Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Does curriculum need to go on a diet? A follow-up to #edchat

As expected, tonight's #edchat was not disappointing as we talked about how to deal with an overloaded curriculum.  It was as fast and furious as ever.  There are some things I'm sure I missed and probably will miss even after reviewing the archive dozens of times.  After trying to pre-load the discussion earlier, I came away with even more questions and ideas tonight.  These are the ones that were most impactful to me.

At the risk of sounding like a traitor, sometimes I wonder how many times we as teachers are responsible for our own problems?  A lot of discussion centered around teaching standards, not long lists of content.  Out of curiosity, I ran the North Carolina Standard Course of Study for sixth grade science through Wordle and was surprised at the results, particularly the prominence of the higher order verbs "analyze" and "evaluate".  Of course there is the possibility of the curriculum writers covering themselves to look good.  For the sake of argument, let's say that is the case.  If the "official" curriculum is stated this way, the teacher now has plenty of freedom on how she or he teaches the course.  We just don't do it.

Let's look at a different curriculum such as math.  I'm also a math teacher and math always seem to stand as the exception to the possibilities.  Math tends to be skilled based, at least for K-8.  Doing the same thing as with the science curriculum, the results are dramatically different.  It's hard to find the verbs.  When you do, they are lower level.  Waldo is easier to find than the verb "analyze".  Two dynamics are at work here.  One, math is just a different beast.  Two, maybe it's not as rigorous as we'd like to believe.  HOWEVER, I do think that it is possible to weave the goals and strands in such a way as to cover concepts that are demonstrated by all the skills we worry about being on the end of year test.

Another common error we make as teachers is confusing curriculum with the textbook table of contents.  Textbooks are even more arbitrary than curriculum is.  This fallacy is not as common as it once was because of district imposed pacing guides.  Now the pacing guide becomes the curriculum impostor.  As someone said tonight, it's interesting that we are told to focus on higher level thinking skills with particular concepts that are given one day on the pacing guide.  How one should deal with the pacing guide is a more delicate matter.  It is largely dependent on your school and/or district admin.  For some the consequences can be quite severe if the  pacing guide is not strictly followed.  That's a sad indictment on the state of education.

Moving away from condemning ourselves, another very important point was made tonight.  Content cannot be thrown out.  Even if a conceptual framework is going to drive future curriculum development, then it is still permissible to select particular content to teach those concepts.  Someone else noted that there are some important content pieces that are being cut out, perhaps wrongly so.  The example given was the Holocaust.  Of course, these will always be subjective judgments.

After tonight, I'm not as dismayed about the future as some.  Despite what the talking heads and policy makers tell us, I think we can make it work as the folks on the front line.  What do you think?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Content vs. Concept or "How do I cover all this stuff?"

In anticipation of the January 26 edition of #edchat, @paulawhite and I are going to try to preload some thoughts for deeper discussion. I agreed to take on topic #1 in the poll – With an overloaded curriculum, what should be emphasized and what should be eliminated? A few disclaimers ahead of time:
1- There are a lot of people out there much smarter than I on this subject.
2- There are a lot of people out there much more articulate on the subject than I.
3- I'm very opinionated, handicapped by numbers 1 and 2 above.
4- I teach a course that "doesn't matter".  More on that later.

Here's where I predict #edchat will go on this subject. Eventually, if not quickly, the subject of end-of-year summative assessments and their knowledge based, level 1 questions will come up. The topic of NCLB, RttT, and all other insufficient (first instance of strong opinion) means of measuring success will get thrown around. We will all protest that these measures “require” us to squeeze in an impossible amount of content to be regurgitated at the end of year. We will all lament not being able to teach thinking skills, how to learn, creativity, etc. or as someone will call them, 21st Century skills, starting a sidebar argument about that label.

