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Native Pathways to Education
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Lessons Taught, Lessons Learned Vol. I

WEAVING CURRICULUM WEBS: THE STRUCTURE OF NONLINEAR CURRICULUM

by
Rebecca Corwin
George E. Hein
Diane Levin
 

Graduate School of Education
Lesley College
Cambridge, Massachusetts
 

This article was originally published in Childhood Education, March, 1976.

Described in a story by Doris Lessing is a fabulously fertile African garden, "...rich chocolate earth studded with emerald green, frothed with the white of cauliflowers, jeweled with the purple globes of eggplant and the scarlet wealth of tomatoes. Around the fence grew lemons, pawpaws, bananas-shapes of gold and yellow in their patterns of green."* But the garden is a failure for the London woman who planted it. It does not conform to her sense of what a proper English garden should be. 

All of us are limited by our background and experiences; we have difficulty in recognizing the value of pieces of the world that are unfamiliar to us. The things we grew up with, what we expect, are understood and appreciated; the strange new sights-whether a garden full of exotic fruits or a classroom full of diverse activities-present problems. No matter how robust and vital the experience, we need to restructure our thinking and our expectations in order to appreciate new events.

Traditional descriptions of curricula are tidy and tended. Usually they are linear: a lesson consists of presenting an idea, learning about it and summing up the relevant concepts. But a curriculum need not be familiar in this way. Consider the following events:

One day Susan, a third-grader, brings a spider to school and shows it to her classmates during class meeting. The teacher and children ask many questions: Where did she find it? How did she catch it? Has she fed it? What does she plan to do with it? The teacher suggest the children build a cage for the spider. What does a spider "home" need? Three children volunteer to go to the school library to get books that will help them learn more about spiders and how they live. Meanwhile two children discuss getting food for the spider and two others consider what the spider should be called. One child recounts the experience of watching a spider spin a web. Before the meeting ends, the teacher makes a list of the questions that have been raised and of some suggested activities. The children list their names beside the activity on which they plan to begin work.

A visitor walking into this room later in the day sees three children sitting near the spider with a book open, trying to identify what kind of spider it is. They are discussing its color, number of legs, eyes, body parts and size. They get a magnifying glass to observe their spider more carefully. On the basis of their reading, they draw several conclusions: "This kind lives only in Africa so it can't be that." "These are poisonous and we know ours is safe." "Ours is too big to be that kind."

Three children get a box, cut out one side and cover it with clear plastic to make a spider house. They discuss how to make air holes so the spider can breathe. One child says she has a piece of fine screening at home and offers to bring it to school. She thinks the holes are small enough so the spider cannot get through, but they will have to check to be sure. Two other children return from the playground where they have gotten a few twigs to put in the box so the spider will have a place to build a web. After a hard search, three others have managed to catch a few bugs to try feeding the spider. They plan to watch to see what happens when they put the bugs in with the spider. The teacher comes over with a homemade book and suggests recording the results so they will know what to catch tomorrow. One writes a title, "What Spiders Eat," on the front.

Two weeks later, when the visitor returns, the spider's home is completed. Matted on construction paper and carefully displayed are two poems about the web the spider has spun. A child has "spun" a web, too, by weaving on a circular loom and has written an account of how difficult it was to make the weaving as well as the spider did its spinning. Other children have made "books," which contain stories they have written and illustrated, including one about a monster" spider. One book tells about the kinds and quantities of food the spider ate. A chart shows whose turn it is to find food and feed the spider. Someone has written about the size of the web and how long it took to be built. One group has begun collecting ants and has made an ant farm.

The many activities in this classroom do not directly relate to our usual notions of curriculum. How can we keep track of learnings that occur in such an apparent hodge-podge? One way of recording curriculum information is called a flow chart or flow tree . The previously described spider activities might appear as in Figure 1.

Figure 1

figure 1
click on image for a bigger view
A more formal, traditional approach to a curriculum might, in contrast, present spiders as part of a science unit in a linear way.

SPIDER

-CHARACTERISTICS OF SPIDERS

-IDENTIFICATION OF SPIDERS

-KINDS OF SPIDERS

-CLASSIFICATION OF ANIMALS

 

This more familiar design, starting with an experience intended to lead to a specific goal, represents a totally different approach to curriculum and learning from the detailed example given above. It is helpful to contrast and compare the two ways of organizing.

In a traditional approach to knowledge, problems about the coverage of skills areas do not arise seriously in any theoretical way. The teacher, or curriculum developer, decides what subjects or concepts the class or group is to cover and then arranges the information in what is considered the most appropriate sequence. The experiences illustrate the concepts but do not determine the curriculum.

Informal or "open education" approaches consider the acquisition of skills quite differently. Because there is no predetermined order to and coverage of material, it is often assumed incorrectly that informal education advocates have no concern for skills. Such unstructured classrooms might be a joy for lazy teachers, but they certainly do not reflect a real sense of open education. Teachers who support open education would argue that there are indeed skills they want to impart: they acknowledge the importance of children's learning to read, to compute and to understand the world. But they believe that because individual children learn in a variety of ways, with different children learning different things from the same experience, a new classroom organization and a less linear curriculum are required.

When a teacher surrenders the support of the predetermined structure of knowledge, as reflected in a formal curriculum, he or she takes on the difficult job of developing an overall structure in which children's individual paths can flourish through learning activities. Curriculum trees or flow charts are not just nice decorations or a rationale for lack of structure. They are an alternative way of organizing experiences of the world and provide both a guide and a challenge for the teacher.

