Education Opinion

Big Ideas vs. Little Bits

By Nancy Flanagan — August 11, 2010 4 min read
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Here’s an assignment I’ve given my middle school music students many times: Pretend you’re Guido, a monk living in Pomposa, Italy, in the year 1025. You love to sing, and spend much of your time creating new musical chants. You’re a monk, after all--this is your day job. But you’re setting out on a long journey to Arezzo, and are afraid that the beautiful musical praises you’ve been singing with your fellow monks will be lost through inexpert singing and faulty memories. You want to preserve this lovely tune (here, I play a simple, 8-note melody). Figure out a way to write this tune down, using your own original symbols.

It takes some time for kids to tease out the aural elements they’ll need to represent symbolically--pitch, duration, silence, volume--and degrees of variation, tonal qualities, etc. Once they create a system of symbols, they can check to see if it’s reliable and accurate, by singing or playing each other’s notation. Students come away with a bit of history--Guido of Arezzo was a real person--but also a quick analysis of the purposes and features of standard musical notation.

I once was absent on the day my students did the Guido assignment. The sub left a snarky note saying that he was a music teacher (in many schools, finding someone to hold down the fort when Teacher is gone is a crapshoot), and was disappointed that I had left a (quote) “make-work assignment instead of a regular music lesson.”

Well. I was clear about my learning goals for the assignment, which serves as warmup for subsequent lessons on composition. Guido of Arezzo was a significant turning point in Western music history--he figured out many of the critical elements of music that had previously simply been transmitted mostly by imitation, and notated them so well that modern musicians take them for granted and still use an updated model of his work. My students were looking at the foundations of music theory, a key event in music history, and a core concept in performance: the printed music is just the road map, but the interpretation is the journey that matters. Three very big ideas.

A lot of what we do in the classroom consists of transmitting little chunks of knowledge and practicing skills. We’re less concerned with fitting these bits of content and skill development into connected webs of intellectual competency or--heaven forbid!--thinking about the moral purposes of educating kids. We’re teaching for the next few days or weeks--until the learning can be measured. And then, probably, lost.

I coach National Board candidates. After they identify their learning goals for the lesson to be assessed, candidates are asked: Why are these goals important for these students at this time?

Increasingly, candidates respond: kids need to know this content for the standardized test. Pushed to re-consider the question, teachers can usually articulate good reasons for students to know and be able to apply the content they’re teaching. But not always. For many young teachers, their self-evaluation of efficacy begins and ends with the test.

Big ideas feel like a luxury. It’s the small, discrete pieces of knowledge and low-level skills that are most easily measured, using the quantitative data that feels “real” to anyone who hasn’t been in a classroom in the past decade. The leverage point in designing great curriculum is the assessment--a good performance assessment will measure conceptual learning. But performance assessments are complex and depend on skilled designers and evaluators, a job that used to belong to almost exclusively to teachers.

I am currently in week one of a two-week project in developing model instructional units for the state. It’s splendid, gratifying work, made better by the chance to hang with smart people. We are using the MI curriculum frameworks, the recently adopted Common Core Standards and the Understanding by Design process, led by two classroom practitioners who are the embodiment of The Teacher I’d Want My Kid to Have, Erik Powell and Tom Rye of Spokane, WA. The thought that kids in Michigan may be using these rich, challenging curricular units is beyond exciting.

I knew I was in for a terrific two weeks when, in the process of creating the units, our facilitators suggested that it was not essential to separate our targeted skills and knowledge--that the two were sometimes inextricably combined in solid classroom practice. The handiest tool we’ve used this week is the 40-40-40 rule, a lens for looking at what we teach and students learn: Some learning lasts for 40 days, some skills and knowledge last for 40 months--but the gold standard is learning that lasts for 40 years. Was Paul Simon right? Was what we learned in high school designed to last for 40 years?

Then there’s Guido of Arezzo. He taught himself a conceptual model that has lasted for 1000 years. There’s a big idea for you.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.