It has become something of a truism in education that we should not seek to march students through an age-based curriculum. There is a wide range of ability within any year-group. As Geoff Masters notes in a recent piece for The Conversation, this could be anything up to six school years. So it seems obvious that we need to cater to these individual needs rather than deliver a standardised curriculum regardless. This reasoning has some merit although I do believe that many approaches to differentiation create significant practical problems.
Yet I also believe that there are positive arguments for exposing students of the same age to the same curriculum and I don’t think these are often aired.
1. Some concepts are not hierarchical and you gain coherence from studying the same things
Many areas of curriculum content do not necessarily build upon one another. There may be a good argument for sequencing the teaching of history chronologically but it would be eccentric to argue that the cognitive demands of studying the Middle Ages are greater than those of studying Ancient China or that understanding of the Middle Ages is somehow dependent upon understanding of Ancient China in the way that, say, understanding of multiplication and division depends on addition and subtraction.
Similarly, which should come first; reading informational texts about health and exercise or reading informational texts about the local town?
In practice, few schools would have some students in a year-group studying one area of history and others studying a different area and so it is implicitly recognised that marching all students through the same contexts is fine.
And there are advantages to such curricula coherence such as the way in which teachers and schools can build resources over time, plan yearly field trips and so on. Moreover, if this sequence is replicated at a state-wide level then students who move schools won’t risk studying the Romans three times while never encountering Mesoamerica.
2. Teachers probably make incorrect predictions about what students can cope with
A deep problem with the idea of varying the curriculum to meet individual students’ needs is that someone has to make a decision about what that should look like. If a particular student is struggling with a particular concept then how do we extrapolate from that in order to figure out what other concepts we should and shouldn’t expose her to.
As a teacher, I am not confident in my ability to do this because, every day, students surprise me with what they can and cannot do. Given that we also know that teachers are all too prone to cognitive biases, we run the real risk of underestimating students and giving them an impoverished curriculum. Perhaps this is an issue of equity?
I often feel that I am at my best when I am teaching an examined course, a concept is on the syllabus and I have to try to find a way of getting a student to understand it, whether I personally think they are ready for it or not.
Instead of saying, “Don’t bother teaching these kids about quadratic functions,” perhaps we should say, “Figure out a way of teaching these kids about quadratic functions.”