One of the biggest challenges facing schools today is in deciding how best to handle a dangerously overcrowded curriculum. While the hours in a school day have not changed for some time, what students are being asked to learn certainly has. Educators are now often forced to address the demands of a broad range of content and skills, while ensuring that students still have a reasonable opportunity to develop deep understanding.
Changes to curriculum are usually only put in place for good reasons. Although there are obvious problems associated with overloading the syllabus, there are definite benefits too. It is important to recognize, however, that there are two distinct ways in which the crowding has occurred. The first of these is the increase in subjects now being taught, and the second is the escalation in content and associated skills within each course. Both of these elements have potential advantages to students, but both also risk diluting the value of any learning experience.
Advantages of a crowded curriculum
Gone are the days when students were all expected to learn the same things in the same way. It is now clear that students are not all cut from the same cloth, and that they have a great variety of learning needs, irrespective of ability. While schools will always need to maintain standards for the so-called ‘3 R’s’ – reading, writing, and ‘rithmatic – they can now offer more classes that suit predominantly kinaesthetic, audio, or visual learners. It is difficult to make a case that schools should not be offering courses in drama, art, or music, as there will be students that depend on subjects like these to develop their true potential. Similarly, many students will find trade-based classes such as woodwork or auto-shop to be of far greater long-term benefit than book learning, and many would argue that these courses deserve a place on the curriculum too.
A crowded curriculum also addresses the realities of a complex world. The simple truth is that young people today have more things to think about than their parents did at the same age. They have more career choices, and yet they also stand a greater chance of being unemployed. They have many opportunities for tertiary education, but they need to have the chance to experience a wide range of learning at high school level so that they can make informed choices.
Young people today also have more civic and personal responsibilities to consider. Theirs is a global society, and they need to know how the world works, instead of just thinking about their home town. An argument could be made to include sociology and language courses on this basis. Today’s students need to be made aware of potential problems in their future, such as those to do with the environment or with raising a family.
Many of the subjects being forced onto the curriculum were previously the responsibility of others within the community, but schools are now expected to teach young people about diet and health, and to ensure that they get plenty of exercise. This may lead to a congested timetable, but who can say that it is not for the best?
Although the demands of a crowded curriculum may seem, on the surface, to be overwhelming, there are several positive ways that schools can make use of the congestion. To begin with, students today have a much greater opportunity to acquire knowledge and skills through computers and other technologies readily available in most schools – and homes – and if the responsibility for learning content is thrown onto students, teachers can focus instead on coaching key skill development.
Schools can also see the new rigors of the curriculum as an opportunity to re-evaluate their methods. They can ensure that their staff members are up-to-speed with the latest pedagogies and learning theory, and they can look at ways of streamlining timetables by integrating courses. Once the crowding is seen as a necessary evil, schools can consider how best to use their resources, including staff and students.
Disadvantages of a crowded curriculum
The great difficulty in needing to offer such much to so many is that real learning might suffer. There are genuine concerns that students are being asked to learn too many different things, without adequate opportunity to fully understand what they are being taught. This seems to be especially true where foundation skills are concerned. There are plenty of critics of the new curriculum that see the decline in standards of literacy and numeracy as a side-effect of students learning things which may not seem as crucial to their futures as being able to read and add up.
In mainstream subjects as diverse as history and science, teachers are increasingly being compelled to teach to the syllabus. Rather than allow students to come fully to terms with meanings and implications, they are teaching with assessment in mind. No longer is teaching about giving students vital skills with life-long applications, such as the ability to independently research, or to develop interpersonal learning strategies. Now, it is about filling young heads with information which can be regurgitated under exam conditions. This is perhaps unavoidable in a crowded curriculum; educators need to be more direct, and demonstrate to those who provide the funding that short-term requirements are being met and that key content is being presented to students.
There are practical difficulties for schools too. A wide range of courses means more expenditure on resources. Timetabling becomes more complex, leading to additional movement of students or the possibility of classes being taught in learning spaces that aren’t really suitable. Teachers may feel the extra strain too by being forced to present subjects for which they don’t have any particular expertise or training.
Furthermore, they may find themselves teaching prescribed content to students who have no enthusiasm for the material, and who would rather be learning something else. As has been noted, not all young learners want to learn the same things, or need to learn in the same way. Unfortunately, a curriculum which offers plenty of choice also offers the possibility of disengagement among students who feel that their preferences have not been satisfactorily addressed. There is something to be said for giving students a limited choice, with the expectation that everyone does the same work to the best of their ability.
This issue has been a concern for educators, parents, and students since the 1990s at least, and there does not seem to be any sign that things will become any easier in the future. As the demands on schools to educate ‘the whole person’ continue to grow, it seems certain that more subjects will need to be added to the syllabus. Meanwhile, the necessary evils of assessment will continue to have an unwieldy influence on what is considered key content.
If there is to be a solution, it is that schools will adjust, as many are already doing. Painting over the cracks may not be enough, however. What may be necessary is that schools think about tearing down a few walls – figuratively speaking – and look at brand new ways to prepare their students for the complex and uncertain future that awaits them.