Challenging, exploratory, integrative, and relevant curriculum – AMLE characteristic 3

The Association for Middle Level Education is considered by many to be a peak body for Middle Level education in the world. For me, their This We Believe statement, encompassing the 16 characteristics of successful schools, is something of a seminal work and I plan to explore each of these characteristics over the next few months

Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment

Curriculum is challenging, exploratory, integrative, and relevant.
(Challenging Curriculum)

A long time ago, when I started teaching, the curriculum pressure was so much less than it is today.  One of the oft-used content elements was the TWA – the time-wasting activity.  Now, sometimes they were simply that, an activity to waste or fill time during the day, often at the end of the day waiting for the bell to ring.  Sometimes they were activities that built relationships, even if I didn’t realise it at the time.

But what I remember most fondly is that we had time.  I understood the value of the hidden curriculum and the incidental curriculum and I would often be happy to run off on tangents.  And so were the kids.  They thought we had lost the plot and were simply exploring something more interesting that what they thought they needed to learn.  I knew that we were exploring stuff that was important to life and living.

Today seems so different.  There is an overstuffed curriculum that needs to be covered in a ten-week term that only seems to be 6 weeks long.  Assessment seems to pile up for the students and their stress levels grow almost daily toward the end of the term.  And so do mine.

So what do we do?  Well, the reality is that we don’t really have time for the TWAs of the past and we do have a lot to cover.  So we need to work smarter.  This is where the element of challenging, exploratory, integrative, and relevant learning comes in.  What is needed is for the teacher to connect the curriculum, no matter the subject, to the students in real, authentic ways and, as much as possible, ‘decompartmentalise’ the curriculum.  This involves taking every opportunity to make genuine cross-curricular links and to show students that learning, like life, is not one-dimensional but integrated and connected and all smooshed together.  Tangents are still vital but they need to be well planned and linked to various elements of the total curriculum.  And this means that teachers must make sure they are not one-dimensional in their subject knowledge.  Some of the best teachers I know are those who, despite their subject preference, have developed a healthy understanding of, and respect for, other subjects.  This allows them to make the curricula links naturally and with relative ease.

Obviously, teaming is a valued element of active exploratory and integrative learning, but that is not always possible, especially in a smaller Middle Years context.  Maybe there is the chance to teach a few subjects and make the link that way.  Maybe it will have to be as basic as exposing oneself to other curriculum areas to make the links in whatever way you can in your own class.

Young adolescents love to explore; to follow tangents of their own design.  I know I am guilty of stymieing that desire often.  I find it hard to break away from the routines of an ordered curriculum delivery.  But I know it is important.  What I do do, is to ensure that my lessons are delivered passionately and with enthusiasm; that I link the content to the lives of the young people I teach.  And sometimes I am pleasantly surprised that I have taken them down a path of exploration that I didn’t necessarily intend.  Those are the times what I’m reminded of the foundations of adolescent education all over again.

How about you?  How do you bring this characteristic to your classroom?