Thursday, July 3, 2008

Curriculum as Conversation

Curriculum As Conversation: Transforming Traditions of Teaching and Learning by Arthur N. Applebee is not a great book in the sense that it's a pleasure to read. It's pretty turgid prose and full of all the eduspeak that embodies most educational writing. But the book is nonetheless great. It puts into words some pretty powerful ideas that create some really interesting potentials for education. The basic premise is that we've spent too long teaching what Applebee calls "knowledge-out-of-context". You know this term whether you've used it because most likely you've experienced it first-hand as a student and perhaps even unleashed some of it on students if you're a teacher (I have). This approach often goes under the name of "coverage" or "background information". Without it, the argument goes, kids will never be able to participate in meaningful conversations. The problem for Applebee is that this information remains "decontextualized and unproductive".

The alternative is "knowledge-in-action" which introduces students into meaningful conversational discourses about a given area. In other words, rather than having students learn all about the basic facts of a given topic, the teacher instead introduces the students into some of the more meaningful conversations that people in the field are having. Sure, students will make mistakes and stumble, but they're more likely to actually care about a given topic and even become engrossed in said topic.

The book is largely rooted in Applebee's research into English curricula, so there's a clear bias in terms of providing concrete examples. There's also a fair amount of theory thrown into the text that gets a bit dense and reminds me of my graduate school days. Mikhail Bakhtin is mentioned frequently, as is Thomas Kuhn and others of that ilk. Still, I found those sections enlightening and they provided some much-needed context to Applebee's premise. The style of this book will, I suspect, turn some people off, but I strongly recommend you read it and get into its core arguments. These are persuasive and worth the attention of educators and administrators.

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