ERIC Identifier: ED447970
Publication Date: 2000-12-00
Author: Brazee, Ed
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Elementary and Early Childhood Education Champaign IL.
Exploratory Curriculum in the Middle School. ERIC Digest.
Exploration of students' "specialized interests, aptitudes, and abilities as
a basis for decisions regarding educational opportunities" and vocational
decisions was long ago identified as one of the essential functions of the
junior high school (Gruhn & Douglass, 1947, pp. 31-32). In 1995, the
National Middle School Association (NMSA) reaffirmed the importance of
exploration, calling for a "curriculum that is challenging, integrative, and
exploratory" (1995, pp. 20-24). In both instances, exploration was meant to
apply to the entire curriculum. In practice, in the junior high school and
especially in the middle level school, the goal of exploration has been
interpreted most often as a set of separate "exploratory" courses such as art,
music, technology, and family and consumer science (George, 2000/2001). Many
schools also include clubs, activities, and mini-courses under the exploratory
Exploration is important for young adolescents because it ensures hands-on,
participatory, meaningful, and engaging experiences. It has endured because it
meets the most fundamental of middle level concepts-it is developmentally
responsive and academically challenging. While many books on middle level
education speak favorably about exploratory courses as a key component in middle
level schools, the research on most aspects of "exploration" is sparse, focusing
on frequency of offerings rather than on student or teacher responses to
programs (Bergman, 1992).
THE ROLE OF EXPLORATORY CURRICULUM
The middle school
curriculum has traditionally included both core and exploratory courses. Core
courses generally include language arts, social studies, science, mathematics,
and sometimes reading. Exploratory courses such as drama, foreign language,
music, art, health, life skills, and technology provide young adolescents with
experiences in areas beyond the core subjects. In some schools, exploratory
courses and experiences are simply referred to as "exploratories"; in others,
they are called related arts, allied arts, unified arts, encore courses (to
distinguish them from core courses), or specials.
For many students, middle school may be the last opportunity to explore new
subjects and interests, the last time to learn to play the flute, learn to speak
Spanish, or learn to cook a new dish.
Another benefit for many students is that exploratory courses such as art,
drama, and technology actively engage students, allowing them to learn new
skills and try out new ways of thinking. The purpose of exploratory courses,
whatever the label and whatever the content, is to offer wide-ranging
opportunities and experiences that students would not otherwise have.
EXPLORATION ACROSS THE CURRICULUM
While many schools have
focused on exploration through separate classes, mini-courses, activity
programs, and other student activities, some schools have made their entire
curriculum exploratory. An NMSA position paper (1995, pp. 23-24) states that
there are three earmarks of an exploratory program. First, an exploratory
program enables students to discover their particular abilities, talents,
interests, values, and preferences. This self-knowledge helps students to
prepare for adult life, not only in terms of vocation, but also as family
members and citizens. Second, courses and activities are taught so as to reveal
opportunities for making contributions to society. Finally, exploratory
experiences acquaint students with enriching, healthy leisure-time pursuits,
such as lifetime physical activities, involvement in the arts, and social
service. Looked at in this way, opportunities exist for all areas of the middle
level curriculum to be exploratory.
EXPLORATORY COURSES--OPTIONS AND OPPORTUNITIES
schools, exploratory offerings are holdovers from vocational training days-home
economics and industrial arts, as well as art and a foreign language (Van Til et
al., 1967). In other schools, these types of courses may be combined with other
special courses or activities into an activity period including short or
mini-courses. Offerings such as line dancing, calligraphy, soccer, and board
games, which are used as a way to break up the academic day, give students an
opportunity to work with peers and teachers (and sometimes parents or community
volunteers) and give both teachers and students chances to work in areas of high
interest to each. In other schools, more academically focused courses such as
creative writing, mythology, or public speaking are offered outside the regular
day and are included as exploratory offerings. Still other schools develop
extensive classes such as "create a museum" and the "art of living" that
complement a school's regular curriculum (Wayne, 2000).
Exploratory programs are varied in two other key ways-who selects the
exploratory offerings and how long they last. Some schools encourage students to
select from different options, some have required electives with little or no
choice, and some work to gradually introduce choice to students as they progress
through their middle school years. Length of time for each of these options
varies as well. Some schools may offer and some students may choose short
courses meeting once or twice a week; others may elect a course for a trimester
or semester and then switch for the next term. Some schools devote an entire day
to exploratory activities once a month (Epstein & Mac Iver, 1990).
ISSUES IN IMPLEMENTING EXPLORATORY CURRICULUM
concerns about how exploratory courses relate to other core courses, how core
and exploratory teachers communicate, and how or whether to grade exploratories.
