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Real Curriculum is a US-based company that provides consultation and support to public and private educational organizations and institutions as well as to companies who are developing education-related products and services for children and adults.

Its president, Dave Hendry, has more than 40 years experience in a wide range of educational contexts, and is expert in the design of experiences that engage learners in the development of true understanding.

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Students

Here’s a question that’s popular with IQ test writers:

Which of the following is necessary element for education to occur?

a) teachers
b) schools
c) textbooks
d) students

This isn’t a tough one--I suspect most folks know that the answer is (d). But getting it right on an IQ test doesn’t necessarily mean we get it right in life.

First of all, what exactly do why mean by the word “student”? Is it someone enrolled in a school or paying tuition? Surely not—they would at least have to show up.

Is it someone sitting in a classroom, real or virtual? I have to say I’ve been in lots of classrooms with young people for whom getting educated on the subject of the day was just about the last thing on their minds. And on the other side of the coin there’s a great deal of education that occurs outside of classrooms (some would say most of it).

With all that in mind, a ways back I settled on a definition for “student” that I’ve found led to useful insights about education both in curriculum development and professional development contexts:

A student is someone who is attempting to learn something.

Exercising the logical skills that IQ test was meant to test, the first conclusion we would draw from this is that you cannot educate someone who isn’t trying to learn something, because you don’t have the only essential element of education, a student.

That in turns means the first task of an educator in any context is make sure your students are motivated to learn the subject. The primary and pervasive system used in schools for this is the examination system, with the concomitant threat of low grades leading to a terribly grim future.

That’s not to say that teachers don’t strive to motivate students in other ways. The good teachers, which is most of them, certainly do, knowing that fear is an extremely poor way to engage learners.

I’ve seen three especially effective motivations for learning:

1) The student decides that knowing the subject is important in terms of their own personal short-term or long-term goals.
2) The student is just interested in and curious about the subject for whatever reason.
3) Learning the subject is fun.

Truly great teachers—and curriculum designers—know how to inspire all three.

The “Real” Curriculum

Occasionally people ask me why I decided to name my company Real Curriculum. It’s kind of a long story.

In an education career spanning 5 decades, I’ve carried out or guided curriculum development work in a range of widely different contexts: private schools, non-profit foundations, public schools and districts, professional development, ed-tech, tutoring, adult health education, textbook editing, documentary and instruction television production, textbook publishing and more. And for the first 25 years of that work I have to confess that I wasn’t really certain of the answer to the question “What IS curriculum?”

It's not that there aren’t plenty of definitions available. A state Department of Education or school district might think of curriculum as the expectations they have for students—the standards they’ve established for learning in all of the disciplines and all of the grades.

A textbook company is more likely to think of curriculum as what’s included in the products they produce—that is, the content materials that they are hoping students will learn from: student texts, teachers’ guides, workbooks, practice exams, copy masters.

A college professor probably thinks of the curriculum as the topics they’re going to cover, aka their syllabus.

For a K-12 teacher the word is likely to bring to mind their lesson plans— what it is they intend to have happen each day in class, and what they hope students will learn from it.

What each of these meanings have in common is it allows educators to think of curriculum as something that they can fully control. But what if that’s just hubris?

What has never sat right with me about the widely accepted meanings of curriculum was that all of them describe what we as educators were doing, but not what our students are doing. Yet one thing above all others that I have learned about education over these 5 decades is that even when they all read and do exactly the same things and answer the same questions, each student has a different learning experience.

Every well-intentioned, responsible, professional educator that I have known has developed the sensibility and habit of thinking about what happens during learning not just from their own point of view, but from their students’ points of view. And I believe that most if not all curriculum developers would agree with me that the essence of successful curriculum design is the ability to put yourself in the shoes of the people you wish to serve through that design.

A while back these thoughts led me to a definition for the word curriculum that has served me, and I hope the students I work for, every since:

Curriculum: The experiences a student has in the process of learning.

To differentiate this definition from the others, I came to call it the real curriculum—the curriculum that actually exists in our classrooms and wherever students are learning. It is the real curriculum that we seek to influence through all of the others—standards, instructional guidelines, textbooks, lesson plans, and digital learning experiences. Those efforts are all worthwhile, but it only when we recognize that they are also somewhat artificial and do not represent what’s is happening in the minds of the students we serve that we fully understand that education is not an activity in which we are the leaders and our students are the followers, rather it is a collaboration between us and our students in which our job is to provide opportunity and their job is to take advantage of that opportunity as they travel their own paths toward the achievement of learning goals that are meaningful to them.

And that’s why I came to call my company Real Curriculum—to remind myself every day that my job is not to control, but to help.