February 11, 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 another of the ICG’s newly published Principles of Independent Curriculum.
Notes on an Independent Curriculum: Teachers

We’ve had a great deal of positive response to our Principles of Independent Curriculum, but a questioning friend was troubled by some of the language in Principle IV:

Independent curriculum is designed and implemented based on the ever-expanding capacities, interests, and critical pedagogical judgment of teachers—individually as classroom convenors and shapers of classroom culture and collectively as faculties enacting the missions, values, priorities, and aspirations of their schools.

Our friend was concerned that the “ever-expanding” aspects of teachers’ work might be read as including, authority and control, thus diminishing and even attacking the very student-centered- and student-driven-ness that we strive to achieve in our schools. Nothing, we assure readers, could be farther from the truth.

In 2016 the aspect of teacher capacity that is most indeed of cultivation and expansion, paradoxically, is the ability to relinquish control in the classroom, to stand aside, whether in the role of coach or mentor or facilitator, as students construct their own learning.

For many traditional teachers, this can be a challenge. Years of being affirmed in the role of knowledge-giver and often praised for “classroom management” can make it hard for a teacher to step away from the front of the room with its symbols of power and control: the teacher’s desk, the lectern, the “desk copy” of the text; the board behind the desk proclaiming the imperatives of the day as outlines, key terms, and homework assignments, all in the teacher’s exemplary script.

IMG_0947In the best classrooms today, such markers of teacher-centeredness are becoming harder to find. Tables and chairs move around; more circular arrangements lack a center of authority. Texts are mash-ups assembled to meet immediate needs, and “idea paint” walls give everyone a place to demonstrate or explore knowledge. Project- and problem-based work has veered away from the “one-right answer” ethos of the past, and collaborative work has turned the well managed classroom from a place of self-conscious silence to a humming hive of purposeful and sometimes playful interaction.

Making these classrooms work, as convenors and not dictators, is the capacity that teachers must cultivate and that schools must promote. We hope that teachers will find this exciting—not just pursuing their interests in their subject matter but also in new kinds of pedagogy, curriculum, and assessment. We want the locus of teachers’ “critical pedagogical judgment” to be not in their gradebooks but in their ability to understand and relate to students and their ability to differentiate and personalize learning to meet student needs at every level.

And we want to be able to see this kind of learning as a visible aspect of classroom cultures in which Photo: Michael Troutman/www.dmtimaging.comstudent voices, student questions, and student needs drive instruction and content development. If, as we state in our other Principles, we want curricula to be about inclusivity and justice, exploration and creativity, wellness and balance, and “learning for the sake of learning,” the student experience—perspective, impact, workload, relevance—must be the touchstone by which every learning element is tested.

The Independent Curriculum Group understands that these Principles set a high bar for schools as they work to adapt to a new kind of teaching and learning. Old approaches and traditional hierarchies in classrooms and in schools themselves must be interrogated, tweaked, and if necessary scrapped and replaced if we are to provide our students with the kind of education that an “independent curriculum” promises.

At the heart of great teaching lie just a handful of elements: a deep belief in children, an abiding curiosity to see what they can do, an unwavering commitment to supporting them, and a willingness to keep doing the work required to be more effective. Being prepared, emotionally and technically (that is, in terms of skill and technique), to hand the reins of education to the children is the highest demonstration of all of these elements, and that is our aspiration for practitioners of independent curriculum.

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