Tapas-style curriculum

Lisa Hansel

Editor's note: This post originally appeared in a slightly different form at the Core Knowledge Blog.

Education Week noted recently that there is an increasing demand for bites of curriculum, as opposed to comprehensive programs: Instead of selecting one comprehensive program, “districts are asking to...mix and match with selections from other content providers, material that teachers and students have created, and open educational resources.” That’s awesome—and a disaster.

It’s awesome for schools that have a coherent, cumulative, grade-by-grade, topic-specific curricula. Teachers will have the curriculum as a scaffold, and they can search for materials that best meet their students’ needs on each topic. Assuming that scaffold is well developed, the topics will build on each other, giving all students an equal opportunity to acquire broad knowledge and skills.

It’s a disaster for schools that don’t have such curricula. In schools that aim to instill skills without realizing that a broad body of knowledge is necessary to cultivate them, a tapas-style curriculum will only lead to malnutrition. No matter who is choosing the small plates, we’ll end up with some students getting bacon-wrapped sausage and others getting mostly sautéed spinach and grilled chicken.

A well-rounded education is much like a well-balanced diet. Kids get plenty of fried cheese outside of school. In school, they need rigorous and rich academics—including history, art, geography, music, and science every year. And they need the topics they study in each of these domains to logically expand and deepen from year to year.

I’m all for tapas, but only if we have a content-specific plan to guide and balance our selections. In too many schools, the pursuit of personalized learning—with the end goal of each student learning to learn while pursuing individual interests—has caused some educators to lose sight of the bigger picture. As Marc Tucker wrote:

The phrase "learn how to learn" comes trippingly off the tongue these days.  But much less is usually said about what makes it possible to learn new things quickly.  We know that learning something new depends importantly on having a mental framework to hang it on or put it in.  The most important of those frameworks are the conceptual structures underpinning the disciplines.

And much is made of the importance of interdisciplinary knowledge.  But that knowledge will do you little good unless you first understand the disciplines themselves, not just superficially, but at a deep conceptual level.  As one builds up that kind of knowledge in multiple disciplines, it becomes possible to draw on the knowledge and concepts in those domains to see the connections among them.  Learning new things is much easier when you can build on this sort of foundation.

In short, cognitive science tells us that both broad knowledge and topic-specific knowledge are necessary for learning and thinking. And both science and common sense tell us that shared knowledge is necessary for effective communication. A tapas-style education might get us there, but only if we remove junk food from the menu and agree to a strong guide for selecting among healthy options. 

Lisa Hansel is the director of communications at the Core Knowledge Foundation.