A Curriculum Inspired

It was a ridiculous quiz. At first I thought its BBC origins would render more valid results; but after answering the first question on the 10-item questionnaire I knew that a BBC Three entertainment writer was just having a little online fun with national stereotypes. Alas, the quiz was clearly not turning out to be that engaging, horizon-expanding activity for a U.S. Government lesson I was planning on comparative government structure.

But once begun, the quiz drew me along; I couldn’t help but answer the other nine questions. Maybe the questionnaire would tell me I’d be happier living in a small, polite country like Denmark or Taiwan, which I’d long suspected. (Instead, it pointed me toward Australia.)

For all its nonsense, the quiz offered one question that jump-started my utopian cortex. Question 7 read:

“What do you look for in a school system?”

A. Development of memory skills (Nah. Been there, done that.)

B. Buddhist origins (Perhaps enlightened, but it’s still religious education.)

C. Free education (Sounds noble, but there’s no such thing.)

D. A curriculum inspired by schools across the world (Ah, press that answer choice!)

A curriculum inspired by schools across the world.

The notion that idealistic educators could design a curriculum inspired by the smartest ideas from the most enlightened school systems on the planet left me starry-eyed. Couldn’t we teachers, piece by piece, bolt together a superstructure that would support the richest, deepest learning our children had ever undertaken?

But then, realizing that I might be taking a silly pop quiz too seriously, I returned to my chair. Utopian levitation over.

But it was worth considering: Could an educational program that blossomed in, say, Taiwan, ever take root in American schools?

And more to the point, is there such a thing, really, as an “American school,” given the array of options available to students in this country: large urban public schools, rural schools whose students live more than an hour’s bus ride away, magnet schools, charter schools, reservation schools, prep schools, and a panoply of religious schools? In the end, I had to wonder, “Well, in which kind of American school might an enlightened Finnish or Canadian or Japanese educational ideal thrive?”

In the space of a quarter-hour, I moved from moony enthusiasm to resigned sigh. It’s a familiar affective descent, sped up by accumulated age. Since educational systems emerge from a network of deeply held cultural beliefs, might we find, in our naïve enthusiasm, that a stellar idea from Hong Kong might in fact hurtle into the Atlantic like a spent meteorite on its way to an American classroom?

These are the sort of summertime thoughts I’ve had of late, growing out of a late-career dissatisfaction with the way I’ve been teaching for the last three decades. Spurred on by books like Lucy Crehan’s Cleverlands and Timothy D. Walker and Pasi Sahlberg’s In Teachers We Trust: The Finnish Way to World-Class Schools (and—I admit it—by films like Michael Moore’s Where to Invade Next, which made me tear up in the darkness of the theater when I first saw it a decade ago), I began to wonder what we might learn by exploring teaching and learning strategies that other countries were advancing.

As luck would have, a late-career adventure with the good and generous people at the Fulbright Foundation soon followed. The Fulbright Foundation’s Teachers for a Global Classroom program allowed me to spend a semester exploring the idea of a Global Classroom, and in a few months will send me packing overseas, in order to experience and investigate first-hand another nation’s educational system.

Just Teaching / Still Learning is my first foray into sharing ideas with my fellow teachers—at least beyond the busy buzzy All Staff email bin on our school’s Outlook account. (You won’t be surprised to hear me admit that I write the longest emails of anyone at Aldo Leopold Charter School.) What follows are some pertinent questions, occasional discoveries, and cherished resources I hope to share with my fellow educators who may also be dissatisfied with the American Way of Teaching—but who are somehow still hopeful that we can find a better way to help our students become the open-minded thinkers, change-makers, world citizens, and lifelong learners we dream they can become.