Education’s Most Dangerous
trick ‘em into learning!
Not published by District Administration - October 2006
©2006 Gary S. Stager
A friend called a few months back and asked me to tell him
my most dangerous idea. What a great question I thought! My answer, “Curriculum
Allow me to make the case.
I can turn to almost any page in a textbook, article or
website and find an outlandish, inaccurate or confusing idea some curriculum
writer thought was brilliant. Even the most well-intentioned efforts at relevance or context stretch credulity, often in a hilarious
A recent article in Edutopia (July
2006) presented a new method for making connections between art and math,
called Aesthetic Computing. The following example demonstrates how the method
might be used to teach teens about slope intercept form.
attempts to reach those frustrated by traditional math instruction by
presenting abstract mathematical concepts in a more creative and personal way…
For example, a standard equation for graphing lines on a slope such as y = mx + b might become a hamburger, with y representing the
whole burger, m referring to the meat, and x standing in for spices.
Multiplication is indicated by the fact that the meat and spices are mixed
together, and b is added to represent hamburger buns. Students then write a
story about the burger or draw a picture of it.
What? How is
drawing a burger related to slope? One abstraction (slope) is replaced by even
greater abstractions. The concept of variable is muddled and equations are
presented wrongly as recipes. Worst of all, this is referred to as a hands-on
project when it’s just coloring.
Corporations often write curriculum tie-ins to their
products. Some are shameless marketing ploys while others are more altruistic.
The NFL recently announced a $1.5 million marketing campaign to get kids more
active and fight obesity - a noble public service gesture. It’s not their fault
that curriculum is bad. They’re just playing along.
A language arts
lesson has students create and perform a rap that demonstrates action verbs. A
science lesson has kids play scooter tag, with one group of students
representing cholesterol and another representing healthy hearts. (Associate
The NFL might solve two problems simultaneously. The Kansas City
Chiefs can become the Cholesterols and the Redskins, the Healthy Hearts. Racist
mascots could be replaced with scientific models while local school kids rap
about vascular plaque. Multiple-choice comprehension questions appear on the Jumbotron.
Lola Falana Math
Textbook publishers use graphics and word problems to
recycle old content. Units often begin with “real-life” content to help
students make “connections.” One 7th grade math text has a photo of
Walter Matthau dressed as Einstein. I know what the curriculum designers are
thinking. Kids are just nuts for
The text below the photo reads something like, “In the
classic motion picture, I.Q., Matthau plays Albert Einstein. Meg Ryan is his
niece and Tim Robbins is a mechanic with a crush on her… Later in the film Tim
Ryan’s character asks the niece, ‘How old is your uncle?’ Einstein overhears
the question and yells from the other room, ’10 times 2 to the third.’”
Get it? They’re teaching exponents. What a hoot! All of the
film stuff was unnecessary trivia that distracts from what should have been a
simple arithmetic problem – not that anyone would ever express their age in exponential form.
The point of exponential notation is what? How does it work?
Surely, the mere invocation of Einstein in the passage makes
this a science lesson too.
I Know What You’re
Gary is against “bad” curriculum like the examples above.
No, I oppose all of it. Curriculum is the arrogant folly of adults who don’t
know the children who will play cholesterol scooter soccer, yet are
self-ordained to prescribe what those students should know and when they should
know it. Curriculum is the weapon of choice for ranking, sorting and labeling
children. It is indifferent to individual needs, talents or desires. Worst of
all, curriculum creates an impermeable barrier between teacher and student.
Without curriculum, failure would more difficult as would the assorted
pathologies of discipline problems, drop-out rates and
violence that plague too many schools.