Until relatively recently, curriculum content, especially in elementary schools, was very much the domain of the individual classroom teacher, and it was quite common to find that teachers of the same grade level in the same school, while teaching the same basic program, were using content matter that was quite different. This was sometimes viewed with alarm by some parents who feared that their children were either missing out on something that might be required, or wasting their time on subject matter that they did not need. Their fear, however, was unfounded. They were too focused on the pragmatic value of content, while being unaware of the transferable thought processes involved.
Under most educational authorities today, curriculum guidelines are issued to schools and teachers, and the expectation is that all students will be exposed to certain core content. Some flexibility is still provided, of course, and teachers still choose content that enables them to teach the underlying principles that really matter. This represents good teaching, because it recognizes that the pragmatic value of curriculum content is frequently irrelevant to the intellectual development that is the true goal of teaching.
Basic skills in language and mathematics are to be distinguished from other curriculum content. When the basics are being taught, of course it is the skills themselves that must be learned. There is no confusion here, and the objective of lessons in these areas is to ensure that students acquire the means to express their thoughts correctly, both orally and in written form, and to develop numeracy to an acceptable level. In more advanced language and mathematics learning the question of pragmatic value may arise, but it is in other areas such as History, Geography, Sciences, and Second Languages that the most confusion arises.
Students, of course, can be excused for asking, "Why are we learning this?" when it comes to certain topics in an area that may not initially be of great interest to them. They may wonder why they are learning about the pigmies of the Kalahari Desert, for example, when it is extremely unlikely that they will ever visit such a place. But it can be easily explained to them that it is not necessarily those people in that specific location that are the point of the lesson. What is important is the structure of a basic society and how the development of values among a simple people relates to the values of our own society. These are the transferable principles that can be referred to in assessing and comparing societal relations, both in modern times and in a historical context.
The same kinds of questions arise in other areas, and it is important for students and parents alike to understand the deeper implications. Geography and Geology can be studied, not necessarily because one has a practical need to know, but because the skills and knowledge acquired through such a study will be invaluable in one's future endeavors. Second languages may have a pragmatic value if one intends to visit foreign countries. The study of a foreign language is worthwhile in itself, however, because it solidifies an understanding of one's mother tongue, and it provides a means to improve clarity of expression in both its oral and written form.
Intellectual development requires a variety of neural and cerebral stimuli. It is through such stimuli that hard-wiring of brain structures occur, and this is why concentrated learning in many areas is so beneficial. The pragmatic value of the content of learning is secondary. If curriculum content has an immediate practical application, so much the better, but it is the development of transferable thought processes that makes all learning worthwhile.
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