Teaching Opinion

Response: School Leaders Must Focus On ‘Authentic Learning,’ Not ‘Test Prep’

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 12, 2014 7 min read
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(This is the second post in a two-part series on this topic. You can see Part One here)

Lori DiGisi asked:

How can curriculum leaders (Directors, principals) support the kind of curriculum innovation that it takes to truly differentiate and create lessons that students will remember beyond the next test?

In Part One of this series, three educators -- Anne Reeves, Justin Tarte, and PJ Caposey -- shared their responses (I also contributed my own). Today, Justin Baeder and Kelly Young (who I consider my mentor in education) contribute their answers. I include comments from readers, too.

In addition, you can listen to a ten-minute podcast on this subject where I talk with Anne and Kelly.

Response From Justin Baeder

Justin Baeder (@eduleadership)is Director of The Principal Center, where he leads the High-Performance Instructional Leadership Network:

Curation and Adaptation, Not Invention

Curriculum is tricky business. We’ve all seen enough bad published material that we don’t place too much trust in prepackaged curriculum.

As educators, we have a professional responsibility to make sure that the curriculum we’re using is a good match for our students’ needs.

On the other hand, though, the idea that every teacher can, should, and must develop their own curriculum is one of the most widespread and damaging myths in the education profession.

This myth is partly a result of teaching’s artisanal heritage, and partly an instance of NIHS: Not Invented Here Syndrome.

“Surely this curriculum wasn’t written with our students in mind,” we tell ourselves. “Surely we can do better.”

So we plow into the Herculean task of developing curriculum from scratch. The end product may be no better than the prepackaged curriculum we rejected, and along the way, we lose the chance to make the tweaks that could have resulted in better differentiation for our students.

While we might all fancy ourselves expert curriculum developers, the truth is that developing good curriculum is hard and time-consuming. We may have the expertise, but chances are we don’t have the time it takes to develop high-quality curriculum from scratch.

More to the point, originality doesn’t ensure quality; iteration does. It’s revision, not brilliance, that takes a curriculum from good to great.

So whenever we have the choice of starting from scratch or iterating on an existing curriculum, the answer is clear: we should devote most of our effort to selecting a good curriculum to start with, and to adapting that curriculum to meet our students’ needs.

Let’s say you’re on a committee tasked with selecting a new inquiry-based social studies curriculum. Compiling primary sources, designing engaging learning activities, crafting compelling project plans, and identifying ways to assess learning--this is work that has probably already been done by a publisher. It may not be perfect, but you’ll be in a much stronger position to meet your students’ needs if you see your role as one of curation and adaptation rather than invention.

Response From Kelly Young

Kelly Young is founder and executive director of Pebble Creek Labs, a training and curriculum consulting company focused on instruction, literacy and leadership development. Since 1998 Pebble Creek Labs has partnered with schools and districts to promote student achievement and develop educators. Kelly can be reached at kelly@kellyjyoung.com:

I would propose that instructional innovation, supported by flexible and engaging curriculum materials, is the key to differentiating lessons and creating learning that sticks for students’ beyond the test.

It is a given we want curriculum that is relevant, engaging, well written. Unfortunately not all lessons are that way, especially as they have focused on narrow and specific learning objectives designed to “cover” standards and prepare students for high stakes testing.

As curriculum returns to more multi-faceted, unit focused, technologically enhanced, and contemporary materials, the next step to insure learning lasts “beyond the test” is via the use of instructional strategies that prioritizes the learning process--methods whereby students are guided and taught more powerful ways to read, write and process information. Such strategies include the Inductive Model, Concept Attainment, Read Alouds, and Think Alouds to name a few.

Much has been written about these strategies. Pebble Creek Labs trains in these, and more, because of their “elasticity” and “power”. They work for all ages of students, over a range of ability levels, are easily adaptable, and are effective in many disciplines

These strategies are powerful because they truly teach methods for thinking, and thus students practice skills that allow them to be stronger learners in all kinds of settings. These strategies also cause “multiple touches” with text, where students reread text to inform their response writing and later discussions. This continual revisiting to the text causes students to truly “own” and retain the content for long-term use while also sharpening their processing skills.

These strategies also prioritize student engagement. We ask teachers to consider constantly “who is doing the work,” meaning we need classrooms with teachers watching (and facilitating) students’ work not vice versa. Too many classrooms’ have students watching teachers work, talk, and tell students what they should know.

While test performance is important, it’s time for schools to care about, and leaders to vocalize, that focusing on authentic learning is the teachers’ primary responsibility. It has to be explicitly stated or teachers will remain focused on test performance and test preparation. Owning a repertoire of powerful instructional strategies is as direct a way as any to push learning beyond the episodic test.

Responses From Readers

John Bennett:

Curriculum leaders can support curriculum innovation in four steps:

(1) Gather all motivated teachers and leaders together to consider options for effective, deeper learning (aligned with standards) in order to find the better alternative for facilitate that student learning.

(2) Facilitate Edcamps or similar internal professional development to assist teachers in becoming comfortable with this approach. Note I’m not suggesting lesson plan / curriculum development.

(3) Provide the resources (identified in the first step as consistent with the alternative selected and the level of funds available within budget concerns - with leaders seeking additional funds if the mismatch is too large) needed along with ongoing internal professional development as appropriate.

(4) Throughout the facilitation and especially at the conclusion of these efforts, reflect on what worked and what didn’t, identifying changes that make sense to include the next time.

Twitter Comments:

A number of readers contributed comments via Twitter. I’ve used Storify to collect them:

Thanks to Justin and Kelly, and to readers, for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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Education Week has published a collection of posts from blog -- along with new material -- in an ebook form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Last, but not least, I’ve recently begun recording a weekly eight-minute BAM! Radio podcast with educators who provide guest responses to questions. You can listen and/or download them here.

I’ll be posting the next “question-of-the-week” in a few of days....

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