Monthly Archives: December 2010

Some Thoughts and Three Questions About Curricular Experiences

Part of my job involves writing curriculum.  For a long time I found it really hard to wrap my mind around exactly what that means.  Was it just thinking up some neat courses for students to take?  Was it reading through pages of complicated standards, and making sure that some class everyone took covered every one of them?  Was it even something that you could do well— and if so, how?

As I kept teaching, and then became a curriculum director, I saw that deciding a curriculum meant thinking about two things: first, what was it that students should know or be able to do; and second, what should students have to do in pursuit of that knowledge and those skills?

Depending on your school, the word “curriculum” is tinged with either freedom and excitement or restriction and rules.  It might be about learning, or it might be about coverage.  It might be a flexible, living set of ideas that can grow and shift to include new ideas, or it might be doctrine, a set of laws as immutable as the periodic table– which, maybe some chemist will tell me, actually can be mut-ed.  My hope is that when thinking about where students need to be and what they should do to get there, a few things will happen.

First, get the students’ input.  One thing that looking at 20th-century curriculum history tells us is that using a series of outside agencies, think-tanks, and other groups to decide what students to learn might be a good way to increase rigorous content, but it leads to a lot of back-and-forth.  Any time you have one group saying we need more math and science, there’s another saying that we need more art instead.  It’s the back-and-forth that’s behind the “reform wars” that prevent a whole lot from getting done.  It’s not to say that all outside agencies are bad; the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, for instance, does a great job of figuring out exactly what those skills are.  But an agency that says its agenda is the secret to improving schools is necessarily short-sighted.  Schools don’t need just more math or just more art– they need more everything.   Asking students what they might want to learn about sounds simple enough, but as the professionals, it’s easy to get caught up in fighting our own battles, and lose sight of what the students in question might want to learn.

Second, involve the teachers in writing curriculum.  Curriculum specialists are all well and good, but since the teachers’ job is to enact the curriculum, they can’t be treated as soldiers who simply carry out orders.  Maybe the most leaderly thing a curriculum director can do, paradoxically, is give leadership away to those who will bring the curriculum to the students directly.  Treat the teachers like professionals, and give them their say.  That’s what leads to buy-in– a whole-school effort and everyone on the same page.

Maybe the most important, and final consideration when thinking about a curriculum is to ask these three questions:
1) Does the experience ensure the best opportunity for mastery of the subject matter?
2) Is the experience provided in a way that fosters the development of 21st-century skills and habits of mind in students?
3) Is the experience grounded in relevance and real-world application?

If a new curricular experience– a new course, an assessment, a trip, a collaboration– fulfills these three requirements, then it’s probably worthwhile.

Thanks to all my readers out there– I wish you all a wonderful holiday and a very happy new year!

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The Three Steps to Problem-Solving

Every day, I see school problem-solving efforts started and stopped, and started again and stopped again. Or they meander, with no one being sure exactly what should be done first.  Or one person burns out after carrying too much of the load.  Or projects fizzle out because they lose shape and the people involved lose track of who’s supposed to be doing what.  The English teacher in me wants to quote Yeats:

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold”

That’s one of the most ominous lines of poetry ever written.

There are so many good ideas for solving what-seem-to-be-intractable problems whizzing around schools, but so few turn into anything actionable.  I see good projects implode at three times: the start-up phase, the refinement phase, and after it’s been running for a bit– the “loss of inertia” phase. I’ve found that there are three steps that need to be taken when problem-solving.  Following them, I think, can turn a good idea into action, and keep it up beyond the honeymoon, when everyone’s excited over what’s new.

1) Collaborate

We as a society are miles beyond the need to address our problems on our own.  We work in schools with dozens of professionals, and hundreds or thousands of kids.  We can connect to other teachers and school leaders through email, Twitter, Diigo, wikis, Facebook, and an endless list of educational journals.  There is great wisdom in crowds, as James Surowiecki and Francis Galton know, and solving problems together harnesses the brainpower of everyone involved.  I had been a life-long individual problem-solver, and until recently I wasn’t convinced about the wisdom of crowds.  But after working on deep, entrenched problems like achievement gaps, outdated curricula, and ineffective, teacher-centered instruction, I’m convinced that one person can’t do it all, can’t see every possible solution, and can’t have every experience on which to draw.  There are giants on whose shoulders we can stand, and there is great power in collaboration, networking, and teamwork.

2) Articulate

Teaching vocabulary and literary devices made me see the power of articulation.  My students could always read definitions, but not until I forced them to put things in their own words did they truly grasp what an unusual or complex word meant.  The dictionary definition for irony always fell flat, for instance– but try articulating it in your own words, and it becomes understandable to you.  Or try poetry.  Or metaphor— and you can’t use the phrase “without like or as.”

Until you can articulate exactly what’s wrong and exactly how you think it should be, you can’t effectively work on a solution.  Putting things into words has power– witness anyone who’s ever written down their thoughts in order to see how they really felt about something (Author’s note to himself– insert mirror here).  Articulation lets collaborators define the problem, map out specific solutions, and be on the same page in their efforts.  This might be the hardest of the three steps, but it’s the fulcrum on which the others hinge.

3) Sustain

Good problem-solving efforts are only as good as they can be sustained.  If you’ve created a wonderful student rewards program that has students reading like never before in exchange for points they can redeem for more books, you’ve created every educator’s dream.  What you haven’t done is make sure that the program continues once you leave the school to become an administrator, or a writer, or a teacher somewhere else.

So how do you ensure sustainability?  The best way is to find ways so that more people have a stake in the project.  If it’s just you, you are the project.  If a group is responsible for the work, there’s more structure and stability.  If everyone is invested in the solution– here’s why school-wide buy-in is so essential– the solution can be more intractable than the problem once was.

Another provocative line from Yeats’s poem is

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

If that’s not enough to motivate you, what will?  Problem-solving is never easy; every school has unique challenges and roadblocks to get through before success.  But we must be up to the challenge, and find not just the necessary passionate intensity, but the kind of systematic collaborating, planning, and following through that changes the unchangeable.

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