Content as curriculum?

Steve Wheeler, Learning with 'e's, Dec 20, 2011
Commentary by Stephen Downes

There's been an interesting dust-up over the last few days involving some unlikely sources. It begins with this article on content as curriculum. Steve Wheeler argues that "the tired, just in case model of curriculum just doesn't make sense anymore," an argument familiar to most OLDaily readers. Instead, we see an endorsement of inquiry-based and authentic learning. The reference to Wikipedia may have tweaked someone's search alert, because erstwhile Wikipedia and Citizendium founder Larry Sanger responds to Wheeler's post with a missive titled An example of educational anti-intellectualism. Sanger's post is essentially a defense of declarative knowledge. "To be sure," he writes, "there are some teachers out there who have great contempt for books and what I would call substantial learning. But surely they are still a minority." Wheeler responds, arguing that he isn't against knowledge, just calling for "an end to the compartmentalisation of subjects within the curriculum." Brian Kelly, meanwhile, examines the failure of Citizendium. "It seems clear that in the battle between the online encyclopedia 'governed under more sensible rules, and with a special place for experts' has been unable to compete with the 'vibrancy and basic concept of Wikipedia.'"

I think that what we need to undertsand is that this isn't a debate between what is learned so much as how it is learned. You can go out and simply remember stuff you need to know - that is the declarative knowledge approach. And it works, and is often useful. But it may be more appropriate to learn the stuff - frequently the very same stuff through a process of projects, problem-solving and engagement. It's an approach that depends on using the knowledge, and not just remembering it. I personally favour the latter, not because I'm anti-intellectualist, but for precisely the opposite reason. I believe that knowing is much more than merely remembering. It involves understanding, and indeed, embodying. It's a type of knowledge numerous 'experts' lack, because for all their research they've never actually put their hands on the subject, which is why we need an encyclopedia that draws from the masses as well as from the elite.
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