Curriculum as Conversation: Transforming Traditions of Teaching and Learning

Curriculum as Conversation: Transforming Traditions of Teaching and Learning

by Arthur N. Applebee


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Curriculum as Conversation: Transforming Traditions of Teaching and Learning by Arthur N. Applebee

“Applebee's central point, the need to teach 'knowledge in context,' is absolutely crucial for the hopes of any reformed curriculum. His experience and knowledge give his voice an authority that makes many of the current proposals on both the left and right seem shallow by comparison.”—Gerald Graff, University of Chicago

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226021232
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/28/1996
Edition description: 1
Pages: 158
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.50(d)

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Curriculum as Conversation

Transforming Traditions of Teaching and Learning

By Arthur N. Applebee

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1996 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-02123-2


Introduction: The Role of Tradition

I begin with tradition: what we mean by it, how it shapes our individual and cultural lives, and, most of all, its relationships to what and how we teach. I will argue that the power of education is intimately bound up in the social and cultural traditions within which education is set. These traditions enable and transform the minds of individuals raised within them, and are in turn themselves transformed by those same individuals. Traditions change as the circumstances that surround them change; in that way they preserve their power to guide the present and the future as well as to reflect the past.

The rhetoric of educational reform, however, has distorted the nature of tradition and its relationship to education. Tradition has been construed as antiprogressive, out of date. It is attacked for preserving the status quo, resisting reform, obstructing social justice. Reinforcing these connotations, conservative educationists have turned to tradition as a source of common values, social stability, and intellectual attainment (see Adler, Van Doren, Bennett, and Bloom). Matthew Arnold's title Culture and Anarchy (1867) starkly encapsulated the choice as he saw it, and his rhetoric continues to echo through our contemporary debates.

But that characterization of education and tradition is simplistic. In particular, in this book I will argue that traditions are the knowledge-in-action out of which we construct our realities as we know and perceive them, and that to honor such traditions we must reconstrue our curriculum to focus on knowledge-in-action rather than knowledge-out-of-context. Traditions in this sense provide culturally constituted tools for understanding and reforming the world, tools of which we, Janus-like, are both heir and progenitor. As we move through life, we learn to draw upon many different traditions that provide alternative, often complementary, ways of knowing and doing—of defining the world and of existing within it.

I write these words sitting at a window at the Villa Serbelloni, in the Lake District of northern Italy, surrounded by traditions. The villa walls are three feet thick, built out of layers of plaster and rubble using techniques that go back thousands of years. My study is in a building that has been a church, a monastery, a private home. It still houses a chapel. Out my window are olive trees and grape arbors, cultivated and harvested using techniques that may be older still. We drink the wine at dinner. I write in English but am surrounded by Italian, two modern languages with prehistoric roots in Indo-European. My writing is supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, a modern incarnation of an ancient tradition of philanthropy and patronage. I write on a laptop computer, the latest advance in the equally ancient tradition of scribes and scholars.

The traditions that surround me, then, are both ancient and living. The cultural knowledge that they represent—the tools for making sense of and living in the world—draw from the past but speak to the present and the future: the wine must age; my words will pass from my computer screen to a printed page, and perhaps to a database in an electronic library. So it is with all of the traditions that surround us—those of architecture, agriculture, engineering, the arts, religion, history, science, mathematics, literature. They are traditions of knowledge-in-action, deeply contextualized ways of participating in the world of the present. They live through their use, not through the passing on of knowledge-out-of-context.

Though we sit in the midst of many kinds of traditions, the ones on which I will focus are primarily linguistic. I will be concerned with the traditions of discourse within which we preserve and transform our cultural knowledge, and in particular with how students can better be taught to enter into those traditions through formal schooling.

Discussions of curriculum in American schools and colleges have usually focused on what is most worth knowing: Should we stress the Great Books, the richness of multiculturalism, the basic literacy needed in the worlds of work and leisure? But these arguments have been based on false premises and reflect a fundamental misconception of the nature of knowing. They strip knowledge of the contexts that give it meaning and vitality, and lead to an education that stresses knowledge-out-of-context rather than knowledge-in-action. In such a system, students are taught about the traditions of the past, and not how to enter into and participate in those of the present and future.

In this book, I offer a vision of curriculum that redresses that balance, placing the emphasis on the knowledge-in-action that is at the heart of all living traditions. Such knowledge arises out of participation in ongoing conversations about things that matter, conversations that are themselves embedded within larger traditions of discourse that we have come to value (science, the arts, history, literature, and mathematics, among many others). When we take this metaphor seriously, the development of curriculum becomes the development of culturally significant domains for conversation, and instruction becomes a matter of helping students learn to participate in conversations within those domains.