I currently teach a course that “doesn't really matter” - sixth grade science. Here's why it doesn't matter – there is no end of the year test. In North Carolina, there are end of grade tests for fifth and eight grade science, but not sixth. This year, NC temporarily discontinued the eight grade computer skills test because of funding. The scores were not part of NCLB rankings, so money was diverted elsewhere. By the way, this goes to show that we aren't all that concerned about testing what really matters are we? (there's that opinion thing again) Last year when I taught seventh grade math, the stakes were much higher for me, or so it felt. All year my PLC was frustrated because, in our opinion, most of the standard course of study was above where seventh grade students are developmentally.

Before I answer the real question, a few paragraphs heavy on philosophy, opinion, and perspective. After school today my teammates and I were discussing this very issue in the context of whether we are adequately preparing our students for next year, i.e. next year's teachers. As a team, our quarterly assessment scores generally run higher that the rest of our grade level. We have far less behavior problems. Most students who have been predicted to not meet proficient standards (“pass”) on the end of year assessments are performing well above expectations. Our final grades for the grading period are generally higher than the rest of grade level.

The question we tried to answer was, “Are we being too soft or too easy on these kids?” We concluded that we are not. We are rigorous in the content and skills we expect the students to master. We have a shared philosophy regarding grades in that everything is basically seen as a formative assessment. You get to retake an assignment as often as necessary to master the material. We have frequent and immediate remediation on all tasks. NOTE: This does not mean simply re-doing the same exact assignment. In a nutshell, our philosophy as a team is that we believe we should be teaching skills and concepts, not force feeding knowledge.

As we discussed this matter, we had a sudden light bulb moment that enabled us to formulate a hierarchy of what the major focus should be in various grade levels of school. We concluded that we believe that elementary school (K-5) should focus on building prior knowledge and reading. Middle school (6-8) should focus on developing skills such as how to do research, how to learn, how to think, how to work collaboratively, problem solving skills, etc. High school then becomes a place where the focus can be to build specialized areas of content by building on prior knowledge and applying the skills learned in middle school.  This might not be original, but it was new to us today.

It became even more apparent why the current system just isn't working. As policy makers complain that we are not preparing students for the current economy and current high school students have tuned out because they don't understand the basics, it has been erroneously concluded that the solution is to push more of the content down to lower grades. Therefore, sixth graders need to start taking Algebra 1, which is false because most of them are not developmentally ready (another opinion but one I think is correct).

So, what does all this have to do with the question of what to emphasize in an already overloaded curriculum? If the division of education foci I propose above has any merit, then the answer will require some tweaking for each level. What I believe is constant across all levels is the need to identify those essential standards and connecting concepts across the standard course of study. As a sixth grade science teacher in North Carolina Public Schools, I don't think it's all that important that a kid be able to classify a sedimentary rock into any particular subgroup of said rocks. However, it is important that a student understand that the earth's surface is in a state of constant change as various geologic forces act together, shaping continents, providing the dynamics necessary to drive the rock cycle, and produce the various minerals and other natural resources we use in a variety of ways. Scott McLeod shares a similar story regarding knowledge of a neuron.

I am a firm believer that understanding of a concept leads to better content retention. I have colleagues who go from steps in a process to grasping the larger concept in their instruction. I tend to work from grasping the larger concept to guiding the students in discovering the steps themselves. Either way will appeal to different groups of individual learners. The common theme is getting to the point of grasping the concept. That conceptual framework provides connections to many more points of content.

Hopefully I have set the stage for a more in-depth discussion of this topic. Before #edchat ever takes place, seeds of thought can begin to germinate. Long after the unofficial time constraint of one hour has passed, this can be a place to debate and flesh out ideas as they surface. I haven't given any specific strategies. That's one place where we can all begin to contribute more, not just in 140 characters on Twitter, coming fast and furious, but in well thought out replies. #Edchat will provoke dozens of other ideas. Let's not lose the possibility to capitalize on those once the hour is done.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Joy of Learning

My wife and I are both the oldest children in our respective families.  Naturally, we started having kids before our sibs.  It's interesting to watch all my nieces go through the stages we have already passed through.  Sometimes it's a relief to say, "I'm glad we're through that!" and other times it's "I miss when they were that age."  My youngest niece is 7 months old.  Her entire life centers around exploring and learning.  She is so excited about everything around her.  I really do miss that stage of my boys lives.  Samantha is learning so much in such a short period of time.