If we accept the idea that children have individual learning styles and that they go through horizontal and nonlinear growth periods of different intensity and duration, then we must also accept the view that we cannot cut up the day in neat segments and decide what will be learned in each. We need to encourage and facilitate individual children's development. We also need to think about the class as a group and what its needs are, providing for both small- and whole-group activities.

In this new kind of structure, then, Sarah and Johnny are not asked to engage in the same activity minute by minute. Instead, their leamings over periods of weeks and months are the central concern. An open education teacher does not see knowledge as cut up into little bits but does have long-term goals and clear ideas about the child's need to learn through interaction with the world. The teacher can explain the learning taking place during different activities by references to examples of a specific child's work and can also document the learning that has gone on over a period of time.

Interactions with the real world through materials, rather than mediated time chunks, tend therefore to determine curriculum in informal classrooms. This quite radical ("back to roots") idea is, indeed, a restructuring of curricular organization that is different from the "usual." The affluence of the late sixties encouraged many school systems to invest heavily in materials and games, and many classrooms are now equipped with a variety of attractive materials. These materials usually are used only as a supplement to the traditional program, however, rather than as a potentially vital experience in themselves. Often they are employed to entertain the children while the teacher works with one or another group. A philosophical shift is needed. When a teacher better understands the central position of materials in learning and the non-linear nature of learning, then he or she can act on that understanding by becoming familiar with materials and by working with the children through them.

The teacher's role is crucial in structuring the nonlinear curriculum. It involves the ability to respond to children's interests as they arise and to respect their seriousness of purpose by providing for extensions of the immediate learning situation. The teacher in the example of the spider asked specific questions in order to promote discussion skills, provided a framework of plans and activities for children to follow, and helped children decide what they wanted to learn and how to go about it, providing books and materials as needed. She couldn't plan everything in advance but instead supported children's interests and skills, making educated guesses about what would most likely spark children's imagination.

Summer Blossoms by Alice Davis
What are the implications of this type of teacher role? What underlies the teacher's image of his or her job? To sum up, such a teacher believes that children learn best:

 

  • Through their individual interests and strengths.
  • Through active, concrete experiences with materials and ideas.
  • By interdisciplinary synthesis of usual subject areas; not all learning can be broken into boxes or into sequences.
  • By experimentation-watching, trying, adjusting, exploring ideas until they "jell."
  • Via a wide range of horizontal experiences (those that are at the same competency level). Repetitive though such experiences may seem, once is often not enough for mastery. At the same time, however, the teacher provides vertical experiences that may move the child onward in terms of competency level. A balance of these components is sought.

These notions of the teacher's role and their relation to views about children's learning are different from the traditional structure of schools and curriculum. But, like the succulent fruit of the African garden, they represent the product of another tradition; they come from a long history of observing children in action in the real world.

Despite recent talk about "backlash" against open education, thoughtful implementation of informal approaches is beginning to occur throughout the United States and Canada. A number of schools are developing classrooms where slow, steady examination of curriculum decisions is leading to curriculum changes for children. To establish a successful classroom of this kind takes a lot of hard work and also confidence that a different view of curriculum and knowledge can help children to grow and learn. To alter curricula is not enough: rather, the entire view of what things might constitute appropriate support for the nonlinear curriculum must be adjusted-as happened when a spider went to school.

*From African Stories by Doris Lessing.

 

Foreword

J. Kelly Tonsmiere

Introduction

Ray Barnhardt

Section I

Some Thoughts on Village Schooling
"Appropriate Schools in Rural Alaska"
Todd Bergman, New Stuyahok

"Learning Through Experience"
Judy Hoeldt, Kaltag

"The Medium Is The Message For Village Schools"
Steve Byrd, Wainwright

"Multiple Intelligences: A Community Learning Campaign"
Raymond Stein, Sitka

"Obstacles To A Community-Based Curriculum"
Jim Vait, Eek

"Building the Dream House"
Mary Moses-Marks, McGrath

"Community Participation in Rural Education"
George Olana, Shishmaref

"Secondary Education in Rural Alaska"
Pennee Reinhart, Kiana

"Reflections on Teaching in the Kuskokwim Delta"
Christine Anderson, Kasigluk

"Some Thoughts on Curriculum"
Marilyn Harmon, Kotzebue
 

Section II

Some Suggestions for the Curriculum
"Rabbit Snaring and Language Arts"
Judy Hoeldt, Kaltag

"A Senior Research Project for Rural High Schools"
Dave Ringle, St. Mary's

"Curriculum Projects for the Pacific Region,"
Roberta Hogue Davis, College

"Resources for Exploring Japan's Cultural Heritage"
Raymond Stein, Sitka

"Alaskans Experience Japanese Culture Through Music"
Rosemary Branham, Kenai

Section III

Some Alternative Perspectives
"The Axe Handle Academy: A Proposal for a Bioregional, Thematic Humanities Education"
Ron and Suzanne Scollon

"Culture, Community and the Curriculum"
Ray Barnhardt

"The Development of an Integrated Bilingual and Cross-Cultural Curriculum in an Arctic School District"
Helen Roberts

"Weaving Curriculum Webs: The Structure of Nonlinear Curriculum"
Rebecca Corwin, George E. Hem and Diane Levin

Artists' Credits

 

 

Go to University of AlaskaThe University of Alaska Fairbanks is an affirmative action/equal opportunity employer and educational institution and is a part of the University of Alaska system.

 


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Last modified December 16, 2008