Thinking Christianly in Curriculum Design

Ralph Tyler, Hilda Taba, and Philip Jackson (with the latter’s reminder that even our definitions are a reflection of our worldviews), are some of the gurus of curriculum design. Their ideas, whether we realize it or not, have helped shape our contemporary understanding of curriculum, including the curriculum construction and application process. For example, Tyler’s work over half a century ago gave a sense of structure and sequence to how we put a series of lessons together. It was Tyler who was an early codifier of the process of objectives → content → method → evaluation that most of us have been trained to apply when we structure the scope and sequence of what and how we teach.

In more recent years, Wiggins and McTighe reconfigured the Tyler model by placing special emphasis, at the very start of the curriculum development process, on the intended outcomes that we desire to see in our students at the end of their studies. These outcomes, and ways of measuring them, are then used to design learning strategies and content that will achieve the desired outcomes. The Wiggins and McTighe model is often referred to as the “Backward Design” model because they start at the end – i.e. with the final product being used to shape the rest of the process.

A few decades ago, and well before the work of Wiggins and McTighe, the late Harro Van Brummelen showed just how dynamic he was in his thinking on curriculum in his popular book, Stepping Stones to Curriculum. In Van Brummelen’s work, in the curriculum mapping strategies of Dan Beerens, as well as in my own The Cause of Christian Education, Christian educators have highlighted the importance in the curriculum process of a clear articulation of what we want to achieve in education, and of the importance of keeping this in the forefront of our minds as we plan and implement curriculum in and for our classrooms. Roques also demonstrates this in his integrated model approach. A recent publication by a new collaboration of Christian educators, Transformation by Design (Dickens, Hanscamp et al) recognizes the same concept.

This outcomes-based approach of Van Brummelen and others, is a humble reflection of the “start at the end” principle espoused by Paul in his letter to the Philippians:

And this is my prayer: that your love [for the Lord] may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ. [Philippians 1:9-11 [NIV)]

At the start of his letter, Paul gives the outcome-based context to his subsequent exhortations to his beloved Philippians brethren – that in all that they hear and do, the desire to love the Lord, and to be more like him through an increasingly insightful and discerning understanding of the gospel, would be the initial and ongoing driver for their thinking and acting.

This little reflection on curriculum is a reminder to us, as Christian educators, of several key perspectives:

  • Nothing in education is neutral. Even curriculum design reflects beliefs and worldview assumptions.
  • Our teaching theory and practice needs to be guided by a continual reflection upon the core biblical principle that in all that we do, including in curriculum, we seek to honor our Lord and Savior and draw ourselves and our students closer to him. Examples of what it means to do this are included in the works and/or seminars of Beerens, Van Brummelen, Edlin, Roques, and Dickens et al that are mentioned above.
  • A solid, Christian understanding of the educational task enables us to study what other people, including non-Christians, have said about education, and to humbly discern truth from error. Tyler, Taba, Johnson, Wiggins and McTighe etc., are all worthy of study and reflection. By doing this in a biblically faithful way and from a reformed critical realist perspective, we are able to decide which of these scholars’ insights are appropriate for us to configure and adopt in Christian education, and which of their ideas and patterns we should reject because they might be idolatrous and secular humanist.
  • Being a Christian teacher is strenuous but rewarding work as an act of faithful obedience to honor our heavenly father in all that we do. As Christian educators, through sustained prayer, thinking, and rigorous professional development, we have to grapple with educational concepts that impact our profession. Then, based upon our biblically-shaped outcome commitment, we need to discern what patterns and processes are appropriate to include in our pedagogies.
  • The actual capacity to discern is a precious Christian inheritance that we should celebrate and practice in front of our students and in front of a watching world. In these post-modern times, the ability to perceive enduring pathways forward is becoming lost in the incessant but infinitely inconsistent political correctness chatter that promotes one concept or educational paradigm one day, and flies to what almost seems to be the opposite extreme the next. A teacher told me recently that he has been teaching for just six years, but in that time he has faced four major state-endorsed curriculum reconstructions. For Christians, truth can be known, and guideposts do exist. Starting with our commitment to our Lord and an outcome-based approach to education that views schooling as the challenge of celebrating the lordship of Christ over all of creation, we have hope and also a sense of constant and dynamic direction and purpose. PTL!

ACTIVITY

Here’s an activity for you as an individual, or for group teacher discussion. The following diagram is taken from p. 179 in Edlin’s The Cause of Christian Education (4th edition, Dordt College Press). More than most models, this model lays a special emphasis on the students, because of the model designer’s belief that Christian education first is God-centered but that secondarily it must also be student-focused.

  1. Without referring to The Cause of Christian Education itself, discuss the influence of the following on this model:
    • A Christian worldview
    • Tyler’s sequential model
    • An outcome-based mentality
    • The significance of the learner
  2. Now, refer to pages 179-195 in The Cause of Christian Education and see if the comments there match and explore the ideas generated by your own thinking or faculty discussion.
  3. How is this model different from other curriculum models of which you may be aware?
  4. How could this model be adapted and/or improved so that it could be used in your own school setting? For example:
    • Could the model be improved by feedback/evaluation loops?
    • Try filling out each of the model’s boxes for specific year-level content areas in your community.

Curriculum design model from page 179 in Edlin, R. (2014). The Cause of Christian Education (4th ed.), Sioux Center IO: Dordt College Press.

 

 

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