A Teachers Power Over Curriculum

Over the last seven years as an educator, I have asked myself, and others; “why don’t teachers change their curriculum?” I was often frustrated with the slow progress of curriculum and pedagogical changes, and at times infuriated by teachers that I thought were blockading progress. My exasperations were not alone, many other teachers, administrators and graduates of education have shared their frustrations with me. I believe the main reason why teaching develops slowly or remains stunted is because educators are not treated as professionals nor sincerely given time, or compensation, to develop their practice. That being said, there are other causes to curriculum not changing, two of which are teacher’s autonomy and their reliance on their individual experience to make decisions.

Teachers tend to be fiercely independent people who enjoy a self-determination that most other careers do not allow. Along with this autonomy is what Johann Herbart described as a “spirit of pedantry which mingles so easily with education….” In his book, The Science of Education (1908), Herbart described how a teacher’s own experience made them resilient to change; it is their experience and dogmatism that is “highly destructive” to education. 1 These qualities as Herbart described them have changed little since his 1908 publication; teachers still rely upon their experience to decide what is right and wrong, especially when considering curriculum. This reliance on experience alone is problematic because teachers should make decisions based on a more scientific or research based method.

1. Johann, Herbart, The Science of Education: Its General Principles Deduced From Its Aim and The Aesthetic Revelation of the World, translated by H.M. Felkin, Boston, MA: D.C. Health and Co., 1908: 92.

If you are interested in Herbart’s The Science of Education, click on the book title. 

Herbart described how in no other science would a practitioner rely on their experiences more than the scientific method. 2 Before reading Herbart’s work, I believed teachers held onto their specific outlook of the curriculum because they did not want to be proven wrong, but I am beginning to think it is more complex than that. They see their own individual empirical evidence being superior to curriculum studies and the ideas of educational researchers. After all, the curriculum they adopted served their purposes, and if they are like many teachers, those purposes were to keep students well-behaved, quiet, and memorizing information that would be recalled later.

2. Herbart., 81-82.

In order to encourage teachers to improve curriculum, groups such as Teaching Tolerance have created movements, like “Teaching Hard History,” and other resources to encourage better curriculum. Teaching Tolerance used the Teaching Hard History campaign to convince teachers to focus on historical events, people, and movements that are negative components of the United States’s historic narrative. One example is the lasting legacy of slavery in the United States. 3 Social studies educators should take the initiative to improve their curriculum and find ways to tell the stories of the marginalized, or as Herbart wrote; “to present the whole treasure of accumulated research in a concentrated form to the youthful generation,” which “is the highest service…mankind at any period of its existence can render to its successors….” 4 Social studies teachers have the ability to change their curriculum to help the marginalized, they simply need to be brave enough to take the first step.

3. Teaching Tolerance is an example of such an organization. There lesson plan, https://www.tolerance.org/frameworks/teaching-hard-history/american-slavery is an example of what teaching difficult history looks like.

4. Herbart, 81.

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