Where Everybody Knows Your Name

As I fired up my computer to begin working on what is my first post for EDU 6524 Curriculum Design I realized that it has been a month since my last post and it is tax day. Reflecting on these two incongruent facts (I’ve already filed taxes and am eagerly awaiting a refund that I will receive regardless of whether I write this post or not), I thought it would be interesting to see what other events have occurred on April 15 throughout history. According to various websites there are some noteworthy events that have ensued through the years: during the Belfast Blitz in 1941, two-hundred bombers of the German Luftwaffe attacked Belfast, Northern Ireland, United Kingdom killing one thousand people; in Buenos Aires 1953, six people were killed by a bomb at a rally addressed by President Peron; and in the US in 1986 111 warplanes attacked Libya in response to the bombing of a discotheque in Berlin on April 5, 1986. At first blush, these are disparate facts that seemingly contain little if any connection to each other. Indeed, if I memorized these facts in hopes of one day firing one off Cliff Clavin-style at a propitious moment during a social occasion…well, I believe the outcome would be less than desirable. I would be guilty of amassing bits and bobbles of knowledge but would have gained little understanding of the world. While we may use words like knowledge and understanding somewhat interchangeably, they are decidedly not part and parcel of the same thing.

You can do what I do, it’s Prehensile Isometric Geometrics.

(Coach: “Huh?”)

Prehensile Isometric Geometrics

(Coach: “What is it?”)

Oh, it’s muscle tension under constant contraction. See the beauty of it is you can do it anytime, anywhere but you don’t perspire.- Cliff Clavin

According to the authors of Understanding By Design, Wiggins and McTighe (2005) “An understanding is a mental construct, an abstraction made by the human mind to make sense of many distinct pieces of knowledge” (p. 37). In the example above, Cliff is explaining his exercise approach to the lovable but ever gullible character Coach. Breaking down Cliff’s statement, we can see that he is able to grasp (prehensile) and engage in pushing his muscles (isometric) on a regular basis (geometrics) all without breaking a sweat. Seems straight forward enough, yet I would argue that Cliff has missed the greater point of exercise, namely to engage in both aerobic and weight-bearing movement and activities to strengthen the body, heart and mind while shrinking the belly; sweat is a desired and necessary component of exercise but Cliff has failed to deeply understand health and fitness. Similarly, if we look back at the distinct pieces of knowledge that I mentioned in my opening paragraph, it is easy to see that each of these events are somehow related to bombs or bombing around the world at political rallies, during wartime and Nation-State retaliation to like grievances; one is still left with so what and now what? In other words, what is the big idea at play here? As educators, it is imperative that the curriculum addresses the big ideas or core of the subject. Wiggins and McTighe (2005) warn us that, “Learning that does not penetrate to the core of what is vital about an idea yields abstract, alien, and uninteresting lessons” (p. 68). Much as the bar patrons at Cheers engage in rolling eyes and under the breath mumbling as Clavin spouts off yet another random bit of knowledge, educators that lack the foresight to structure a curriculum around the big understandings risk the danger of teaching the text out of a sense of expediency; they may “cover” the curriculum but fail to build understanding. Big ideas, as framed by Lynn Erickson and cited by Wiggins & McTighe (2005) get to the heart of Understanding by Design (UbD); they are the essential questions that cut to the core of our content areas, and in some cases, across. Essential questions are:

  • broad and abstract
  • represented by one or two words
  • universal in application
  • timeless-carry through the ages
  • represented by different examples that share common attributes (p. 69)

“It’s a little known fact that the tan became popular in what is known as the Bronze Age”. ­Cliff Clavin

When we use the UbD framework, the first stage is to identify desired results for students; goals and standards that are related to essential questions that can lead to enduring understandings (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005). In other words, we must make a decision or judgment about what we teach and why. Parkay and Ancil (2010) guide the way in this important decision-making: “Curriculum criteria, then, are guidelines or standards for addressing the central question in the field of curriculum: What knowledge is of most worth? What to exclude from the curriculum is as difficult to determine as what to include” (p. 5). As a teacher, it’s easy to get caught-up in favorite activities and personal likes that distract and derail us from the core elements of our content area. At the end of the day, it comes down to our students learning how to think and how to learn through continual questioning; it is not enough to know that bronze is a copper-based alloy of a deep yellowish brown color indicative of a particular age; one must also understand the cultural and racial connotations related to skin color to not to make the brazen mistake that Cliff Clavin does by equating sunbathing with the Bronze Age. As I glance back at my three bits of knowledge, I wonder how I could frame an essential question that could create a framework for cohesive questioning? I spent some time thinking about potential essential questions that would help to anchor these facts against a backdrop of core understanding around the social studies curriculum; Are acts of violence against unknown victims ever justified? or perhaps Does the end ever justify the means? Students cannot engage in the type of questioning that reaches into the core of their beliefs without becoming engrossed in deep, ongoing inquiry. An inquiry of this nature cannot be completed in one class period, semester or perhaps even in a lifetime for some; it varies according to each individual students interpretation of historical and current events, ethical sensibility and ability to take on another perspective with each novel situation.

“It’s a little-known fact that the smartest animal is the pig. Scientists say if pigs had thumbs and a language, they could be trained to do simple manual labor. They give you 20 to 30 years of loyal service, and at their retirement dinner, you can eat them”. Cliff Clavin

The final fact that I would add to this list of bombings is the most recent in US history, the two explosions that occurred near the finish line of the Boston Marathon killing three and wounding more than 170. We do not yet know the who and the why of this senseless act but time will reveal more. While I may never truly understand how someone can justify the random killing of innocents, I can strive to understand their perspective so I can better understand their motive; this may not change the past but it can shed some light on the why. Perhaps we should let the pig alone and call it fair.


April 15. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/April_15

Famous Quotes and Quotations. Retrieved from http://www.quotesquotations.com/cheers/cliff-clavin-quotes.htm

On This Day. Retrieved from http://www.on-this-day.com/onthisday/thedays/alldays/apr15.htm

Parkay, Forrest W. & Ancil, Eric J. (2010). Bases for Curriculum Leadership: Goals and Values. In Forrest W. Parkay, Glenn Hass &, Eric J. Ancil (Eds). Curriculum Leadership: Readings for Developing Quality Educational Programs Ninth Edition (pp. 15-20). New York: Pearson.

Wiggins, Grant and McTighe, Jay. (2005. Understanding by Design 2nd Edition. Virginia: ASCD.


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