What’s Up with Curriculum, Part 2

Image result for curriculum

Last week, I discussed some trends in curriculum, focusing on “pacing guides”.

This week, we look at technology.

The U.S. Department of Education says:

Technology ushers in fundamental structural changes that can be integral to achieving significant improvements in productivity. Used to support both teaching and learning, technology infuses classrooms with digital learning tools, such as computers and hand held devices; expands course offerings, experiences, and learning materials; supports learning 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; builds 21st century skills; increases student engagement and motivation; and accelerates learning. Technology also has the power to transform teaching by ushering in a new model of connected teaching. This model links teachers to their students and to professional content, resources, and systems to help them improve their own instruction and personalize learning.

One cannot dispute the fact that technology can open up a world of information accessible at our fingertips.  In fact, I am not at all sure what I would do without being able to check email, touch base with people around the world through social media, or relax while watching a streaming service. 

However, does technology itself live up to the promise of engaging and motivating students, teaching 21st century skills, all the while saving school districts money?

Image result for students with computers

Let’s look at these in turn:

Technology saves money – online textbooks are cheaper than buying paper and ink textbooks.

There is no doubt that online textbooks save districts money.  Paper textbooks cost money to print and bind.  Online publications do not have to include those costs.

In addition, online texts can incorporate video and links to further information.

Some studies claim that about three quarters of students (K though college) prefer reading digital textbooks.  However, many of these studies have been funded by online publishers, so we have to take those findings with a grain of salt.

Other research has a more dire warning:  if one is reading more than 500 words, the equivalent of a very short article, then one is more likely to retain the information when one reads from an old-fashioned paper textbook.  ( https://hechingerreport.org/textbook-dilemma-digital-paper/ )  Despite this, students themselves tend to believe they retain more from digital sources.

More research needs to be done, especially research looking at kinds of reading (informational or fiction) and age groups.

The research right now, though, shows that more learning takes place when reading an actual textbook.

Image: World Economic Forum, New Vision for Education (2015)

Using technology is supposed to prepare students for the 21st Century
There is an assumption among educational thinkers and curriculum directors that the so-called “digital generation” consume information best through screens.  Further, they assume that because the digital generation uses technology so much that they understand it, know how to use it, and are acquiring 21st century skills.

As a former college professor, I can attest to the fact that there are young people who do, indeed, know and understand technology.  Yet there are even more, in my experience, who do not. 

Further, the digital divide is real.  Some families have not embraced technology because of poverty or beliefs.  Some live in areas where WiFi is unavailable, prohibitively expensive, or patchy at best.  Others belong to cultures that put more emphasis on face-to-face or personal communication and interaction.

These lines seem to be along racial, cultural, and economic lines.

In my opinion, even those who have had access from a very young age rarely understand technology at the level professed by those who describe the so-called digital generation. 

The ability to use social media and download music do not mean that one has 21st century skills!  I have had college students who do not even know how to change the margins of a paper, let alone how to determine whether or not some tidbit of information found online is true.

Bri Stoffer ( https://www.aeseducation.com/blog/what-are-21st-century-skills ) lists the skills employers want and need.  She says these are

  1. Critical thinking
  2. Creativity
  3. Collaboration
  4. Communication
  5. Information literacy
  6. Media literacy
  7. Technology literacy
  8. Flexibility
  9. Leadership
  10. Initiative
  11. Productivity
  12. Social skills

Note that only points 6 and 7 really refer to technology.

In fact, the very expensive private schools, the Waldorf schools, do not use much technology at all.  In Silicon Valley, parents say “technology can wait”, that their children need to learn much more than how to use a computer.  ( https://www.cnbc.com/2019/06/07/waldorf-schools-teach-without-technology-heres-what-it-is-like.html )

If the twelve points above are the skills employers are seeking and companies predict they will need when this generation begins their careers, then we educators have much more to do than wrestle with whatever the “flavor of the month” technology is!

Person Holding Iphone X

Technology is supposed to engage students.
Educators were given multiple reasons why, supposedly, technology was supposed to cure the twin ailments of disengagement and apathy.  Yet if my K-12 teacher contacts are correct, then technology has exacerbated those problems:  students use their “one-to-one” devices to engage in almost everything except academics throughout the school day, and mobile phones have become teachers’ worst nightmare.

In fact, recent studies show that having a cell phone in the classroom, even if it is turned off, kept in a pocket or backpack, or turned face down on the desk, poses a distraction.  ( https://www.edutopia.org/video/theres-cell-phone-your-students-head )  These studies say that students are able to concentrate more fully on class when their phones are out of the classroom altogether.

Why?  Our brains are not constructed in a way that allows for them to multi-task despite the belief of many.  Instead of really multi-tasking, our brains merely flip back and forth between tasks.  Each time that “flip” occurs, the brain must recall what it was doing and refocus on the task at hand.  Doing this actually decreases the ability to “deep focus”, the mental state needed for learning and for creative problem-solving.

Other studies have shown that a screen, any screen a student has is distracting to other students in the room. It seems we just cannot take our eyes off of those screens!

Cell phone “cages” found in a thrift store by the author.

Please do not take all of this as a condemnation of using technology in schools!  I do not think that is the answer at all! 

