Emergent Curriculum and Curriculum as Story

Every once in a while I dream about my ideal school or teaching situation, not that I don’t love where I am and what I am doing, but my mind can’t help traveling into the world of “What if?” Ricks Centre for Gifted Children located at the University of Denver met a lot of criteria I have set out in my “what if” world. Some of the perks of working there include the ability to get your masters and/or PhD from the university for free. The 1:8 student teacher ratio is also pretty incredible. The parent involvement is wonderful and the space, right on campus, is amazing. Yes I know, private school, university setting…not possible in the public system.

But what really caught my interest was the curriculum framework that they used for providing instruction. Emergent curriculum is a way of planning learning based on the students’ (and teachers) interests and passions. The teacher then has the responsibility of finding ways to study the topics in depth. This is very different from trying to find the “hook” that will draw students into a prescribed curriculum. In simplistic terms this changes the dynamic in the classroom from “You must learn this story.” (prescribed curriculum) to “Let’s explore what has captured your interest right now and then create a story together.” (emergent curriculum).

The reason I like using story as a way to describe curriculum is the complexity of storytelling and story hearing. None of us ever hears or tells the story in the same way. Our interpretations are embedded in our experiences and to measure an individual’s understanding and interpretation of a story against another by someone with yet another interpretation seems intrinsically unfair. Add in Temple Grandin’s thoughts on “different kinds of minds” and you see the impossibility of authentic assessment. Co-author a story together however, and then consider your ability to assess understanding when everyone has had the opportunity to contribute their part to the story.

A skillful teacher can weave the prescribed story into the emergent story which is one of the reasons Ricks employs many specialists in their school: the deeper understanding we have of a particular discipline the more likely we are to find connections. If you’re starting to wonder when students will learn the basics, they’ve also scheduled in time for the structure of disciplines based on Jerome Bruner’s work in The Process of Education. Bruner believed that each of the disciplines has a basic structure and education should be about understanding how that structure works. For example Bruner suggested that “in algebra, structure is related to the fundamental concepts of commutation, distribution, and association .Emphasis on these “three fundamentals” presumably will provide the basis for understanding a wide variety of algebraic operations.”  A math specialist is more likely to understand and connect the nuances of this discipline than a generalist.

If I link Bruner’s ideas back to the metaphor of story, I might call it the language of the story. Math, science, art, English each have their own language or means of communicating their story. Understand this language and its underlying structure and you have the tools to communicate through that discipline.  Ricks Center draws  the emergent curriculum and structures of disciplines together into integrated thematic units which allow students to explore the theme through a variety of languages (disciplines). If a student has a stronger fluency in one of the languages over another, s/he still has the opportunity to contribute to the creation of the story. This to me is inclusive education.

It might seem as though this emergent curriculum model is a far cry from our experiences as teachers and parents but if we are present in our conversations with our students and children, we can address the curriculum that emerges on a daily basis. In my classroom it happens when we are in the middle of a challenge and things aren’t working or the group isn’t getting along. What discipline could help us solve the problem that we are working on? In my home it happens while we are driving in the car, cooking in the kitchen or having dinner together. What is at the heart of the questions that are emerging? What passion can we explore this weekend? We all play a part in the story of life that our children are constructing…what is it that we can add today to make it a story about them and how they understand the world? What can we contribute that will make it a story in which they experience ownership and pride? How can we link their story to the broader story (context) that we share?

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