What exploratory courses should be offered? How do exploratory courses support
core courses, and how do core courses support exploratory courses? In short,
what should constitute the middle school curriculum? Too often, in their zeal to
offer a wide variety of courses, administrators and teachers offer too many
different courses for short time periods, which result in students being "exposed" but leaving little time for true exploration of a subject. To combat
this problem, some schools focus on fewer courses for longer periods of time.
Another problem is the lack of communication and collaboration between core
and exploratory teachers. Since exploratory teachers most often form their own
teams, they may be excluded from essential decision making and discussions by
the academic teams. Doda and George (1999) suggest options through extended
teams where exploratory teachers serve as representatives on academic teams,
rotating team connections, core-exploratory liaisons, and connections through
Should exploratory courses/experiences be graded? Some teachers think that
grades do not support the exploratory nature of the experience and may inhibit
students' willingness to try new experiences. Unfortunately, some students and
parents subscribe to the idea that without a grade, an exploratory course has
little value. Some middle schools include exploratory courses in grade averages
while others do not, because they feel not including exploratory course grades
promotes more non-threatening participation in new experiences. With more
emphasis on state and national standards, high-stakes testing, and assessment,
nearly every middle school is feeling pressure to use its time to optimum
advantage. At the middle level, this pressure often translates into fewer
exploratory courses or new "exploratory" courses that offer less exploration and
look more like the usual school subjects (Jackson & Davis, 2000).
Exploratory experiences in middle schools
are more important than ever for young adolescents. The current emphasis on
standards and testing should not limit students' opportunities to pursue varied
interests and build on their strengths. Given current expectations and
conditions in middle schools, there are at least three major directions for
middle schools in regard to exploratory curriculum:
Articulate more clearly how exploratory courses are an integral and critical
part of the middle school curriculum. In many schools, the role and purpose of
exploratory curricula are not understood even by a school's faculty and
students. The exploratory function is too often viewed as an extra, taking away
from the core curriculum.
Ensure that everyone understands that exploratory and academic are
complementary, not competing or opposing concepts. Exploratory courses or
activities engage students in ways that core courses often do not. Certainly, a
middle school curriculum that is totally exploratory-allowing students wide
options from which to choose, different ways to view the world, and various
opportunities to succeed-goes a long way to meet the needs of young adolescents.
Align exploratory offerings more closely with the regular curriculum. Beane's
(1993) suggestions for an integrative curriculum arising from students'
questions and concerns about themselves and the larger world suggest a way to
effectively and meaningfully integrate both core and exploratory offerings. For
example, when students identify saving the environment as a focus for study,
exploratory areas like health, technology, and art become part of the overall
curriculum, joining language arts and science as tools to explore this complex
Middle schools continue to embrace exploration
as a guiding principle across the school curriculum. The importance of
exploratory experiences in the middle school curriculum is supported by both
practitioners and the limited research available. Where the middle school
curriculum becomes more integrated and less subject centered, exploratory
experiences play a pivotal role, as they are integrated into every aspect of
schooling. Even in separate subject contexts, exploratory courses provide
students with meaningful learning that directly relates to their known need for
a wide variety of experiences.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Beane, J. (1993). A MIDDLE SCHOOL
CURRICULUM: FROM RHETORIC TO REALITY. Columbus, OH: National Middle School
Bergman, S. (1992). Exploratory programs in middle level schools: A
responsive idea. In J. Irvin (Ed.), TRANSFORMING MIDDLE LEVEL EDUCATION (pp.
179-192). Boston: Allyn and Bacon. ED 354 598.
Compton, M. F., & Hawn, H. C. (1993). EXPLORATION: THE TOTAL CURRICULUM.
Columbus, OH: National Middle School Association.
Doda, N., & George, P. (1999). Building whole middle school communities:
Closing the gap between exploratory and core. MIDDLE SCHOOL JOURNAL, 30(5),
Epstein, J., & Mac Iver, D. (1990). EDUCATION IN THE MIDDLE GRADES: AN
OVERVIEW OF NATIONAL PRACTICES AND TRENDS. Columbus, OH: National Middle School
George, P. (2000/2001). The evolution of middle schools. EDUCATIONAL
LEADERSHIP, 58(4), 40-44.
Gruhn, W. T., & Douglass, H. R. (1947, 1956, 1971). THE MODERN JUNIOR
HIGH SCHOOL. New York: Ronald Press.
Jackson, A., & Davis, G. (2000). TURNING POINTS 2000--EDUCATING
ADOLESCENTS IN THE 21ST CENTURY. New York: Teachers College Press.
National Middle School Association. (1995). THIS WE BELIEVE: DEVELOPMENTALLY
RESPONSIVE MIDDLE LEVEL SCHOOLS. Columbus, OH: Author. ED 390 546.
Van Til, C., Vars, G., & Lounsbury, J. (1967). MODERN EDUCATION FOR THE
JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL (2nd ed.). Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill.
Wayne, B. (2000). Spotlight on exploratory courses. MIDDLE GROUND, 3(5),