Throughout history the purposes and components of a school’s curriculum have incorporated a variety of elements. The goals of education have varied from creating a productive citizen to producing a respectful and moral person to generating a basic knowledge of subject areas to preparing the student for skilled employment. With the fast paced changes in technology in the 21st century the need for a meaningful and well-developed curriculum has come to the forefront in the world of education. A balanced curriculum involves an instructional plan focused on skills and content as well as thinking skills, educational leadership programs that guide teachers to implement new methods of teaching, and effective style of assessments that measure more than just basic skills.
One challenge of creating a balanced curriculum is the question of teaching basic skills versus the teaching of critical thinking skills. Throughout history education curriculums have swayed back and forth between these two different ideas. Today, our curriculum needs to be a balance of both. Students need to have basic skills in a variety of content areas, not just reading and math. But students also need to have the ability to apply these skills to numerous applications and situations.
For example, knowing how to read words and decode them is an important skill but knowing how to read and evaluate when reading a newspaper article and understanding how the information affects a person is equally vital. The importance of critical thinking cannot be overlooked if the curriculum is to be balanced. Within the developmental process of a curriculum the team of educators must also be aware of a child’s growth stages. A child most likely won’t understand the theory of math without first understanding specific examples and skills of mathematics. Therefore, curriculum must not only address content it must also address the teaching methods to teach critical thinking.
The new balanced curriculum model will include content, skills, and teaching methods. In The Republic, Plato wrote about four distinct levels of intellect (Rotherham, 2009, p. 16). These four levels -imagining, belief, thinking, and dialect -are the same components that need to be included in a balanced curriculum. It is not that schools need to teach “new” kinds of knowledge, instead schools must be purposeful in teaching the specific skills of critical thinking, collaboration, and problem solving. One obstacle over the years has been that educators do not know how to teach self-direction, collaboration, creativity, and innovation. Schools can provide experiences that include these ideas but experiencing and practicing are two different things. Practicing includes self reflection, articulation of ways to improve, and meaningful feedback. Applying these elements to critical thinking, collaboration, and problem solving can be problematic due to lack of resources and skilled personnel. Thus, teacher training programs must change as well.
Teacher education programs, professional development within the schools and teacher collaboration must change. Although colleges and universities stress the importance of project based learning and problem based learning, the modeling of such types of lessons must also be included within the preparation programs. Secondly, schools must offer professional development programs that offer specific lessons that utilize high cognitive demands and potential classroom management concerns. Finally, teachers must collaborate more with other professionals to create effective teaching lessons and methods. Utilizing team teaching and cross-curricular units will make the implementation of project based learning more feasible.
Finally, the necessity for assessments that accurately measure rich learning and more complex tasks, not just basic skills, is the last component to a balance curriculum. Current assessments distort curriculum by over emphasizing basic skills. Higher level thinking skills need to be tested but the costs of testing and the need for a wide range of tests due to the differences across states makes this quite an undertaking.
In the past, several surveys – such as the General Social Survey of the National Opinion Research Center and the National Longitudinal Study of Youth of the National Center for Education Statistics – collected data on adolescents after schooling was complete to measure a school’s effectiveness. These surveys were discontinued due to the high cost. But, if standardized tests of basic skills could be changed to include critical thinking, problem solving, and long term outcomes the effectiveness of project based learning could be measured.
In conclusion, a balanced curriculum should be concerned not only with what subjects schools teach, but also with how schools teach them (Rothstein, 2007, p. 10).Therefore, to create a balanced curriculum three elements of education must be revolutionize: instructional plans, teacher preparation programs, and standardized assessments. Teaching must address not only skills but also methods on teaching higher level thinking attributes. Better teacher recruitment and training programs are needed at higher education levels so that there is a trickle-down effect of utilizing project based learning, problem based learning, more teacher collaboration, and successful classroom management strategies for a more interactive setting. Assessments must transform from basic skill recalls to critical thinking measures. Education needs to leave the 19th century style of curriculum development and move forward into the 21st century of curriculum expansion.
Rotherham, A.J. & Willingham, D. (2009). 21st Century Skills: The Challenges Ahead. Educational Leadership, 67 (9), 16-21.
Rothstein, R., Wilder, T. , & Jacobsen, R. (2007). Balance in the Balance. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 46 (5), 8-14.