Exploration – A metaphor for curriculum study

7th April 2018

For many years in education the dominant metaphor for describing curriculum study has been ‘coverage’. But coverage is the wrong way to talk about how learning happens, and it fails to grasp the long (and sometimes arduous) process of studying, assimilating, and meaning-making that is required by students to develop a genuine understanding of curriculum content.

Covering is easy, but learning is hard. It takes time and effort and requires purposeful application on the part of the learner. Simply doing something is not enough: purposeful learning requires effort and dedication. is doesn’t mean it has to be boring (plenty of things worth doing are hard and enjoyable), it just means it will be difficult, challenging, and worth the effort.

If we want our students to study the curriculum (both the formal and the informal) in significant depth, then we have to stop talking about coverage. We need a new metaphor for describing this process, one that grasps the depth and complexity that real learning involves. The one used in Mantle of the Expert is exploration.

Exploring the curriculum is a process of investigation, discovery, and meaning-making. It involves the teacher as a guide, assisting and supporting the students along the way, but it doesn’t mean the children are either left to find out everything for themselves or told what to do every step of the way. Exploration is about setting of with a purpose and working together to achieve as much as we can. Not everything we do will work and not everything we find will be useful, but in the process of exploration the students will acquire new skills, learn new information, and develop new understanding.

Exploring the curriculum doesn’t mean taking the students along a well-trodden path, from one familiar place to another, it means setting off at the start of the year with a map that includes all the major sights but gets a bit blurry around the edges, encouraging us to find out new ways and new things for ourselves. It means having a crew that wants to know where it’s going, has ideas about the best way to get there, and is interested in stopping and looking at things along the way.

If we extend this metaphor further, then the core elements represent the stance – that is, the attitudes, dispositions, and values – the students develop as they explore the curriculum. They are not mere passengers, given a tour of familiar sights, but are positioned as a competent and knowledgeable crew, with ideas of their own, who can learn to read maps and navigate for themselves, and have a say over how the ship is run. Such a crew has agency, vital to the process of learning. They appreciate that the journey involves hard work and application, it won’t all be plain sailing, and at times they will have to sacrifice their own comfort for the success of the voyage, but – and this is the vital ingredient – they learn that the journey will be enjoyable, exciting, and worthwhile, and they will discover many new things along the away, making all their hard work worthwhile in the end.

This is an extract from A Beginner’s Guide to Mantle of the Expert.


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