In elaborating my argument, I explore the ambiguities in my subtitle: Traditions can transform the individual, providing powerful tools for understanding experience; individuals also transform traditions, through the ways in which they make use of and move beyond the tools they inherit; and to ensure that this continues to occur, our traditions of teaching and learning must be transformed so that students learn to enter into the ongoing conversations that incorporate our past and shape our future.


The Individual and Tradition

If, as I will argue, curriculum needs to be rethought in order to foster students' entry into living traditions of knowledge-in-action rather than static traditions of knowledge-out-of-context, what is the nature of such traditions in individual and cultural life? What does it mean to enter into culturally significant traditions of knowing and doing? By examining the relationships between individuals and the traditions of knowing and doing amid which they live, this chapter provides a framework for thinking about what we should expect of our schools and colleges.

The social world of which any individual is a part is richly structured with traditions of knowing and doing that affect all aspects of life. Many of these traditions are encoded in cultural systems of symbolic representation—language, the arts, mathematics, science, religion, history. Each of these is a system of knowledge-in-action, a universe of cultural activity with characteristic ways of knowing and doing as well as characteristic content (on such traditions see Cassirer 1944; S. Langer 1942). For the individual, these systems of representation and the traditions encoded within them represent potential fields of activity, domains for entering into and taking part in culturally appropriate ways of knowing and doing. "Taking part" is key in the relationships between individuals and these larger cultural universes. We each must learn to take part in the traditions that encompass the knowledge of the larger culture, and remake them as our own.


What does this process of entering into traditions look like? There is nothing particularly mysterious about it; in fact it is so natural that the most obvious examples are transparent, going on all the time without being noticed except by the linguists and psychologists and anthropologists whose business it is to study such things. The first sets of traditions in which we each learn to take part are those of the home and immediate family. These are traditions of language use, of roles and relationships, of individuality and communality that differ from family to family and community to community. These traditions form the background against which the more formal learning of the school will eventually take place.

There are many different genres of language use embedded in the traditions of everyday life. We learn ways to share information, to greet friends and say goodbye, to tell stories, to worship. Such genres are highly conventionalized; in learning to use them, the individual learns appropriate content and structure, as well as a web of expectations about when and how each genre may be used. As such they are a good example of knowledge-in-action: Though children learn at an early age how to use them, scholars still debate how to describe the knowledge that genres reflect (just as they debate how best to describe language itself).

The many forms of storytelling provide a good illustration of the different kinds of knowledge-in-action that learning the genres of everyday life may encompass. Though storytelling seems to occur universally across cultures, expectations about stories—what a story is, how it is to be interpreted, and when it may be appropriate to tell—may differ markedly from family to family and culture to culture. The traditions of storytelling that children learn first are those of their homes and families. In some families, storytelling is a context for demonstrating individual creativity and verbal play; in some, it is a context for accurate recital of events (and deviations are taken as lying); in some, it is a communal activity, with shared parts and multiple authorship (see Applebee 1978; Heath 1983; Blum-Kulka and Snow 1992; Wolf and Heath 1992). Thus the traditions of storytelling that are available for children to take part in, like other traditions of knowing, provide both a resource for the individual to exploit and a set of constraints on what will be appropriate to do.

In some cultures, stories provide a bridge from the oral culture of everyday life to literate traditions that are reinforced in formal schooling. Andrea Fishman has described (1990) the ways in which an Amish family encouraged even preschool children to take part in the literate world that played a central role in family as well as religious life. Recounting six-year-old Eli's preschool experiences with literacy, Fishman noted,

Because oral reading as modeled by [Eli's father] is often imitated by the others, Eli, Jr., always shared his books by telling what he saw or knew about them. No one ever told him that telling isn't the same as reading, even though they may look alike, so Eli always seemed like a reader to others and felt like a reader himself. When everyone else sat reading or playing reading-involved games in the living room after supper or on Sunday afternoons, Eli did the same, to no one's surprise, to everyone's delight, and with universal, though often tacit, welcome and approval. When the other children received books as birthday and Christmas presents, Eli received them too. And when he realized at age six that both of his brothers had magazine subscriptions of their own, Eli asked for and got one as well. Eli never saw his own reading as anything other than real; he did not see it as make-believe or bogus, and neither did anyone else. (P. 32)

