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May 1, 1996
Vol. 53
No. 8

Overview / Starting Over

      I was intrigued by a reference in the recent report of the national Center on Organization of Schools to a lesson about the Netsilik people (Newmann and Wehlage 1995). Based on a study of innovative schools across the country, the University of Wisconsin researchers cite this lesson, which touches on anthropology as well as ecology, as an outstanding example of the kind of "authentic pedagogy" they say should be the goal of school restructuring.
      The lesson is described only briefly, but I suspect it may have been derived from Man: A Course of Study, a dramatically original 5th grade curriculum developed by Jerome Bruner and other academics in the heyday of the Curriculum Reform Movement of the 1960s (Dow 1991). MACOS was popular with adventurous teachers but excoriated by critics who accused it of undermining student values and wasting time that should have been spent on history and geography. (Instead, MACOS dealt with the nature of human beings. Drawing upon research in anthropology, it compared people with other forms of animal life and devoted half a school year to intensive scrutiny of a small group of humans who survived—with great courage and creativity—under conditions that would quickly kill most of us.)
      Man: A Course of Study was hounded out of many American schools, attacked on the floor of Congress, and used to justify a ban on use of federal funds for curriculum development. Nevertheless, though I concede its excesses, I have long admired its pedagogical power. In my view, few teachers have the time or skills to dream up consistently successful learning experiences. They don't need or want a script, but, to do their best, teachers need access to good curriculum materials.
      The articles in this issue describe some of the exemplary curriculums in use in today's schools. Designed to respond to current needs, they tend to have some notable characteristics. For example, many of them integrate content traditionally taught in separate courses. The Interactive Mathematics Program (p. 18) teaches topics usually covered in algebra, geometry, and trigonometry, but students learn these principles as they solve complex, challenging problems.
      Most of today's innovative curriculums also emphasize application to the world outside school. For example, in the ABC program (p. 10), students learn concepts from biology and chemistry by doing tasks that adults perform on the job, such as a bacteriologist using staining to identify microorganisms that cause food contamination.
      Because contemporary society requires more students to succeed than in the past, many of these new curriculums serve a broad range of students rather than tracking them by ability. The Core-Plus Mathematics Project (p. 22), for example, is a three-year mathematics sequence for all students, both those bound for college and others.
      But do students in these innovative courses really get the kind of sound academic preparation they would receive in more traditional classes? Unquestionably, before schools adopt these new programs, they and their communities need assurance that they are acting responsibly. For that reason, developers are carefully evaluating their programs, and most report impressive results.
      Especially enlightening is a thoughtful account by John Eggebrecht and his colleagues (p. 4) of their experiences in devising an Integrated Science program at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy. Beginning with a thematic approach that at first seemed obvious but proved unproductive, the teachers tried several ways to organize the program before settling on a plan more in tune with their students' point of view.
      That is the only way I know to improve: try it, evaluate it, change it to make it better, try it again. The result, though still not perfect, will probably be better than comparable products done without adequate resources and without repeated testing and refinement. After Man: A Course of Study, much of the impetus for investment in such a thorough curriculum development process was lost in the United States. Now, we seem to have made a new start, and that should be welcome news to teachers and students everywhere.

      Dow, P. (1991). Schoolhouse Politics. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

      Newmann, F., and G. Wehlage. (1995). Successful School Restructuring. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

      Education writer and consultant Ron Brandt is the former editor of Educational Leadership and other publications of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).

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