What I am saying is that we cannot expect technology to be a panacea for all educational problems.  In fact, I would recommend that our curricular focus should extend beyond using technology for technology’s sake.  Instead we must help students with the following:

  • Knowing how to use technology beyond causal skills.
  • Knowing how to use technology wisely and ethically.
  • Understanding how to evaluate the information they see online or read in traditional sources.
  • Knowing how to study efficiently and effectively.
  • Learning the whole spectrum of 21st Century skills.

What’s Up with Curriculum, Part 1

Once upon a time, I was the curriculum person for a school district.  Since then I’ve watched what has happened in many school districts with curriculum with a certain amount of interest.

Lately, I’ve been troubled by what I’ve been seeing and reading:

  • A move to technology because
    • Technology is supposed to engage students,
    • Using technology is supposed to prepare students for the 21st Century, and
    • Technology saves money – online textbooks are cheaper than buying paper and ink textbooks.
  • A belief that purchasing various programs will turn around student achievement.  That is, a belief that programs are what works in helping students learn rather than investing in teacher knowledge and expertise.
  • Creating “pacing guides” that dictate what teachers are supposed to be teaching and when.  I think of this as “if today is Tuesday, then we must be on page 86”.

All three of these trends are counter to what good research shows.

In this and the next couple of posts, I will address these changes.

First up:  Creating “pacing guides”.

For those of you who do not know, a pacing guide attempts to dictate that each classroom progresses through the district’s curriculum at a steady rate. 

At best, a pacing guide helps a teacher determine what students are supposed to learn in a school year.

At worst, a pacing guide becomes an unreasonable attempt to make every class move through the curriculum in a lockstep.  Ms. Jones’ class is supposed to be doing X.  Mr. Smith’s class is supposed to be doing X.  Ms. White’s class is supposed to be doing X.

It is this latter kind of pacing guide that has me alarmed.

I can understand that sometimes a school has a teacher who seems to race through the curriculum so that students are left behind and she seems to finish up the year’s work before the year is actually done. 

Then there is the teacher who seems to drag through the curriculum, finishing the year accomplishing only a fraction of what is expected for a particular grade level or subject area.

Both of these teachers leave students behind (to use an over worn phrase).  Neither teacher has ensured that all students have achieved what the curriculum says they are supposed to achieve. 

Creating a pacing guide is supposed to make sure that students are not left behind.  However, it seems to me that there is a better way to ensure that these two types of teachers focus on what students are learning and better meet the needs of the students.

Putting classes in lockstep is not the answer.  Telling every class that they must do this on this day and that on that day is not what is best for students or teachers.  It will not help school districts achieve state standards.  It will not close the achievement gap.

If teachers are effective professionals,

  • They need only be told that their students are supposed to achieve particular standards. 
  • They can use formative assessments to determine whether or not students have achieved the standard, or if students need instruction to meet the standard.
    • They can create enrichment lessons for those who have already met the standard.
    • They can create lesson experiences and practice for those who have not met the standard.
  • They can determine if students “get it” after lessons, and back up and re-teach topics if students have not reached the required level of proficiency.

A pacing guide that dictates classes are kept in lockstep does not allow for any of the three points above.

What about the needs of the students?  What about our commitment to focus on student learning, and not on teachers teaching?

A pacing guide that dictates that classes move along in lockstep does not help students

  • Who need more practice to achieve a standard
  • Who have already achieved the standard and need enrichment or an opportunity to move on to another standard

Some curriculum “experts” say students that don’t “get it” this round, will have an opportunity to learn something when the curriculum comes back to the topic. 

This assumes that all subjects have a spiral progression.  For example, science tends to have a spiral progression.  Students learn, say, about living and non-living things in the first round.  In the second, living things are divided into plants and animals.  Much later, students learn that there are actually six groups:  plants, animals, bacteria, achaebacteria, fungi, and protozoa.

However, some subjects do not have spiral understandings.  Math is one area that does not.  Students who do not understand place value cannot move on to addition and subtraction, much less decimals.  Students who do not know multiplication cannot move on to division, and so on. 

So leaving kids behind in some areas affects their ability to learn later on. 

A lockstep curriculum guide is as detrimental to these students as the admonition beginning teachers were told fifty years ago to “teach to the middle” and let the “lows” and “highs” fall where they may.  It perpetuates the idea that students who don’t “get it” are okay to ignore, and the idea that those who are advanced will simply teach themselves as needed.  Neither is the truth. 

So let’s get back to the teacher who zooms through material and the one who inches forward. 

Neither of the two teachers is being effective.  It should be up to the instructional leadership of the school or district to offer those two teachers coaching so that they can evolve into effective teachers.  And if the two teachers refuse that coaching, perhaps it is time to ask them to leave.

In my opinion, it should never matter HOW a teacher moves students to achieve standards.  It should be up to the teacher’s professional judgment.  S/he should be able to tailor lessons to the interests and prerequisite skills of the students in that particular class. 

Grant Wiggins confirms this opinion. He wrote a piece explaining his position in 2012! See it here: https://grantwiggins.wordpress.com/2012/01/04/on-pacing-guides/

So how do we convince the district level curriculum “experts” of this?  Good question!  I am very much interesting in hearing your ideas on this!