A kindergarten teacher told me today that she chose that grade level because "it's the last fun grade in school."  What?!  That can't be.  Certainly it takes us at least three or four years to beat the enjoyment of school out of them doesn't it?  Thinking about my niece made me think about how I could create that type of environment in my classroom.  What would it take to foster a "I want to learn and explore everything" attitude in my classroom full of learners?  Tonight's #edchat addressed that very thing.  How do we best promote student ownership in their learning?

There were a lot of great ideas thrown out.  I'm looking forward to trying some of them out.  Heck, I'm even looking forward to trying out some of my own ideas :-)  That's part of the problem.  My friend @kellyhines concluded her participation in tonight's #edchat with this tweet:
Something about tonight's #edchat isn't sitting well with me tonight. We know the what & the how, so why isn't "ownership" happening?
I confess.  Ownership isn't happening in my classroom as much as I'd like.  Sure, almost all of my kids enjoy my class, even love my class.  What kid wouldn't when their teacher is as big a goofball as I?  Plus, I'll stop a lesson on a whim or a student prompted question to go off on a tangent and project all the findings on the screen.  But where is the ownership?

Last fall I set up all sorts of goals.  My classroom was going to be a "learning community".  Students would be self-directed, wholly invested learners.  It went great for the first quarter.  Then I got tired of staying up until 1:00 am every night.  All sort of other deadlines hit me.  I was negotiating philosophical perspectives with my PLC.  All I had time for was the usual.  Our first week back from winter break, one of my kids asked, "When are we going to do all the stuff like we used to do?"  I was caught red-handed.  I was convicted of my own sin.

To answer Kelly's question, it's hard to make it happen every day.  Some of us have a lot of bad habits to unlearn and even more good habits to learn.  There is the reality of NCLB, RttT, and every other false measure of accountability (editorializing? yep!).  There is the pressure we all feel to make the grade.  We talk about wanting to dig all the way to the bottom of Bloom's, but something about those pacing guides and standardized testing keeps us from leaving the shallow end of the pool.  But we still have to strive for it everyday!

I'm idealistic enough to believe we will see more student ownership of learning.  I believe it will happen because the number of us who share our own joy of learning is growing each day.  It will happen because there will be enough of them who don't get sucked dry by the system and they will become teachers themselves.  They will force shared ownership/leadership in their schools and districts.  And I believe I will see it in my day.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Week of Faves

Tonight I sorted through about five days worth of links I had tagged as favorites on Twitter.  Some I retweeted out immediately.  Others, those listed below, I wanted to send out but pose my own take or question for further reflection, inviting discussion on those issues.  So, without further ado . . .

  • The Reflective Teacher: a Taxonomy - These are great ways to reflect upon our practices. How can we ensure that we incorporate such reflection in our practices, PLC's, etc.?
  • How to Put a Laptop in the Hands of EveryStudent - Are any of us willing to sacrifice to make this a reality?  How forceful should administrative policy/direction be to make this happen?
  • We Have to Model Failure - How many of us really think failure is a good thing?  How many of us are willing to admit failure? How many of us are ready to let a student demonstrate they know more than we?
  • Making Teaching a Profession - Some will be offended or insulted by this article.  Once you get over that, reflect on how you implement some of the recommendations even though you are already out and working.  I like this suggestion: "the problem he has seen at dozens of programs was that there was 'no connection between the clinical experience and what went on in the university.' Ideally, he said, students 'would teach in the morning, spend the afternoon learning theory connected to what went on that morning, and then preparing for the next day.' ”
  • A 21st Century Drill/Warmup -  An awesome exercise.  A great springboard to help us create other similar practices with our students and utilize all the tools out to their fullest.
I liked several others enough to bookmark them on Delicious.  Check out the one's I saved today .