For years I have followed the educational “tension” that has often accompanied conversations between proponents of the core knowledge movement in schools and what is sometimes viewed as the more progressive approach of, for example, proponents of multiple intelligence theory. As in most conversations involving extremes, there is space on both sides of the discussion that, if properly understood, allows agreement on a “middle way” – an understanding that curriculum, skills, technology, and attitudes to learning are not a zero-sum game. When it comes to elementary education and most things in life, this is often true. We need a bit of “everything” to get the thing right!
Core Knowledge contends that there is a curriculum, or a systematic syllabus of topics, that should be studied by all students, including topics and subtopics in language arts, history, geography, visual arts, music, mathematics, science, and technology. The curriculum is designed to give teachers a way of knowing what students have experienced in school and to give students a common foundation for building additional learning. Core Knowledge is different from other curricula in that it describes what a student should know, not what a student should be able to do. Critics of the core knowledge approach, however, often believe it to be superficial and anti-intellectual.
But do the core knowledge advocates have something important to say? The mission of the core knowledge movement is to advance excellence and equity in education for all children by recommending detailed curriculum content to schools, teachers, parents, and policy makers—to anyone who believes that every child in a diverse democracy and modern society deserves access to enabling knowledge. Its proponents believe that exemplary curriculum for elementary children creates literate citizens able to contribute to a democratic society, empowers each child to achieve his or her greatest academic potential, shrinks the excellence gap between students, and inspires the academic achievement of all children.
Is there a body of knowledge that all children studying in Canada today should know by the time they leave elementary school? Is some content more worthy of study than others during these limited school years? After all, if children don’t encounter this or that book or this or that question by the time they are twelve, they may well not encounter them at all.
What do you think? To my mind, the answer is “yes”. There is some content that is more important and more worthy of study than others and such “solid intellectual food” is easy to recognize. To begin with, its language and ideas are richer and more sophisticated. Its questions are more multi-faceted and flexible, and its paths to inquiry are diverse and engaging. In short, strong core curricula and content stretches minds, encourages critical thinking, and seeks diverse perspectives and possibilities. And it accomplishes this across the curriculum from Mathematics to Molière!
While I am not usually one to quote from Warren Buffett, I do like what he has to say about the mind. He says that “your mind is like a bank – what you deposit is what you can withdraw”. When it comes to the content and substance of what we offer to children to read, think about, grapple with and master, the “what” is just as important to the “how” and we strive every day to ensure that we are introducing and extending our students’ knowledge by serving them “nutritious” brain food and not mere “snacks” filled with empty calories!
A curriculum that respects foundational content and skills is meant to equip students with the background knowledge they will need as they enter the more specialized curriculum found in high school.
And that is what we aim to do here at Matthews Hall in the hope that everyone will be able to say “Bon Appétit!”
Ric Anderson, Head of School