Category Archives: curriculum and instruction

“We’re Not Entertainers, and This Isn’t a Bouncy Castle”*

I have sometimes heard that curriculum and instruction should be left to the professionals, sometimes as a reason school boards should stick to setting student achievement targets and leaving how to get there to the superintendent. So,  a few thoughts.

To talk about curriculum and instruction is to talk about the purpose of our schools, about our educational values. The curriculum and instruction offered by public schools–publicly funded and publicly governed through an elected school board–is, inescapably, a matter of public concern.

You wouldn’t know it from the lack of debate in our community, but there are public debates about curriculum and instruction going on in many other communities. The math wars, phonics versus balanced literacy, 21st century skills versus knowledge, and so on. It isn’t impossibly hard to get up to speed on these debates. Bennett’s Teacher Proof: Why Research in Education Doesn’t Always Mean What It Claims, and What You Can Do About It and Christodoulou’s Seven Myths about Education are particularly good places to start, as they both speak directly to the evidence basis of some current educational practices and guiding ideas, which matters as we aim for evidence-based universal instruction.

Christodoulou’s book is really focused on the importance of knowledge and evidence that facts and subject content knowledge are not in opposition to, but in fact support conceptual understanding, critical thinking, creativity, or whatever supposed “higher-order” thinking skill one prefers to facts. Christodoulou organizes her chapters into evidence establishing the myth is influencing practice and then examines modern research or evidence that demonstrates why the myth is a myth.

In Part I of his book, Bennett provides an overview of the difficulties of social science and educational science research and translating that research into practice. In Part II of his book, Bennett examines the research or evidence basis of currently or recently popular educational practices and ideas.

Spoiler alert: There isn’t much, if any, evidence supporting the educational practices and ideas discussed in these two books, as you might guess from the use of the word myth in Christodoulou’s title or if you knew that Part II of Bennett’s book is titled “Voodoo teaching.” There is far too much good material in these books for me to tackle in a blogpost or two, so instead of trying to summarize all of the arguments, research, and evidence presented in these books, I want to try to collect some links here to demonstrate that some of the educational practices and ideas described in these books are alive and well in Iowa. [Note: I’ve read both these books on a Kindle reader with no page numbers, so I’ll be making references to chapters.]

Christodoulou’s Myth 1: Facts prevent understanding [Chapter 1]. Christodoulou presents evidence of facts and content knowledge being stripped out of standards, with a focus on skills or understanding, as if we could have those without facts and content knowledge (we can’t).

This is a problem in Iowa, too, starting at the top with the Department of Education (DE). See for example, the proposed draft social studies standards, focused on “civic competence” as understanding and skills–light on content, but kids, starting in Kindergarten, are going to get a lot of practice writing letters to the editor. Here are two statements from the DE website subtly disparaging acquisition of factual knowledge as “rote memorization”, the first one about social studies instruction,:

It goes without saying that Iowa’s History Teacher of the Year knows a thing or two about history. But he may know even more on how to make history come alive, engaging students to pursue a subject that in the past emphasized rote memorization of dates and places.

And a second one about science instruction:

The new science standards are unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. They don’t put as much emphasis on content facts that teachers need to deliver to students in a classroom, but instead focus on what students should be able to do with the content they have learned.

The standards focus on student application of science content and skills versus the rote memorization of content facts. The standards are written to focus on teaching students how to be scientists and do science versus separating out the skills and content from the standards. By teaching students in a manner that makes them feel like a “real” scientist, we will be able to foster a sense of curiosity, increase creativity, boost confidence, and strengthen critical thinking skills.

Christodoulou’s Myth 2: Teacher-led instruction is passive [Chapter 2]If you are skeptical of the value of facts, you will probably also be skeptical of the value of the teacher-led instruction that effectively assists students to acquire factual and subject content knowledge in favor of teacher as facilitator, discovery or minimal guidance instruction. [See Nick Gibb: the evidence in favour of teacher-led instruction for a short run down of the evidence.]

You don’t have to look much further than our district’s motto (child-centered: future focused) for evidence that skepticism of teacher-led instruction is also an issue here. See also, for example, the district science curriculum review report that lists the following two points among the strengths of district science instructional methods:

  • Teachers are utilizing a student-centered, activity based approach to teaching science.
  • Students at all levels are involved in inquiry investigations and collaborate with their peers.

Christodoulou returns to this theme in chapter six, where she examines the myth that projects and activities are the best way to learn.

