Education is a results oriented business. I suppose it always has been. Even back when I was in high school, I can remember the pressure of state exams, the SAT, and AP exams. Students spent countless hours studying, built their resumes with obscure extra-curricular activities in an effort to be “unique,” and looked for any “edge” that might tip the scales in the college admissions process. In that respect, not much has changed. So why do things today feel so much different?
As schools across the nation work feverishly to fully implement the new CCSS, we are seeing reactions from school leaders, teachers, parents, and students that range from grudging compliance to full-out anger and rebellion. And while I can actually make a case for the CCSS (or at least the philosophy behind them), what we are seeing in schools is the opposite of what the creators of the standards had intended. Despite the clear emphasis on developing 21st century learners who are adaptable, think critically, and essentially know “how to learn,” the truth is that the standards are further contributing to a test-driven culture that aims to rank, sort, and level students based on what they don’t know. Not surprisingly, this is causing record levels of anxiety and distress among students and parents as teachers are scrambling to prepare students for an increased number of newly created exams that they have never seen and know little about. Add to the equation that these same teachers are being evaluated on how students perform on these new exams and we are left with panic and, in some cases, complete hysteria.
Given the external pressures that are now pushing the instructional agendas in local districts everywhere, it is easy to succumb and simply encourage teachers to plan “frontwards” by creating CCSS lessons and activities that are rooted in a “test prep” way of thinking and without consideration of enduring understandings or “big ideas.” After all, we are all faced with great urgency, the stakes are high, and we have little time to plan and get ready.
Or we can do something different…
Since the beginning of the school year, I have worked closely with @DobbsSciRes and @careim2 to encourage the teachers at our high school to push the external pressures aside and to engage in some big picture thinking with colleagues from across the disciplines. In some ways, this is a radical concept for teachers who have grown accustomed to a departmentalized high school structure and a traditional nine-period school day. Our goal for these interdisciplinary teams is simple, yet extraordinarily complicated. It is to move our teachers and students out of the fixed “boxes” that come as a result of an outdated schedule and into a mindset that fosters deep interdisciplinary understanding and “out of the box” thinking. It is this approach that will lead to deep understanding for students, true learning and, almost by accident, “college and career readiness.”
At our opening meetings we have gone “old school” UBD (@grantwiggins) by engaging teachers in the academic (and sometimes abstract) process of thinking and planning “backwards.” The key word in all of this is process. It’s taking the time to evaluate, reflect, debate, and discuss the “desired results” (stage 1) so that teachers are best prepared to bridge the disciplines, to support and complement one another, and to ultimately “work smarter, not harder.” It is this part of the process that is most critical to the design of a rich and meaningful curriculum. It is also the part that is most often breezed over by school leaders and teachers who are overwhelmingly pressed for time and suffocated by top-down pressure. The result in these cases is a narrow curriculum and approach that often lacks depth, vision, and connection across the disciplines. Essentially, it becomes an example of a flawed process leading to a flawed product.
As with anything else, it is important for school leaders to “keep it real” and to recognize that teachers ARE dealing with a tremendous amount of pressure and, to put it plainly, have a lot to do. Given that, too much of the “academic” and too little of the “practical” is a sure fire way to cause greater amounts of stress and angst for teachers. Then you really have a problem on your hands. Instead, it’s important to read the “tea leaves” (@dfdciberry), adjust as necessary, and also build-in time for “now” activities such as short-term planning, data analysis, planning with co-teachers, and practical menu-based professional development (more on this in another post). This will not only help to keep things grounded for teachers, but will ultimately lead to deeper and more productive big picture discussions down the road. Again, it’s the process. Above all else, schools leaders (like teachers) need to embrace the process of being reflective, evaluative, and adaptable in order to adjust to the needs to the school. It’s the process that is always most important. When the process is good, the finished product will always be solid.