Who should the curriculum favor: The individual and/or the collective? A Reader Response by Marlaina Riggio for EDU 5260 Introduction to Curriculum Studies

Who should the curriculum favor: The individual and/or the collective? A Reader Response by Marlaina Riggio for EDU 5260 Introduction to Curriculum Studies

“Today’s students are expected to ‘turn’ into something” (Brandt, 2004, p. 500)

What exactly makes a good curriculum “good”? Is it the level of preparedness that students feel for their vocational futures, upon completion of an academic program that has been designed to meet specific societal standards? Who decided what these “specific societal standards” would be? And are they adaptable to the constant changes being made in Canada’s economic, political, and social atmospheres? And finally, do they service the collective or the individual at large? These are some of the key questions in curriculum studies that will be explored in my reader response.

During the first four decades of Ontario’s education reform, policy makers and education practitioners experimented with many didactic structures based on shifting social attitudes. Through each structural amendment, it became clear that two radically different ideologies existed. “Conservatives,” Gidney (1999) states, “tended to believe in the traditional authority of the teacher, the necessity for the teacher to define what is to be learned” (p. 35). Conversely, progressives argued that education should center on the individual, contending that “students would learn best if they had opportunities to select their own learning experiences” (p. 31). Reading through From Hope to Harris, I couldn’t help but reflect upon my current teaching environment, and how it has been shaped by these two prevailing ideologies.

As an English instructor at La Cite Collégiale, my curriculum has been developed by our language department, and it is based on their interpretation(s) of the standards laid out by the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges, and Universities. Since its establishment in 1990, La Cite Collégiale is committed to serving “the economic, social and cultural aspects of the Franco-Ontarian community” (www.lacitec.on.ca). Resonating the learning theory attitudes of the 1920s and 30s progressive movement, La Cite offers ninety different programs that “focus on the interests, needs, and abilities of [students]…which would better prepare young people for the ‘real world’” (Gidney, 1999, p. 31). Students are given the opportunity to select a program that reflects their interest(s), while preparing for their future professions.

In spite of its progressive philosophy, La Cite also embraces a conservative approach to curriculum. For instance, one of the major challenges in designing the English curriculum is that students generally enroll at La Cite to learn the specifics of their chosen career field (i.e. nursing, firefighting, estheticians, and police training), and have little to no desire to learn the English language. Admittedly, English is essential and useful in Canada, as both an official language, and as the language of business globally. Furthermore, La Cite is situated in Canada’s capital, which makes bilingualism even more of an asset. Given this reality, some conservative educators, Gidney (1999) explains, would agree that it “constitute[s] the basics for practical life…[and] it necessarily ha[s] a claim to a privileged place in the school curriculum” (p. 34). As a result, English is a compulsory component (typically 2-3 classes) of each program’s requirements.

Interestingly enough, my department chose to create heavily grammar based English courses, entitled Basic, Intermediate, and Advanced. With the exception of three programs, everyone is taught from this generic curriculum. Resembling the conservative structure of 1940 Ontario secondary schools, students at La Cite “[take] the same content…[write] the same examinations, moving lockstep through each course” (Gidney, 1999, p. 14). In order to advance to the next level, students must successfully complete its prerequisite(s). Most language teachers, including myself, would agree that this is a suitable process to a certain extent. There are particular elements of the English language that must be taught to all learners, as they provide the foundation for effective communication (i.e. the alphabet and sentence structure). However, once a student has mastered the fundamentals of English, a progressive approach may be more appropriate. Rather than attending fixed classes, students should be allowed to select which element of English they would further like to learn (i.e. academic writing, public speaking).

Since developing distinct English courses is time-consuming and costly, La Cite’s faculty members have chosen Famous Canadian Authors: Developing English Skills (a book published by three faculty members), as one of the two required textbooks for Intermediate and Advanced English . It’s a collection of classic Canadian literature that most 20th century conservatives would agree “encompass the work of the human imagination and serve as the best exemplars of coherent exposition or analysis” (Gidney, 1999, p. 34-35). Observing my African, Haitian, and Somalian students struggle to engage in and identify with its content, I am reminded of Chambers’ (1999) disconnect to the lives and experiences of the people and places she learned about in school. Not only are/were my students’ English levels inadequate for this text, but most of them are/were unable to relate to the topography and lifestyles of the characters in the stories. Though it is rich in vocabulary, this text is not very relevant to the lives of most La Cite students, or their educational purpose. Why then, would it be selected as part of the mandatory English curriculum? In whose interest is this text serving?

“What happens in schools is, substantially at least, a reflection of broader currents in society” (Gidney, 1999, p. 109).

Regardless of which attitude La Cite Collégiale embraces, one of the largest influences (in my opinion) for their curricular decisions is economics. In the mid-1950s, Canadians complained that “the education system was failing to produce either the quality or quantity of professional and technical skills the country needed to promote its competitive position in the international economy” (Gidney, 1999, p. 38). Similarly, after World War I, Houp (2009) explains, “the scale of technological inventions that accompanied modern warfare demanded new job skills and literate abilities and transformed educational policy…from moral transformation to economic and strategic competitiveness – productivity” (p. 698). These historical series of events may help to explain why La Cite Collégiale has been collaborating with numerous employers in the Ottawa/Gatineau area since its establishment. Together, they have outlined the necessary skills and training La Cite’s students need in order to be more employable. As a result, students enrolled at La Cite Collégiale are not only ensuring the preservation of Canadian society, but also maintaining its global competitive edge.

Overall, it is evident that 20th century attitudes continue to reside within Ontario’s schools. Though it is unclear which learning theory is best, La Cite Collégiale demonstrates the potential integration of both, while adhering to societal pressures. Although From Hope to Harris has given me a lot of insight into the shaping of Ontario’s schools, many questions remain: What about individuals who are self-taught or home-schooled? Where do they ‘fit’ in this standard? Whether the curriculum favors the individual and/or the collective, who will decide? And how much of that is influenced by current societal trends and topographies?

References

Brandt, D. (2004). Drafting U.S. literacy. College English, 66(5), 485-502.

Chambers, C. (1999). A topography for Canadian curriculum theory. Canadian Journal of Education, 24 (2), 137-150.

Gidney, R. (1999). From Hope to Harris: The reshaping of Ontario’s schools. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Houp, G. (2009). Lana’s story: Re-storying literacy education. Journal of Adolescence and Adult Literacy, 52, 698-707. (2010). Énoncé de mission et objectifs corporatifs. Retrieved January 18th, 2010 from http://www.lacitec.on.ca/mission_objectifs.htm.