On April 12, three members of the Teacher Leaders Network—Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, a digital-learning consultant and instructor at the College of William and Mary, in Williamsburg, Va.; Marsha Ratzel, a 6th grade math and science teacher at Leawood Middle School, in Leawood, Kan.; and Mark Clemente, the science chairman at Ocean Lakes High School, in Virginia Beach, Va.—answered readers’ questions on how to make lessons more meaningful at a time when schools are increasingly focused on test scores. Below are excerpts from the discussion:
Question: I teach a graduate class on curriculum design. How do I inspire my students to think “outside the box”? Most of them are planning on earning a degree in curriculum design or supervision. Their concern is centered on meeting standards, and yet they are frustrated with the constraints of curriculum demands. How do you encourage them not to develop their entire curriculum around the standards?
Clemente: It is not necessarily wrong to develop a curriculum based around standards. What must be carefully considered is how one goes about doing this. If it is with a series of teacher-centered activities, then that doesn’t form the basis of good curriculum. The challenge to give to your students is that they study the standards and then find and develop meaningful student-centered activities that will allow their students to master them. Hands-on activities should not be considered an add-on, they should be an integral part of how students learn. I would also encourage your students to take it one unit at a time.
Question: In light of the recent study presenting evidence that technology in the classroom has not provided true academic gains, what is your opinion about using WebQuests and other problem-based computer activities to expand students’ critical-thinking skills? Can these approaches effectively combine curriculum content with intellectual development?
Nussbaum-Beach: The recent study was about software use, wasn’t it? A student’s engaging with the prewritten software is not the same as using the Web to communicate, collaborate, and create. Inquiry-driven approaches such as WebQuests and other problem- and project-based strategies that utilize the knowledge management tools so readily available on the Web are fabulous for developing higher-order and critical-thinking skills.
Just think about it: By using the Web, we can bring some of the best minds in the world in to collaborate with our students, just by clicking the mouse; we can access original databases, we can communicate with students around the globe, and we can find primary documents and resources. Curriculum can be organized so that it addresses content standards and yet appeals to students’ passions. And I think we all agree that a passionate student is a learning student.
Question: How do we align the early-childhood-education curriculum—play-based—with public school academic expectations? I believe in developmentally appropriate practice, but play does not always produce academic achievement.
Ratzel: First, I need to say that I know little about early-childhood education. So my answer is generalized from what I know about children as a whole. You’re right when you say it is difficult to document the academic achievement gained from play. But I don’t think we’re wrong to assume that developing math skills requires a playful attitude—seeing it as a discipline that can be discovered, puzzled about, investigated, and enjoyed.
I just heard a National Public Radio interview about a new biography of Einstein. The author talked of being unsure whether Einstein was smarter that his physics peers. But what he did possess, the biographer said, was a creative spirit and approach to the discipline—a willingness to think differently and use ideas in a nonprescriptive way. Isn’t that what play can do for the student? I know when my students are playful with ideas they feel free to express their intuitive understandings about them. And from that place, we can explore and find out if they are correct or not. Most of the time, conceptual knowledge built from this kind of attitude stays with students, builds their confidence, and leads to that “outside the box” kind of mathematical thinking you’d be hard-pressed to find on a standardized test.
Question: The focus on the No Child Left Behind Act has eliminated any type of teacher creativity at my school. The English and math programs are totally scripted. Science has become a wonderwork of vocabulary drills. Students have resigned themselves to becoming great “bubblers,” and they do not enjoy the drill-and-kill coursework. The current model is not why I became a teacher. What is the likelihood of the course final becoming the true hallmark of what a student has mastered in a class, rather than a standardized test written by someone not involved with instructional design and implementation?
Clemente: I don’t see this happening until teachers decide to band together and use their collective voice to address this issue in an objective, dispassionate manner. It really must be more of a grass-roots effort. The public views teacher organizations as something independent of teachers and classrooms, entities unto themselves. If we as teachers would get together and say that the type of classroom you describe is not in the best interest of children, and then present reasonable, well-thought-out alternatives, we could start to get public opinion behind us. Too many teachers simply want to “shut the door and teach.” As long as that attitude prevails, we will be at the mercy of people who do not understand instructional design and implementation.
A version of this article appeared in the April 25, 2007 edition of Education Week as chat wrap-up: Making Curriculum Meaningful