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December 1, 2003
Vol. 61
No. 4

Perspectives / More or Less?

    Perspectives / More or Less? - thumbnail
      A dozen years ago, I was the editor of a best-selling study skills curriculum for middle school students. Although we received several fan letters about the usefulness of the program, I recall an angry criticism from one teacher. He demanded to know why we felt compelled to jam in so much information and so many activities. Didn't we know that “less is more”? he asked.
      Of course, I had heard of “less is more” as a principle of graphic design. Designers are always suggesting that white space matters as much as the illustrations and even—so they say—more than the text. Looking into the idea as a design principle for good curriculum, I found that educators were arguing for less coverage and more depth. For example, as Heidi Hayes Jacobs notes (p. 12), Japanese 8th graders master eight mathematics concepts, whereas U.S. students, who tackle about 35, often have a superficial grasp of the concepts' meanings and can only regurgitate facts for the test.
      “Less is more” certainly makes sense, although at the time I wondered why the teacher didn't just eliminate the lessons he thought less worthy and create his own curriculum. Today, though, he might not have time to tackle any part of that program because the subject matter—study skills—would probably not be on a state-mandated test. But what else is driving curriculum design today? And, more important, what principles should be shaping the curriculum?
      Knowledge is proliferating. Approximately 1,000 books are published throughout the world every day. More information has been produced in the past 30 years than in the previous 5,000. Having such a glut of information available at the touch of a mouse demands new skills lest students be overcome by what Richard S. Wurman calls “information anxiety.” Wurman defines information anxiety as the ever-widening gap between what we understand and what we think we should understand. Information anxiety is “a black hole between data and knowledge.” It happens when information tells us a great deal, but not what we want or need to know (cited in Jungwirth & Bruce, 2002).
      Kids don't just learn in school anymore. School curriculum has never been a student's only source of knowledge. Long ago, John Dewey warned that the greatest fallacy in education is the assumption that students learn only what they are being taught (1938). At ASCD's annual conference last year, Gary Marx discussed trends shaping education. Among them:We're going to have increasing numbers of students coming to our schools with more information on a lot of topics than their teachers have. . . . It means that we have a lot of kids with not much life experience who have a lot of data and information. The teacher will help move those kids from raw data and information toward usable knowledge, and then, we hope, toward wisdom. (2003)
      We're increasingly teaching what we test. It used to be only students who asked the question, Will it be on the test? Today, teachers and curriculum developers care a great deal about aligning curriculum with mandated assessments. The days of inventing creative curriculum solely to appeal to teacher or student interest are waning. This tendency need not be a catastrophe if more students achieve true proficiency in reading, mathematics, and science. But there are caveats:Do the standards focus on preparing students for the future? Or do they freeze the system and prepare students for the past? . . . Is it possible that every year we could do a better and better job on those high-stakes tests and every year do a better job of preparing our kids for some time in the past? Second, there's a concern that some students might simply give up. . . . One way to increase average test scores is to push the kids out who aren't doing well. And those scores will go up—the tyranny of the average. (Marx, 2003)
      We must remember our priorities. The last point is the most important. As Elliot W. Eisner says (p. 6),As long as schools treat test scores as the major proxies for student achievement and educational quality, we will have a hard time refocusing our attention on what really matters in education. . . . The primary aim of education is not to enable students to do well in school, but to help them do well in the lives they lead outside of school.

      Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Macmillan.

      Jungwirth, B., & Bruce, B. (2002). Information overload: Threat or opportunity? Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 45(5), 400-406.

      Marx, G. (2003). Ten trends: Educating children for a profoundly different future. Available:www.simulconference.com/ASCD/2003/scs/1273a.shtml

      Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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