Monday, April 20, 2009

Eliminating Silos

Imagine the irony. We need to eliminate silos in Iowa.

Of course, that isn't the building landmarks that paint our countryside. It is rather the separation of content areas that is often seen in high schools. Math kept in the math room, science in the labs, PE in the gym... well you know the drill.

Visiting with Jim Reese from the DE recently, I'm reminded by something he mentioned:

Our biggest challenge with rolling out the Iowa Core Curriculum is to get districts out of silos.

Unpack that for a second. The Iowa Core gives schools core content in the core subject areas of math, literacy, social studies, and science. In essence, it puts us further into silos, sending each content area off to work with that core content away from everyone else. This is not best practice... in fact, it is far from it. It is exactly what we have to avoid with 21st century skills.

Getting rid of silos is a challenge mainly because it goes against the rigid tradition of content separation in the high school. And it doesn't work to say "we're all teaching math now" for 2 reasons. 1) Not all subject areas work as smoothly with math, and it becomes a contrived solution, and 2) There still is a hierarchy; there are the math teachers who are the experts in the content and the other subject areas that are the novices... not an environment for change.

So, here's one idea to de-silo. The Iowa Core identifies content and there still are content experts who will work with the material. But let's shift thinking on the basis of 21st century skill outcomes. And then, let's build teams within our staff whose goal it will be to ensure students reach competency (or literacy) in that area. Teams that cut across curriculum areas, so there are no "experts" and "novices", but only team members. Team members with a natural tie in with the skill, not contrived.

The result is an articulated curriculum, where teachers are adapting and tying into other content's lessons. And these teams lead authentic cross-curricular projects that transcend the traditional class structure, as well as authentic assessments to measure proficiency. And these teachers become the lead for how that skill is infused across the curriculum, helping others tie into the main thrust of the school. What do I mean?

1) Skill #1: Logical Reasoning. How do we develop students' ability to gather and interpret data, using logical reasoning skills? Imagine math, science, and social science teachers working together to see how this skill can be developed across algebra, psychology, chemistry, and more.

2) Skill #2: Humanitarian (Empathetic) Thinking. Including ethics and philosophy, I've already mentioned the need to have students understand other people and the humanitarian condition. There's a natural fit here with social studies, foreign language, and language arts instructors. I've seen this in action with Grinnell's team-taught Humanities course.

3) Skill #3: Health Literacy. Getting health teachers, physical education teachers, family consumer science teachers, and counselors together to have a full discussion about what does it mean for a student to be health literate? That's the way to go to get to the whole child.

4) Skill #4: Financial Literacy. This is where I've seen "contrived" curriculum at its best (let's do a random "credit lesson" in the middle of our gym class). That doesn't help a student become literate. There are places where this skill fits better with curriculum and teachers can work together much better. This includes all the vocational areas (business, industrial technology, agriculture, etc.) and economics. The state's emphasis on "All Aspect of the Industry", which require schools to develop authentic projects in the vocational areas, help students understand how financial manangement fits in to the bigger picture.

5) Skill #5: Creativity. Some will disagree with this skill fitting into this framework. Surely this is an area that, unlike the others, does fit across the curriculum. Still, I feel it is best developed and enhanced in the visual, vocal, instrumental, and dramatic arts. And this is not a catch-all category or some bone thrown. As Sir Ken Robinson's The Element attests, creativity is as much of a core skill that should be developed in students as any other in the Iowa Core, perhaps more so. Imagine the arts teachers given a prominent leadership role in a school's instruction, helping other teachers understand how to develop creativity in their curriculum.

There are some notes of course. Special education and talented-and-gifted education teachers would work with these teams, having a different role, that of Teaching for Learner Differences advisor. Not on this list are a couple areas, reading and technology, that I do feel are truly cross-curricular and require the whole staff working as a team. All of these skills are undeniable important, and they give staff a rejuvenated focus on their profession. Whereas I might have taught language arts for 15 years before, what has my focus been on humanities? Or for the geometry teacher, logic? It provides an avenue for discussion and teamwork among our staff.

Most of all, it will lead to better learning. A student might be likely to forget math concepts having learned them in isolation only in the math room, but learning logical reasoning skills in a variety of contexts, all of which building off each other? That's where connections are made. And of course, I've got a spiffy graphic on the back of a napkin sitting in front of me... perhaps when I get a moment, I'll whip out Adobe Illustrator and make a jpg to share.

This isn't to say my idea is the end-all in this discussion. No school should feel it has to follow one model. There are many other ways a school district can break down silos and get teachers to work with other teachers in non-alike content areas. The key is to do so in a way that works for your school.

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