There Is A History Behind Changing Curriculum

Between 2015 to 2019 I taught U.S. History to 8th grade students. My curriculum changed drastically during those years; for example, during my first year, I used the textbook as a crutch and emphasized formal essay writing and multiple choice assessments. During my last year, I taught using the National History Day curriculum, students practiced analytical skills that were relevant in history, and I greatly reduced the amount of recall/memorization assessment. I shifted my content and methods because I learned of new curriculum; however, this modification was not unique and possessed a historical context.

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There are, and were, several different interest groups that have attempted to shape curriculum. In his book The Struggle For The American Curriculum, Herbert M. Kliebard defines four such interest groups that existed between 1893 and 1958. Interest groups still exist today; textbook authors, college academics, political groups, and educational organizations all have an effect on modern curriculum. All teachers have asked themselves what and how should they teach. How does a teacher choose their curriculum from the multitude of options? Once a teacher becomes in charge of their own classroom, they will lose much of their time to think, therefore it is up to the academic methods instructors to show future educators the different perspectives of curriculum. Philosophical identities formed around interest groups and shaped curriculum, but these groups were mostly comprised of academics. To be certain, there was also popular movements that encouraged certain types of curriculum.

American citizens also shaped education, especially at the local level, but they also influenced powerful groups to defend their educational practices. One such public defense against critics was the “Committee of the Corporation and Academical Faculty of Yale College”, which was written by Yale educators to preserve American universities and their philosophy of liberal education. In 1828, the United States was becoming a significant economic force in the world, and American citizens were enjoying an increased autonomy in politics (Jacksonian politics). Citizens and leaders of the United States compared themselves to Europe, and in regards to education, began to see the rise of German schooling methods and the English university as possible avenues for improvement. Modern day teachers and interested individuals also compare American education to other countries. Much of that comparison comes from journalism, with their emphasis on flare rather than truth. More research that compares countries educational system is needed, and if it already exists, there needs to be more effort in distilling into the public sphere. 

How do you think colleges should be improved?

Do you believe history curriculum needs to be changed? Why or why not?

Yale academics in the early 1800s felt the citizen’s power as well, as they said in their report, “we have heard the suggestion that our colleges must be new-modelled; that they are not adapted to the spirit and wants of the age…they [colleges] will soon be deserted, unless they are better accommodated to the business character of the nation.” The terms “spirit of the age” and “business character” demonstrates the power of the early Republic, an era where citizens questioned what the United States should be, and in the case of education, how should universities train citizens to contribute to a better America.

Finally, the Yale report described how universities mentally challenged students, and it described proper teaching methods to create a challenge for students. Although the report described what good teaching looked like, such as not solely relying on lecture, it did not examine whether or not university teachers went beyond lecture. The lack of analysis on what was actually happening in classrooms carries into the present. This is concerning, especially since there is evidence that teaching at the turn of the 20th century was not stimulating. For example, in the Committee of 10 report, the members advised that the “dry and lifeless system of instruction by textbook should give away to a more rational kind of work.”

Curriculum being a contentious issue is strangely comforting because it is beneficial to realize these problems exist nationwide and historically. Teaching often feels lonely, especially when trying a new method that goes against the traditional. Arguments with staff occur, and teachers using methods that differ from their colleagues might be met with no support from their department members. Teachers who feel this way should take solace in the fact that they are continuing the noble and historic work of improving curriculum.

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