Curriculum without Mastery
by Chris Jenner, December 5, 2005


I've been trying to figure out how to explain to a lay person like me why some curricula are awful. Actually, I've been trying to figure out *whether (and if so, why)* they're actually awful.


Pure and simple, the problem is a lack of mastery. Many of the "trendy" curricula, theories, and methods either don't require, or significantly dilute, mastery of the fundamentals of the subjects. Without mastery of math tables, mastery of the rules of grammar, mastery of reading, spelling, and vocabulary, mastery of some basic scientific facts and principles, mastery of some geographical and political facts, how can students possibly become effective critical thinkers? Without mastery, how can they be prepared for college, the work force, or a competitive global market?


When discussing curricula, watch for buzzwords and names like whole language, concept-based, multiple intelligences, spiraling, teaming, Everyday Math, Connected Math, Chicago Math, standards-based (advocates of these fuzzy methods and curricula don't like or use the word "fuzzy"). All these curricula, methods, and theories drive students to become critical thinkers -- without mastery of the basics. At best, they dilute mastery, which then must be supplemented (extra teacher time and district cost), or picked up later in remedial classes. These curricula, methods, and theories direct students to try to sprint before they've mastered walking -- for one reason because (so their advocates say) walking is boring.


A recent article about Connected Math likens math to a three-legged stool. This analogy can apply to other subjects as well. The three legs are understanding concepts, solving problems, and mastering basic skills. Most fuzzy programs only strive to strengthen the first two legs, leaving out mastery. Supporters of these programs act as if the third leg is mutually exclusive from the other two. A strong curriculum program will be strong in all three legs.


That was my point, so you can stop reading here. The rest of this just details the above and provides some examples.


The "bad" curricula give mastery a back seat in favor of theories like teaming, spiraling, and multiple intelligences. In "teaming", teachers spend a number of minutes each day (the compensation and requirement for which is built into their union contract) coordinating their lessons. If the social studies teacher is covering the Civil War, the math teacher creates math problems relating to the Civil War, the English teacher makes reading and/or writing assignments related to the Civil War, the science teacher relates whatever's being taught to the Civil War. "Connecting" the subjects becomes more important than mastering the fundamentals of each individual subject. And the time to organize and plan for this is time teachers spend "on the clock", but out of the classroom.


In spiraling, kids are introduced to algebra (or some other area normally introduced in 7th or 8th grade) as early as 4th grade. Then they go back and touch on it again in 5th, then again in 6th, and in 7th. By 8th grade when they should either be ready for pre-algebra or algebra, they've had snippets of exposure over the past four years, but master essentially nothing. Is it no wonder a typical suburban district shows 3rd grade ISAT math scores in the 90s, then, following each class through 5th and 8th grade, math scores just head straight downward.


To accommodate multiple intelligences, a teacher may have 26 kids in the classroom allegedly learning (not mastering) the same thing five different ways at the same time. This may involve splitting the class into groups of 2 to 5 kids (each group learns a different way -- to discuss the topic while the teacher flits about the room. My guess is the cluster nearest the teacher is talking about Canada or fractions or pluralization, while the other six groups are discussing a new video game or last night's adventure of Spongebob. I'm not sure at what point they *master* facts about Canada, fractions, or pluralization.


Without mastery of the basic building blocks (best taught through things like phonics, and a healthy dose of "drill & kill"), how can kids possibly be adequately prepared for high school, college, or the work force?