Christodoulou’s Myth 3: The 21st century fundamentally changes everything [Chapter 3]. It just doesn’t. If you are paying attention at all, it should be obvious that ideas about 21st century education are driving an awful lot of decision-making and spending in our “future focused” district right now, from 1:1 Chromebooks at the secondary level to serving as part of the FMP/GO bond sales pitch:

Christodoulou has some important commentary in this chapter that this idea about the 21st century being fundamentally different, and the actual technology difference, can be used to push content knowledge out of the curriculum, and thus deprive children of the opportunity to learn what they need to know to develop 21st century skills (which are actually not unique to the 21st century). However, here we’ll pop over to Bennett’s book, Teacher Proof, for some of his pull-no-punches words on 21st century skills and technology.

From chapter 9, titled “Buck Rogers and the twenty-first-century curriculum”, Bennett sums up the evidence for the 21st century skills movement as follows:

21st Century Skills: nice rhetoric, but empty of any evidence to back up its terrifying, prescient claims. Every time I hear a claim made by the movement about the absolute, vital, and over-reaching necessity that everyone, everywhere suddenly adopt these practices, I check out where they get their opinions from and find that, yes, they really are opinions. Opinions, based on opinions, based on opinions and we’re back to the turtles all the way down again. It seems a tremendously shaky platform, by which to base a transformation of the entire education sector. It seems a bad grounding by which schools are turned upside down, classrooms flipped and content stripped from the classroom. But there it is; it’s how it’s been justified, and it’s still happening. I kind of feel it’s my duty to point this out as often as possible because so much is happening so fast and on such little evidence; in fact, no evidence. It is, in the clearest possible way, a scandal.

There is loads more where that came from, but we’ll dash over to Bennett’s chapter 10 now, titled “Techno, techno, techno, TECHNO: Digital natives in flipped classrooms”, described by Bennett as “the Temple of Doom to 21st Century Skills’ Lost Ark.”

I think here we can remember that district administrators have already acknowledged that research does not support an expectation that student achievement will be increased by our technology programs. Here’s Bennett’s take on IT:

Use IT if it suits your style. Use it if it helps you. But don’t use it because you must, and certainly (if you have a budget for such things) don’t buy it because you don’t know what else to do. Good teaching relies on things that have been around for millennia: good subject knowledge; good classroom control; good communication skills; heart and guts. You don’t need anything else. Maybe a pen, if you’re feeling profligate. Everything else is chaff. Everything else obscures the teacher. I don’t need a damn thing other than my voice and a room full of kids. The rest is bull, dressed up as Buck Rogers.

I’m exhausted, and we haven’t reached Christodoulou’s chapter 6 on Myth 6: Projects and activities are the best way to learn (which calls into question the underlying premises of our statewide science and proposed draft social studies standards) or most of Bennett’s chapters on voodoo teaching that may or may not be relevant to us, including:

  • Multiple intelligences: if everyone’s smart, no one is (chapter 5)
  • Group work: failing better, together (chapter 7)
  • There are no such things as learning styles (chapter 12)
  • Game over: the gamification of education (chapter 13)
  • Learning to learn to learn to learn . . . . (chapter 14)

In any case, I haven’t really set out to have the debate about evidence for our curricular and instructional decisions, but encourage you to consider the possibility that this debate is needed. So, I’ll leave you with two more local examples.

Listen carefully to the GO bond presentation above and you’ll hear a reference to an action based learning classroom (right about 1:07:19) followed by an assertion that kids learn in different ways and a comment about brain research. Based on multiple payments made for purchases of materials and training (accounts payable 2/24/15, 3/24/15, and 6/23/15), I’m guessing that they are Action Based Learning classrooms. Here’s the compelling articles and research page, here’s a reference (book description) that the program is based on–wait for it–multiple intelligences and learning styles, and here’s a handout explaining Action Based Learning.

Check out this recent ICCSD Innovation & Technology Blog post, listing a benefit of technology program upgrades as being able to “facilitate promising new pedagogical approaches such as blended learning and personalized learning,  among myriad other benefits.” [Links within the quotes are from the original blog post.] The personalized learning link leads to an ISTE article with this assertion:

Personalized learning capitalizes on today’s students’ almost instinctual ability to use technology, but it is so much more than letting them use iPads, smartphones, whiteboards and other devices in the classroom. It is the purposeful design of instruction to combine face-to-face teaching, technology-assisted instruction and collaboration to leverage each student’s learning style and interests for deeper learning.

Digital natives and leveraging learning styles? Awesome. We really need to talk as a community, sooner rather than later.

