The Challenges of Writing a Curriculum Guide

“The question is not, — how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education — but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care? In fact, how large is the room in which he finds his feet set? and, therefore, how full is the life he has before him?”

― Charlotte Mason, School Education: Developing A Curriculum

One of the drawbacks of a Curriculum Guide is that it, of necessity, produces division rather than integration. Classical education aims to show students the integration of all things in Christ, the One in Whom all things hold together. In some ways, the very structure of a Curriculum Guide is antithetical to this goal, for a Curriculum Guide—in order to categorize and communicate effectively—must divide and break down concepts into separate disciplines. The Curriculum Guide analyzes the animal of education in the same way that the scientist does—by cutting it apart, by tagging it, labeling it, defining it. It is the skilled teacher who can take these two-dimensional diagrams and parsed out pieces of pedagogy and pull them back together into a living, breathing animal that can run on all fours or take flight into the unknown.   

Another challenge for a Curriculum Guide is conveying that the non-academic aspects of education are the most important. What does it profit a man to gain the whole world of Calculus and Physics and lose his soul? Since we believe that the foundation of education is piety, “the proper fear and love of God and man,” it is necessary that our Curriculum Guide should go beyond academic standards in some of its goals. It must advance from the realm of quantitative knowledge into the realm of wisdom and virtue. Those of us who have formulated Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) know that a key result must be measurable. And yet how can wisdom and virtue be measured by human means? The goal of education is “to love what is lovely,” but where is the yardstick to know whether that has been attained?

Because of these challenges, any Curriculum Guide will have limitations in conveying what it means to be a student. And yet, despite the limitations, the benefits of the Curriculum Guide still make it a profitable tool as we guide students along the way.

Who or What is the Curriculum Guide?

“Therefore we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

– Hebrews 12:1-2

THE COURSE AND THE GUIDE

The vision of Paideia is to train worshipers of Jesus Christ. We aim to assist parents in bringing up their children in the culture (paideia) and counsel of Jesus. This is the ultimate goal that informs all else in our specific Curriculum Guide.

The word curriculum comes from currere – “to run.” It is the course that students run as they grow in the paideia of the Lord. The author of Hebrews speaks of the whole Christian life as a course to be run. As teachers, we are guides along this course. We are part of the cloud of witnesses, mature Christians who have traveled farther along the course than they have. As human guides, we urge students to shake off any hindrances and point them forward to the True Guide: Jesus, the source and fulfillment of our faith.

The importance of the teacher as guide cannot be overstated. Luke 6:40 says: “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is perfectly trained will be like his teacher.” If students are to become like their teachers, the teacher must then be someone worthy of imitating. As Paul says, “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1). In a sense, the person of the teacher is of primary importance in the classroom. The student goes to second grade, not merely to learn carrying and borrowing, but to learn “Mrs. True.” The student goes to sixth grade, not merely to learn sentence diagramming and Shakespeare, but to learn “Mrs. Barnard.” The best Curriculum Guide in the world will not make up for a foolish or ignorant teacher. An excellent teacher can make up for deficiencies in the Curriculum Guide.

Yet although the character and aptitude of the human guide is paramount, at the same time, a cohesive Curriculum Guide is necessary, especially in a school setting, so that students can gradually and incrementally work their way through the various disciplines under the tutelage of various teachers. The Curriculum Guide highlights the “must-see” sites along the way. The Curriculum Guide sets the wayposts and stopping points as students transfer from one guide to another. The Curriculum Guide makes sure that none of the journey is forgotten or overlooked. To attempt a journey of this magnitude without a map might mean that the Stage One scout is planning to hand off his wagon train in Kansas while the Stage Two scout is expecting the wagon train to make it all the way to Wyoming before the reins are given over to him.

