The Taught Curriculum and the Learned Curriculum

The distinction between the taught and the learned curriculum – something I was first introduced to at the Klingenstein Summer Institute – has been one of the more valuable ones for reflecting on my own pedagogy and teaching. In brief, this idea points to the difference between the taught curriculum – the words, ideas, themes, images, etc. that come out of the educator’s mouth – and the learned curriculum – the words, ideas, themes, images etc. that make it into the students’ minds and memories. Each time I reflect on this distinction, I find myself newly humble in the face of the challenging endeavor of teaching and learning. 

It is not necessarily too difficult to teach a good class, or at least an entertaining one: I can have some jazzy visuals, tell an entertaining story, throw in some pop-culture references – lots of options. From my side, as the teacher, things will have gone great: I may see some nods, there will probably be some student engagement and involvement, we might even have a robust discussion at times.

However, all that I will really know and be aware of is my subjective experience as an educator, as the speaker of certain words. I will only be able to make inferences about the experience of being a student in my class. And, if I’m being fair, there can be plenty of data, especially if I’m observant: are the students asking questions? Participating? Texting? But I do not really have a clear sense of what their experience of being in my class is like, and I do not really have a clear sense of what (if anything) they have learned.

Unless I ask them.

This process of asking students gets into the crucial distinction between the taught and the learned curriculum. As an educator, what I really need to understand is what my students are learning in my class. And to do this, I need to use some kind of tool – some kind of assessment.

How can I understand what students are learning? This question is a fundamentally different one from a question I began my career asking: what am I teaching today? In the latter case – the example of the taught curriculum – the emphasis is on me, the educator. In the former case – the example of the learned curriculum – the emphasis is on the students, the learners. (A friend of mine who directs a college writing programs speaks to his students about the difference between writer-centered prose and reader-centered prose, and the necessity of the latter. I think there’s a parallel distinction here.)

And now we get into assessment: how do I come to understand what my students are learning in class? What tools or instruments do I use to measure learning and understanding? Assessment is obviously a broad topic, and I hope to return to it at times on this blog. For the moment, though, I just want to share a short end-of-class assessment that helps me to get a good sense of where students are. (In education jargon, this is a formative assessment, as opposed to a summative one.)

I usually give students what I refer to as a 3-2-1. I ask them to write 3 things they learned, 2 questions they have, and 1 thing that either went well (or didn’t) that day in class. To do this, all I really need to do is: 1) remember to do so; 2) leave 3-4 minutes at the end of class and 3) bring some paper for them to write on. (I usually cut a sheet of blank paper into quarters.)

To be frank, I don’t do this kind of assessment often enough, but it can be tremendously helpful in planning what to focus on the next day. I always do this when I introduce Marx to students, and I’ll often do it when beginning a new unit – it can help me get a sense of where students are struggling and where students feel ok. It also helps to reveal moments of tension or intellectual curiosity: after one class discussion on creation stories in Genesis, nearly every 8th grade student wanted to know who wrote the Bible. While I wasn’t planning on going in that direction in my next class, I was able to shift gears and be more responsive to their interests.

The 3-2-1 method might strike some people as a bit too open-ended for an assessment, but it is endlessly modifiable: sometimes I do only a 2-1, asking for two things a student has learned and one question they have. I could just as easily ask for their thoughts on a specific question or topic: alienation or dharma or Confucian ritual or anything else.

What this short assessment does, most importantly, is get me out of my head. The method of evaluating the success (or not) of a class is no longer solely how I experienced it. Instead, it is on these sheets of paper that, in the aggregate, provide a reasonably clear picture of where students are today and what they’re thinking about. It doesn’t matter how clear my explanations are to me; what matters is how clearly certain ideas are to the students.  And I can only learn that information if I ask them.

Asking them often and in low-pressure environments – instead of just once, in a unit-ending test or essay – helps to check their understanding and ensure that adequate progress is being made. (It also makes possible more responsive teaching, as seen in the above example.) But that is really a topic for another day, when I’ll try to look more closely at formative and summative assessments.

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2 thoughts on “The Taught Curriculum and the Learned Curriculum

  1. Pingback: Four Noble Truths Lesson Plan, Part One | Teaching (mostly) Asian Religions

  2. Pingback: I used to think…but now I think… | Teaching (mostly) Asian Religions

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