At first glance, Fishman's account seems an ideal representation of family support for literacy. But she goes on to emphasize that the ways in which even preschool children are involved in reading and writing embody certain assumptions about what taking part in these activities will mean. The literacy events of Eli's household emphasize accurate recall, the ability to discover the single right answer to every question, the ability to empathize with people in texts and perceive the moral lesson their experiences teach, and formulaic affirmations of a shared social world. They do not encourage speculation about possibilities or alternatives, analysis of motives, or enumeration of parts. Reading materials are limited to safe topics, distributed by the family's church or church-related organizations, or scanned for appropriateness by the adults in the household. And literacy learning will end at the eighth grade, as it did for Eli's parents. Other kinds of traditions of literacy—of creativity, for example, or of argument and analysis—would be viewed by Eli's Amish parents as a threat to the traditions that structure their home and community. (Indeed, when the teacher at the local school, herself Amish, introduces some changes in the curriculum, she is dismissed; see Fishman 1988.)

Thus even for a child as young as Eli, reading and writing are highly contextualized forms of knowledge-in-action, embedded in the traditions within which they are acquired. Being literate involves much more than just the ability to decode and encode written language; it involves ways of thinking—ways of literate thinking, as Judith Langer (1987) has called them—that shape the sense that will be made of text and of the world. In becoming literate within his world, Eli is taking on intellectual traditions—cultural tools—valued by his parents, his community, and his religion. They provide him with new ways of knowing and doing, of making sense of the world around him. Like all traditions, they open some possibilities and close off others; and as living traditions, they will continue to grow and change in response to new circumstances. (Thus the Amish, who may seem anachronistic to outsiders in modern American culture, have successfully adapted to the change around them. Eli, as he grows older, will become part of the continuing process of change and adaptation, working within or even against the culture he has become part of.)


The genres of everyday life are the genres acquired in the process of taking on the traditions of the home, family, and immediate communities in which the individual participates. There exist, however, many other genres that have evolved in more specialized traditions of knowing and doing—in the workplace, in schools, in the professions, and in academic disciplines. Like the genres of everyday life, these specialized genres offer the individual new ways of knowing and doing, of making sense of and sharing ideas and experiences.

Education in general (and formal schooling in particular) is fundamentally a process of mastering new traditions of discourse. These traditions begin with elaboration of the discourses of everyday life—storytelling, sharing of information, understanding the roles and relationships of home, school, and community. Such discourses become increasingly specialized and formal as a student moves through the educational system—evolving in most cases into the discourses characteristic of the academic disciplines. Each constitutes a set of cultural tools for analyzing experience within a particular domain of interest and identity—and situating oneself in relationship to it.

In acquiring these tools, students are learning to participate in a variety of socially constituted traditions of meaning-making that are valued in the cultures of which they are a part. These traditions include not just concepts and associated vocabulary, but also the rhetorical structures, the patterns of action, that are part of any tradition of meaning-making. They include characteristic ways of reaching consensus and expressing disagreement, of formulating arguments and providing evidence, as well as characteristic genres for organizing thought and conversational action. In mastering such traditions, students learn not only how to operate within them, but also how to change them.

The specialized genres with which I am most concerned here are those of the academic disciplines. There is nothing particularly sacred about the way the academic world is currently divided: Academic knowledge has been organized in a variety of ways at different times (from the trivium and the quadrivium to the highly differentiated specialties of the American research university), and fields of specialization have been organized, reorganized, subdivided, and combined on a relatively regular basis. The field of English studies is itself relatively recent in origin, though it builds upon fields of study (logic, rhetoric, oratory) that go back to the philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome. What the academic disciplines do represent at any given moment in time is the current state of an ongoing dialogue about significant aspects of human knowledge and experience. The disciplines exist because thoughtful people care about the traditions of knowing and doing that they represent; they are culturally significant in the sense that they are sustained by a culture over time and place, and in the sense that they are continued beyond the life of any particular individual. Any given tradition of knowing and doing may lose its significance as the dialogue among individuals, cultures, and traditions continues; thus such fields as alchemy and phrenology have lost their relevance and no longer sustain serious discourse. We study them today for what they may tell us about other times and places, rather than for direct insight into our own.


Excerpted from Curriculum as Conversation by Arthur N. Applebee. Copyright © 1996 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

1: Introduction: The Role of Tradition
2: The Individual and Tradition
3: Deadly Traditions
4: Curriculum as Conversation
5: Characteristics of Effective Curricula
6: Structuring Curricular Conversations
7: Recent Curriculum Proposals as Domains for Conversation
8: Toward a Pedagogy of Knowledge-in-Action
9: Reconciling Conflicting Traditions

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