Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Call For Action: Narrowing the Curriculum

I believe the buzz phrase is "a mile wide and an inch deep."

Having coordinated curriculum, I've been guilty of parroting that phrase as well. Much like every other curriculum director Robert Marzano groupie, I have lamented how much time we spend covering so much in such little depth. Marzano listed the narrowing of the curriculum as the top factor a school can do to improve achievement, with the key being the world "viable", as in making sure you actually have enough time to teach effectively what you say you will. And of course, every time the TIMSS comes out, we have the pleasure of hearing about our wide, shallow curriculum as well.

So, when the Iowa Core Curriculum quotes that phrase, we shouldn't get too nonplussed. Much like the statement "rigor" and "higher standards", the phrase is not revolutionary. Rather, how to achieve it is.

The basics of the argument are that, as educators, we have felt the need to cover every possible topic in a curriculum, not leaving things out. In so doing, we cover things way too quickly, and therefore ruin retention.

As no surprise, I fully agree with the Iowa Core's calling to narrow (and thereby deepen) the curriculum. But, I'd like to add some caveats of how this is to be done.

1. Identify the most important skills - This is what the Iowa Core is attempting to do, and as far as I can tell, are doing successfully. Even the research shows that teaching less math topics doesn't necessarily improve scores... Singapore teaches more than the U.S. They just happen to emphasize equations, which has the biggest impact.

2. Multi-Task - Maybe the biggest problem is that we follow Madeline Hunter too closely; introduce one skill at a time, then instruct, guided practice, individual practice, etc. Authentically, that's not the way we work. When we think, we use multiple skills together. Introducing and working on multiple skills/concepts at a time suddenly eliminates a lot of repetition.

3. Be OK with skipping concepts - There is a fear amongst teachers (at least there was for me) that "if I don't teach them this, they'll never get it in life". Hogwash. The fact is, people glean the information they need outside of school all the time (in fact, many have to relearn the concepts they supposedly learned in K-12). Perhaps more important is helping students be resourceful enough to develop the concepts on their own when asked to.

4. Compact - If you are a teacher and don't know this term, that is telling. Research shows American teachers woefully underuse compacting. The end result is a lot of time wasted re-teaching concepts the students already know. We need to arm teachers with diagnostic tools to help them find what they can eliminate.

5. Eliminate the thick textbooks - Textbooks have adopted throwing everything into it to meet every state's standards. That's not a problem. Teachers who can't teach without the textbook...? There's the problem. If I hear one more "Gosh, I'm so far behind, I've only got my classes on chapter 8" one more time...

The Iowa Core will require districts to do a thorough alignment of their curriculum, which should help define their scopes and sequences. But I think pushing some specific caveats such as the five above will go further to make a difference.

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