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.

1 comment:

  1. I'm no longer in the game, but I think you're really on to something. My two cents:

    "understanding of a concept" How precisely do we know that a student in Middle School "understands" a concept. While a written test can be a useful data point, it seems to me that it's a very poor metric.

    There is just too much noise in a snapshot of how they applied a concept at a particular time and a particular place.

    A better way is the "portfolio". But I don't know of a systematic way to measure a portfolio? I think it may, in principle, be almost impossible.

    That leads me to think we would be better off with a binary grading system, as described at

    It should be, as usual, a very interesting #edchat.

    (@ToughloveforX) Michael Josefowicz