Not long ago, my mother-in-law approached me with a groan. She's an elementary programs coordinator in a suburban Cincinnati district, and it was time for her district to construct a new curriculum, complete with a guiding philosophy of education.
"Everyone dreads doing this, especially the philosophy of education part," she explained. "Often, none of the teachers are interested in it, and we end up just cutting and pasting the old philosophy into the front of the new material."
I'm a professional philosopher of education, and this is a story I've heard many times. Constructing a philosophy to guide a new curriculum is often no more than an afterthought. When teachers already have full plates, many view philosophy as unnecessarily complicated and time-consuming. Many would rather get right down to teaching than outline a reason why they're doing so.
"Invite them to a party!" I replied. I went on to explain that the daunting task of creating a new course of study is not only more engaging, but more effective and rewarding, when teachers and school leaders come together over food and fun to collaboratively build their vision of good education. In addition, when the philosophy itself is phrased like a party invitation, it sets a tone for other teachers, parents, and community members to join in with the new curriculum.
The field of philosophy of education is often rightly criticized for being esoteric and unconnected to classroom practice. However, philosophy of education can be used effectively for staff and curricular development in about 90 minutes. This approach requires motivated leaders who take good notes, but, when done with care, it leads to a more consistent and driven curriculum that more directly matches the needs of your school and the talents of your teachers.
When approached as throwing a party, a philosophy builds enthusiasm among teachers, builds a shared interest in educational outcomes, and gives a vision for good education. Just like making a party invitation, constructing a philosophy of education is best done by having a conversation that answers why, what, who, where, when, and how. I offer a collection of questions to help you frame discussions with teachers during your own philosophy party.
It's no surprise that invitations almost always begin with a proclamation across the top: It's Juanita's 40th Birthday! It's a Super Bowl Party! These phrases headline invitations because they tell us why people are being brought together. "Why" is always the most important starting point for creating a new philosophy of education. This question requires significant time and input from teachers because it guides the answers to all of the questions that follow. Just as when planning a party, begin by asking, "Why are we creating a new curriculum?"
Of course, these reasons may be simple procedural requirements, such as state mandates or accreditation procedures. But engaging in a discussion of why a new curriculum is needed can often reveal much about the value of change and the strength of a school's tradition. Thus, it's often best to start with the old: "Are there problems or outdated aspects of our old curriculum that need to be addressed?"
Responses to this question can provide a safe space for teachers to air frustrations. But remember that it's a party. Don't become too bogged down by problems of the past. Rather, use these to generate excitement for future improvement. Ask a question that generates that excitement and propels a party: "Is there something about our school or community that we want to celebrate or accentuate?"
This is a terrific time to highlight the most important shared values of your school community. It also allows you the opportunity to identify school strengths that should be adopted and magnified in the new curriculum.
When most of us receive a party invitation, our minds start to imagine what we will do there. …