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Curriculum as Conversation: Transforming Traditions of Teaching and Learning

Tuesday, December 09, 2014  
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By Arthur N. Applebee

Reviewed by David Colon, Collegiate School
{Headlines} April 2013 

Curriculum As Conversation: Transforming Traditions of Teaching and Learning by Arthur N. Applebee is not a great book in the sense that it’s a pleasure to read. It’s pretty turgid prose and full of all the eduspeak that embodies most educational writing. But the book is nonetheless great. It puts into words some pretty powerful ideas that create some really interesting potentials for education. The basic premise is that we’ve spent too long teaching what Applebee calls “knowledge-out-of-context”. You know this term whether you’ve used it because most likely you’ve experienced it first-hand as a student and perhaps even unleashed some of it on students if you’re a teacher (I have). This approach often goes under the name of “coverage” or “background information”. Without it, the argument goes, kids will never be able to participate in meaningful conversations. The problem for Applebee is that this information remains “decontextualized and unproductive”.

The alternative is “knowledge-in-action” which introduces students into meaningful conversational discourses about a given area. In other words, rather than having students learn all about the basic facts of a given topic, the teacher instead introduces the students into some of the more meaningful conversations that people in the field are having. Sure, students will make mistakes and stumble, but they’re more likely to actually care about a given topic and even become engrossed in said topic.

The book is largely rooted in Applebee’s research into English curricula, so there’s a clear bias in terms of providing concrete examples. There’s also a fair amount of theory thrown into the text that gets a bit dense and reminds me of my graduate school days. Mikhail Bakhtin is mentioned frequently, as is Thomas Kuhn and others of that ilk. Still, I found those sections enlightening and they provided some much-needed context to Applebee’s premise. The style of this book will, I suspect, turn some people off, but I strongly recommend you read it and get into its core arguments. These are persuasive and worth the attention of educators and administrators


David Colon is Academic Dean at Collegiate School, where he oversees curriculum and professional development for faculty. David has taught history at the middle and high school levels since 1995 and currently teaches a class for seniors entitled “Can Video Games Save the World?”  He is an avid reader who spends much of his free time learning about education, leadership, philosophy and history. He’s also a world traveler and a hopelessly challenged – but dedicated – gamer (both old-fashioned board games and newfangled video games). David is the father of three Collegiate students and is still as curious about the world as he was in kindergarten.  David can be reached at dcolon@collegiate-va.org and he blogs at http://www.collegiatervablog.org/


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