Lists and Designing Curricula

It's been a favorite hobby of educators over the years to churn out extensive lists which supposedly provide the definitive answer to the question, "What should an educated person know?" If you know everything on the list, the idea goes, you are well-educated. School-age children have good reason to fear such lists.

In the last century, the methods for producing such "literacy lists" have become increasingly "scientific." One of the most famous of such lists was produced between 1915 and 1919 by the Committee on Economy of Time in Education, a committee of the National Education Association (NEA). This group performed an extensive study of the activities people engage in on an everyday basis, and tried to isolate what knowledge they need to effectively perform those activities. The list that resulted filled a staggering eight volumes of things one should know.

This NEA effort was based on a seemingly right-headed idea: Look at the things adults do, then teach children what they need to know to do the same things. At the heart of this effort was the idea that teaching children the things which tie into their everyday experience and interests will help with what they will want to do. But the committee made a basic mistake. Instead of producing a guide which could help different children pursue different interests, the committee instead produced a uniform list dictating what was necessary for all children to know.

Literacy lists inevitably harm educational efforts. They take control away from teachers and students and cede it to distant authorities. The more detailed such lists are, the more harm they do. The longer these lists grow, the more teachers need to rush through the items and teach to the test, and the likelihood decreases that teachers or children will be allowed to think for themselves in the classroom. This problem is endemic to the notion of literacy lists. Though the NEA effort set a standard for rigorous analysis, it also legitimized the idea of bulky literacy lists, an idea which, unfortunately, is gaining currency today.

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