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Traditional curricula tend to be very content-based and rooted in the core disciplines. It is a structured approach that involves the teacher delivering a unified curriculum through direct instruction. Students usually learn by observing and listening to their teacher, studying facts and concepts in textbooks, and completing both tests and written assignments—which challenge students to not only demonstrate their mastery of content but their ability to analyze and deconstruct it critically. Class discussions are also used to create critical dialogue around the content of the curriculum.
There is a strong emphasis on objective evaluations of student achievement.
The approach is based on the philosophy of educational essentialism, whose proponents believe in instilling students with the fundamentals of core subjects in a systematic and disciplined way. Traditional curricula emphasize “core knowledge”—knowledge of facts—as a prerequisite to higher-ordered learning activities, and so structure the curriculum and lessons accordingly. The curriculum is delivered in a linear and sequential fashion: as if laying brick on top of brick, where students only move on to the next step once the previous one has been fully mastered.
Private schools with traditional curricula have remained popular with parents who believe that public schools have abandoned some of their important education features, says Barbara Bierman, executive director of the Ontario Federation of Independent Schools.
Critics of the approach say it applies a one-size-fits-all learning sequence that discounts the uniqueness of each student’s developmental path. They argue that the top-down instructional style stifles students’ natural sense of exploration and creativity, and that too narrow a focus is placed on academic achievement at the expense of other developmental goals.
Defenders of traditional curricula say the critics fundamentally misunderstand creativity and exploration: “you can’t connect the dots without first having the dots” is a common refrain.