But, like a roadmap, the Curriculum Guide requires its reader to have the skills to read it and implement it properly. Of itself, the map is only a pretty picture. In the right hands, it becomes a powerful tool. Teachers must realize that the Curriculum Guide is only effective insofar as they are effective guides who know how to hold the map right side up, assess the strength of this year’s pilgrim group, and plan for weekly stages and watering hole stops.    

How We Teach: The Harkness Method

One of the fundamental principles of the Classical model is that it teaches with the grain of childhood development. Students in the Grammar stage love to sing, chant, recite, listen to stories, and in the elementary years we teach them accordingly. Students in the Logic stage love to debate, argue, take things apart, and fit them together, and they get their chance to do this when they enter seventh grade.

In our tenth grade classes, the students have entered the Rhetoric stage or, as Dorothy Sayers called it, the Poetic stage. Their skills at analyzing and evaluating have been sharpened by formal logic and they continue to hone these skills as they learn to present their arguments with politeness, poise, and polish.

In the high school grades we have started using Harkness discussions regularly. Harkness discussions are similar to Socratic discussions in that both require students to do most of the thinking and discussion. In the Socratic method, however, the discussion involves the teacher asking the students a series of questions to lead them to a desired realization. With the Harkness method, the students lead the discussion, asking questions of the text and themselves with minimal intervention from the teacher.

To prepare students for a Harkness discussion, I assign them a text to read on their own. (In our Ancient History class, we recently read a portion of the Egyptian Book of the Dead.) I tell the students some things they should be looking for in the text. (What is the Egyptian view of god? How does this compare to the Sumerian prayer we studied last week? How does it compare to what we learn in the Bible?) I encourage the students to make notes on specific places in their text as they are reading. (For books they are not allowed to write in, they use post-it notes.)

On the day of the discussion, I remind them what knowledge we are seeking to obtain and then seat myself in the background to allow them to discuss with each other. With a mature class, I rarely need to intervene in a discussion to get them back on track. Occasionally, I lob a new discussion question into their midst when a subject needs to be further explored. (What would daily life be like in a culture that has this view of god?)

After the discussion is over, I provide the students with feedback. Here are some of the positive feedback points I give students:

  • Asks good questions of the text
  • Refers to text regularly
  • Refers to text thoughtfully
  • Connects ideas to previous learning
  • Connects responses to other student comments
  • Disagrees respectfully with another viewpoint

You will note the primacy of the text in this feedback. The mature student asks questions of the text until he makes the text comprehensible and then uses textual evidence to support his own assertions about the text. The students are good about policing each other in this area. A student who makes a blanket statement is prodded by his fellows to demonstrate where he is getting that from the text. A student who offers a shaky interpretation is challenged by her peers when she tells them what line she is basing her assumption on.

You will also notice the importance of subject integration in this feedback. The mature student is the one who can tie in what he learned last year in science and last month in Bible class to this week’s discussion on Herodotus’ Histories.

And finally, you will notice the importance of the group interaction. Learning is a communal activity, and it is the fellowship of the classroom that stimulates, nurtures, and enhances learning. Students learn that they can and must learn from each other as well as from the teacher. This group interaction can only occur when we ask questions of each other and respond with respect and fairness.

The benefits of the Harkness discussion method are legion. Not only do my students now understand the crushing weight of perfection prescribed by the Egyptian Book of the Dead in contrast with Biblical grace, they also understand how to interrogate a text, how to integrate multiple facets of the world, and how to hold civil discourse. The Harkness discussion leads students away from unsupported opinion and teaches them to journey together on the quest for truth.

Book of the Dead
Panel from the Egyptian Book of the Dead (British Museum)

Don’t Be a Pharaoh: Proverbs for the Young

Friday Assembly: Headmaster’s Address (January 25, 2018)

Proverbs 29:1 (NKJV)
He who is often rebuked, and hardens his neck,
Will suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy.

We are not used to strong words about being destroyed, but this proverb is an important warning. Continue reading “Don’t Be a Pharaoh: Proverbs for the Young”