Monday, April 5, 2010

On Jack Johnson, Trains and Curriculum ...

I was listening to Jack Johnson's excellent album In Between Dreams today when his song Breakdown came on. Here is an except of the lyrics for those who have not heard this song (which ranks as one of my favourite songs of all time):

I hope this old train breaks down
Then I could take a walk around
And, see what there is to see
And time is just a melody
All the people in the street
Walk as fast as their feet can take them
I just roll through town
And though my windows got a view
The frame I'm looking through
Seems to have no concern for now

When I first heard this album I was living in Cape Town, South Africa working as a waiter at a Mexican Restaurant (I know, it makes no sense). I listened to this song a lot as I was backpacking around Southern Africa and it resonated with my wish to get out of the bus I was in to explore everything that was rushing by me. But the bus kept going ...

Today, it hit me an entirely different way. I was thinking about all the times in school when we are exploring a curriculum mandated topic and the students and teacher would love to stop the curriculum train to explore the current topic. But the train keeps going ...

It seems to me that our current model of education views curriculum as the train; it drives education. This model may be preferred by some as it removes much of the control from the individual teachers, who may choose to teach different topics. However, what it fails to do is to allow for exploration, to permit creativity and to generate passion about the topics. We have a set time to explore a topic, and whether or not we want to move on, we must when the time is up (or we need to dredge through 3 more weeks on a topic no one cares about).

What if we instead switched our model and made the curriculum the track and allowed the teachers to control the train. We would all have a set path to follow, but we would be allowed to stop and gawk when it was appropriate. Or to speed on through when the scenery wasn't to the groups liking. We could even stop the train in the station for a day or so and go on a walkabout; exploring that stop in more detail because our students wanted to.

Imagine that, no longer needing to view the curriculum just through our window frame which, according to Jack Johnson, "seems to have no concern for now", but instead getting out of the train and seeing things unobstructed, freely, and without restraint.


  1. Matt,

    This needn't be a hypothetical idea. It needs to be a literal and direct one. Teachers feel consumed by standards and covering every page in the textbook or every nuance in the curriculum. I say take a look at the state standards, cut everything else, and we would all realize how much time we can manufacture. In addition, if information is relevant to students, then they are more likely to become engaged. The "train" needs to stop all the time, and, even better, it should only stop when individuals feel like getting off. No train should be stopped at the same station and have everyone getting on and off. They should be free to investigate what appeals to them.

    Once we realize how much time we can make by letting kids wander, we will cover far more curriculum, content, and skills than ever before.

    Nice post. Jack is great.

  2. Thank you Aaron, I completely agree with your ideas. With curriculum comes an urge to cover it completely. Something about beating a dead horse comes to mind ...

  3. I really do like the metaphor of the teacher being the tracks!

    I also like that this model would provide flexibility from year to year!

  4. This is a great analogy and a great song! I think you are so right that because of the scope of what needs to be taught the information can't always be explored the way it could or should be.

  5. I hadn't thought of the teacher being the tracks. Personally, I think that implies too much rigidity, curriculum is rigid, but teachers must be fluid to adapt to ever changing circumstances.

  6. Thank you! I always found it a shame when a student had a fantastic tangent to explore that we had to drop because of time restrictions. I think that stifles learning.