*The title of this post is taken from Bennett’s Teacher Proof, chapter 7 on group work. The downside of having to pick a post title at the outset, is sometimes (more often than not?) a post can end up looking quite different than you anticipated when you set out to write it (weeks ago now). But I like it and I’m too tired to cast about for something better. So here’s the quote with more context:

There is nothing wrong with injecting a bit of fun into an activity by putting them in teams or getting them to cooperate with each other in a way that they find pleasant. As long as you remember that fun is an extrinsic aim of education, not an intrinsic one. We’re not entertainers, and this isn’t a bouncy castle, and I say that because I take their education seriously, and won’t waste a moment of their time when they could be learning.

Curriculum and Instruction

If you have been paying attention to the ICCSD school board, it should not be news that the district has a disappointingly large and persistent achievement gap. We have said we want to see improvements in math, and reading (and presumably science) proficiency. So we have talked about buses and demographically balanced schools through school attendance boundary changes. We have talked about implicit bias training and weighted resource allocation models and preschool and class sizes and the 1:1 Chromebook program and more.

What we are not talking about–at least not publicly, as a community–is curriculum and instruction. I’m pretty sure, for instance, that pest management issues have had more airtime at regular school board meetings than the district plan to implement the Next Generation Science Standards.

So why discuss curriculum and instruction? Besides that if we want better reading results, for example, talking about reading instruction seems the obvious place to start, consider this from an article on the ICCSD achievement gap in The Daily Iowan:

School District Director of Curriculum Diane Schumacher said the achievement gap, which has continued over the past five years, may be attributed to a lack of opportunity, parental involvement, or the English language barrier for Latino students.

“We see the achievement gap with students who are coming from homes that maybe don’t have the same opportunities for educational experiences that some of our other students might,” Schumacher said. “Homes that wouldn’t be able to have their kids going to summer camp, getting outside tutoring, and maybe even some that wouldn’t have their kids accessing pre-school.”

In other words, this seems to be an acknowledgement that district curriculum and instructional practices perpetuate out-of-school social inequities inside of our schools.

In the meantime, at several recent work sessions, we can start to see the opportunity costs* of talking about everything except curriculum and instruction. Embedded below is audio from a board work session in February, cued up to an exchange about the district 1:1 device program set to roll out next school year, which is costing approximately $1.5 million to start for technology upgrades and device purchases. Director Hemingway asks a question about whether we can expect a measurable increase in student achievement.

The answer is no. Administrators can go no further than student engagement may be heightened, attendance may go up, and students need to be able to use technology in the 21st century workplace, because research does not support the conclusion that achievement will increase as a result of the 1:1 Chromebook program.

At an education committee meeting the following week, administrators presented the student achievement action plan:

Student Achievement Action Plan 11-21-16

During the discussion, Director DeLoach asks questions about how we will know the plan is working or whether we will see the same results we already have.

Administrators say they can’t point to anything on the list that will generate particular test score improvements and even that they don’t expect to see movement on achievement data. Maybe it is just me, but it seems like a big problem that our student achievement plan ultimately seems most squarely aimed at improving school climate. If the student achievement plan is really mostly a school climate improvement plan, then we  may still need a student achievement plan.

Interestingly, the very first item on the student achievement plan list, Multi-Tiered Systems of Support Tier 1, should be driving a public discussion about curriculum and instruction. From the Iowa Department of Education website:

The Iowa MTSS framework is made up of five components.

  1. Evidence-based curriculum and instruction provided at the universal level.
  2. Universal screening of all students.
  3. Evidence-based, instructional interventions at the targeted and intensive levels shall be provided to each student who needs them.
  4. Progress monitoring for learners below expectations.
  5. Data-based decision making throughout the system.

The idea is to support student achievement by starting with improvements in classroom curriculum and instruction (universal level) so that fewer children will require instructional interventions. [Improvements here are an opportunity to reduce the need for and importance of outside tutoring, and thus, improve equity in our educational programs.] So, for example, a school (or district) might adopt explicit instruction in synthetic phonics as part of the universal reading curriculum so that fewer children struggle with learning how to read. One would then expect to see reading proficiency rates increase. (Questions: are we making data-based decisions about improving student achievement if we focus on doing things that do not result in measurable, positive changes in achievement? Are we really trying to improve student achievement if we are focused on doing things that we don’t even expect will result in measurable improvements in student achievement data?)

Is the district already providing evidence-based curriculum and instruction at the universal level? We don’t have much evidence to determine that they are, with so little public discussion of curriculum and instruction. In the next post, we will try to answer this question by taking a look at Tom Bennett’s book Teacher Proof and Daisy Christodoulou’s book Seven Myths about Education.

*The opportunity costs being that we have fewer resources (time, money, effort) to devote to improving curriculum and instruction in ways that would increase student achievement. And further, that the need to use the Chromebooks and other technology purchased might become a more important driving force in instructional material selection than student achievement.