students have every right to require that such experiences be comprised of worthy, engaging, and relevant work and not just be hoops through which they must jump. External authorities—states and districts, college and independent school admission offices—may require “testing,” but we believe that students have a right to require that such assessments be thoughtfully designed to measure truly important kinds of learning and skills, that they ought to reflect the values and missions of their learning environments, and that they should be applied formatively, for purposes of improving learning, and not as proxy filters to enact agendas imposed from outside of classrooms. If such assessments cannot meet this test, what is their worth?

Above all, students have a right to require that every aspect of their learning acknowledges and respects their social, cultural, and individual experiences and the true experiences of others. This ought to be fundamental to the educational process, but it means seeking out and incorporating multiple perspectives as well as welcoming open and honest dialogue. It means rooting out the “safe” and the “nice,” questioning received truths and interpretations, and embracing and exploring nuance and ambiguity to fully realize the human potential of each student and what each student brings to the classroom and campus.

The ICG’s drawing attention to the idea of students’ requirements, then, reminds educators that in our work we do not just beneficently give to students that which suits our fancies, values, or traditions or that serves the instrumental goals of individuals and institutions. We owe our students much, much more; they require much more of us. Rather than a euphemism for “needs” or “wants,” then, “requirements” in this principle proclaims an imperative to dig even more deeply into every programmatic and practical aspect of the complex symbiosis between schools and educators and the pupils we serve.

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