The God of Curriculum: Which Learning Matters?

Who is the God of Curriculum and what does he or she have against student agency?

“At best, schools teach one-billionth of one percent of what knowledge exists in the universe, yet we quibble endlessly over what one-billionth of one percent is important.”
Seymour Papert

In a recently published
article, Leah Shaffer discusses a study that suggests that, in order to engage learners more effectively, schools should approach core subjects more like extracurriculars and electives. It’s an interesting idea and one I can relate to. As a former English and Journalism teacher I recall the initial puzzle of working with students in both courses. I was often struck by the reticent writer in my English class, with no idea how to start to write, who would transform from apathy to excited engagement in the elective course, often on the same day. The reason seemed obvious: students in my Journalism class could choose to write about things that interested them and for an authentic audience – the school newspaper. Nothing in that course was prescriptive and I made it clear that grades and homework were not things I placed value in.

Teachers intuitively know that learning should be engaging, relevant, authentic, personal and active. This does not mean that they need to become entertainers in order to “compete” against more appealing alternatives. Effective teachers reveal a passion for their discipline that transcends entertainment. The way schools may view “core academics” as distinct from extracurriculars and electives raises some interesting questions. The things that students remember and cherish are often the electives and extracurriculars, described by Shaffer “as the activity around the edges of institutions”. Why, one wonders, are learning experiences that promote deep learning – whether they be field trips, school plays, the band, media studies or the sports team – regarded as peripheral to the core business of schools? Will we ever see a “Curricular Participation Policy” that insists that, “if a student has not participated in a physical or creative activity they are not eligible to go to math or science.”?

Studies of the relevance and importance of extracurricular learning are often flawed in that they tend to focus on the impact on academic achievement, otherwise – and almost exclusively – interpreted as grades. Shaffer tells us that, “the challenge for teachers who want to tap into extracurricular engagement is to ensure students are learning the required curriculum”. I am always irritated by the student or parent who says things like, “it’s just an elective”. Everything we dedicate time to in school should be there because it is important to students. This takes us back to the words of Papert, oft-quoted by Gary Stager. Where does the required curriculum come from and why does it matter so much? As Will Richardson observes: “We know that curriculum is just a guess. The way we talk about “The Curriculum” you would think that it was something delivered on a gold platter from on high.”

During this school year we opted to increase the time we dedicate to electives in our new schedule. Time dedicated to the arts, coding, design and physical well-being, for instance, is the same as that allocated to “core academics”. In fact, these “peripheral things” are increasingly becoming part of our mainstream subjects. We would like to eliminate the words “elective” and “extracurricular” from our program and concentrate simply on learning. In addition to our broad elective program that accounts for 40% of a student’s schedule, student agency is also at the core of what we do through a new Personal Learning Program that meets each day with passion learning, modern, authentic contexts, and choice as driving principles. It might well be that the one-billionth of one percent that we have opted for is the wrong one and that we will be struck from on high for daring to disturb the universe.

As Richardson states: “The way we think about what an ‘education’ should be is just a current best guess at meeting standards and outcomes using methods that policy makers and businesses are heavily invested in and loathe to change. Happily, that guess seems to, finally, be up for more serious debate at increasingly higher levels.” This debate should place student engagement and choice at its core and concern itself less with sacred beliefs and more with salient truths

Learning is not about curriculum, content, or standards and benchmarks. It is about creating the conditions in which learners – both students and teachers – will thrive.

Who is the God of Curriculum and what does he or she have against student agency?


Stager, Gary. Gary Stager’s Full ASCD Interview About Making. Stager-to-Go in reference to McKibben, Sarah. If You Build It: Tinkering with the Maker Mind-Set. ASCD Education Update, June, 2014.

Shaffer, Leah. To Engage Students and Teachers, Treat Core Subjects Like Extracurriculars. Mindshift, May 15, 2017.

Holloway, John H. Research Link / Extracurricular Activities: The Path to Academic Success? Educational Leadership, December 1999/January 2000.

Richardson, Will. 9 Elephants in the (Class)Room That Should “Unsettle” Us. The Creativity Post, May 19, 2016.

Richardson, Will. Risky Business Redux. Modern Learners, August 12, 2016.

Image credit
@BryanMMathers via Visual Thinkery. Licenced under CC-BY-ND.