The Curriculum is not a Script

As students head back to school this Fall, the spectre of a deviant “sex-ed” curriculum has been raised again by a vocal minority of Ontario parents. To hear it from them, young students will be flooded with age-inappropriate sexual content, a violation of their religion and ethics.

Their argument hinges on a fundamental misunderstanding of what a curriculum is and how it should be used.

The educational benefits of the new Health and Physical Education curriculum, which has not been updated since 1998, are well established and sensible.  But I will not be going through the curriculum line by line to reveal parents’ misconceptions, because that would reinforce the fact that the curriculum is a script that needs to be followed verbatim.

A curriculum is not a script. It is not a document that tells teachers what to say, or how to say it, or prescribes what they should be doing in their classroom. Instead, a curriculum is a guide that sets out themes and goals. It does not tell teachers how to get there.

The provincial curriculum, in all areas, includes two broad classes of “expectations” for students: “general expectations” (which are mandatory) and “specific expectations” (which are not). The general expectations are vague and non-prescriptive and can be achieved in many ways (ex: “demonstrate an understanding of factors that contribute to healthy development”).  The curriculum is not a checklist.

It is unfortunate that the new curriculum format includes “prompts” which are, literally, scripts. But these are not meant to be read line-by-line; they are examples of discourse that might unfold in the classroom, and they suggest responses to student questions. In fact, the curriculum says, in italics: “The examples and prompts do not set out requirements for student learning; they are optional, not mandatory.” No teacher will be reading these prompts verbatim this school year.

Good teachers know that a curriculum does not exist outside the context of student’s cultural and ethical context.  Learning happens in the tension between what is written in the curriculum and who the students are. Ontario students come from the widest background of cultures imaginable, and teachers do an admiral job of creating meaning out of the curriculum that meshes with their lives.

It is impossible for curriculum writers or policy experts to anticipate every conversation that will happen in every class. What they can do is outline the goals of the course that are aligned with educational best practices. Many parents seem to think the curriculum is like a recipe, to be followed exactly in order to produce an identical product and that in the process, students will lose their identity. Renewed focus on standardized testing certainly doesn’t help dispel this myth.

Good teaching is really a conversation, a “drawing-out” of intellectual curiosity from young minds. Teachers certainly don’t just regurgitate the curriculum language. Student interest would disappear at the end of the first day of school if they did.

The next time you hear people picking words out of the new curriculum, remember that there is no law saying teachers must say those words and not others. It is merely a guide that leaves the teacher enormous room for adapting to student culture. And this is something Ontario teachers do exceptionally well and will continue to do, regardless of the hoopla in the media.