The single most crucial element for the iterative design of developmentally meaningful adolescent programming is what I call a Pull Curriculum.

The idea of the Pull Curriculum is informed by my experience as a Montessori teacher and elaborated for the secondary level. Teachers curate a co-working environment, offer collective learning experiences, introduce new materials and ideas, and create occasions for work or engagement, but: what content students engage with in greater depth, how soon after initial exposure, how frequently, through how much repetition, judged by what criteria, and leading to what further studies: in a Pull Curriculum, these variables are determined primarily by the students.

Where do you ever see THAT force set loose?

If The Curriculum is understood as the combination of the cultural content and the intellectual, social, and emotional capacities we hope our young people will acquire through their work at our school,  here’s a metaphor that gives a feel for the difference between what I call the Pull Curriculum and the widely and uncritically accepted, standard, Push Curriculum:

Imagine the Pull Curriculum as a number of hummingbird feeders swinging alluringly from a variety of different trees in a lovely glade. Each of the feeders offers a unique feeder design, distinctive nectar ports, and a healthful and handcrafted nutrient solution. The feeders attract a roaming population of hummingbirds.

The push curriculum, on the other hand, places a captive and prostrate population of  hummingbirds on a single rapid-drip sugar solution IV.

Feel the difference? If you ask which feeding system reliably dispenses approved and standard nutrients to more hummingbirds, faster – the answer is obvious. If you ask which system better serves the well-being of the hummingbirds, the answer is also obvious.

When we think of our children’s education in terms of this metaphor, we cringe, and want to look the other way. But it’s no exaggeration. We, the people, continue to let a compulsory “standardize and universalize” model of education drive our understanding of school accountability, to our own children’s detriment.

Unfortunately, in the current education climate, the older students are, the more likely it is that a pull curriculum will be considered reckless or indefensible.

At the pre-school level, most parents can remain fairly relaxed about whether children are “getting” the exposure to the x, y, and z that young Jojo is getting down the street. In that context, a pull curriculum can take effect fairly easily.

At the elementary level, it’s increasingly difficult for teachers who define their work as humane and responsive to dig in against the benchmarking forces of the standardized tests, which tend to be supported and affirmed by the most vocal and activist parents (even in private schools). In the abstract, parents may be skeptical that standardization is a good thing, but they fear the long term consequences of opting Ezzy out.

By the time young people get to middle school, it’s virtually impossible for any but the most intrepid parents and educators to carve out the cultural or pedagogical space that lets a pull curriculum build the necessary momentum.

Assessment practices designed for a push curriculum “contaminate” (on all sides of school interactions – teacher, learner, parent) the subtle motivators that drive a pull curriculum, serving to fulfill the prophesy that pull curricula don’t work.

But when we have the faith to hitch learning to the engine of student interest and developmental need, programs recursively designed around a pull curriculum have the potential to demonstrate exciting and diverse outcomes.

Educators who want to develop and implement authentic, humane, developmentally sound adolescent programs must, must, MUST espouse and intentionally create conditions for a defensible pull curriculum.

The critical factors in making the pull curriculum possible are:

1) a learning environment intentionally curated and sparsely and beautifully furnished to speak to the developmental needs and appetites of the learners,

2) structured invitations to engage with inspiring adults, compelling work, and contextually relevant content,

3) a culture of liberty to choose the nature, pace, frequency, extent, social context, and evaluation rubric for academic work, including the space to make unfortunate (if not unsafe) choices,

4) deliberate scaffolding and ongoing individual support for student initiative and choice,

5) deliberate individual and group reflection, goal setting, and evaluation, among both students and staff (as well as guidance in developing the skills of self-assessment),

6) a faculty community committed to a recursive practice of iterating on the environment and the work through coherent observation and regular discussion and reflection, based on the goal of identifying what conditions promotes i) deep, imperturbable engagement; ii) spontaneous desire to repeat, advance, and perfect work; and iii) evidence of physical and psychological health and thriving in students.

It’s easy to understand the temptation to succumb to the ubiquitous external pressures to implement the traditional, standardized, “safe” curriculum du jour. 

Without a true pull curriculum, though, it’s impossible to design a program that adapts by design and continuously evolves to serve the thriving of our young people

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