Sunday, January 17, 2016

Is Curriculum a Guide or a Script?

It has been a while since my last post.  Actually, it seems like a lifetime ago.  I will diverge from my normal discussion of science curriculum for a moment, but will bring it back around.  Just stay with me.

Last July, my father was diagnosed with an extremely rare form of cancer undoubtedly from exposure to Agent Orange during his year of service in Vietnam.  He was a helicopter pilot and was tasked with spraying the herbicide.  He told me that due to the prop wash, he would come back soaked in it.

My father just prior to deployment in 1968.

I was out of the office almost all of November due to the complications he has endured through this process.  I've learned more about the science and art of medicine in these last few months than I ever wanted to know.  At one point, I found myself sitting at my father's bedside with my mother and the oncologist as we discussed treatment options.  The Mayo Clinic was consulted and a treatment regime was prescribed which had been deemed effective for most patients.  I say "most" because my father has a rather complex medical history.  Complex enough that it should qualify him for a season of "House".

The oncologist read through the recommendations with us and reviewed  my father's most recent test results.  Based on these results, he decided to follow a slightly different regime.   As of this posting, my father has seen a 70% reduction in the "bad cells" and we are hopeful that by the end of January to be in remission.

What are the lessons to be learned here?

  • A set of treatments was prescribed.  
  • Test results prior to treatment indicated a modified, more individual course of action.    
  • The treatment is proving to be successful. 
  • There is an art and science to treatment.  

Let's get back on the topic of this blog.  My primary job, at the moment, is developing curriculum based on the Next Generation Science Standards for the throngs of teachers in my system. This curriculum is a suggested course of action.  It provides many of the components needed to assist teachers in developing mastery of the standards in students.  Now, I'm not comparing myself to the Mayo Clinic, but the expectation is that I am the local expert on the NGSS.  Now I could complete this analogy but I think you know where I am going.  Teachers are the doctors and students are the patients.

What is the purpose of curriculum?  As a teacher, I lived two very different realities when it came to curriculum.  As a kindergarten teacher, I had no curriculum.  I based my instruction on the end of grade level expectations.  I had to make up curriculum on my own.  As a high school science teacher, I received curriculum from my supervisor.  A three inch thick binder.  Blue with a green cover as I recall.  I remember looking through it and realizing that, while it had good lessons it did not meet the needs of my students.  Once again, I had to make up my own curriculum, but at least I had a starting point.  

The idea of following a curriculum, chapter and verse, never occurred to me. I always viewed curriculum as a guide developed by people who have a pretty good idea about what most kids need.  We'll call this a science.  It was then my job as a teacher to find the best fit for my students. That takes a little science and a lot of art to make that happen. Great teachers are almost poetic.

As I discussed back in October (Articulating Expectations into a Personalized Learning Environment), I outlined a new set of curriculum expectations developed by my school system.  In summary,  through pre-assessment, we formatively use data to diagnose where students are before instruction starts.  The result is multiple groups of students consuming instruction based on their instructional need in the same room.

 I would hope that the merits of small group instruction are self-evident, but consider this.  In one of my prior jobs, I worked with "gifted" students.  How many of these students coast through instruction they have already mastered?  Conversely, how many students endure instruction for which they are not ready?  

The question is, then what.  How do you logistically manage a class like this. At the secondary level, there are more options.  Students can take different classes.  At the elementary level, it is more self-contained.  A reality lost on many people outside (and some inside) education.

So, I am opening a dialogue to discuss these ideas.  I am going to host a webinar on February 2 (Ground Hog Day) to develop some concrete strategies for all of us.  Click on this hyperlink at 7:00 PM (EST).  The rough agenda will be as follows.

  • I will discuss the specifics of the curriculum framework I developed   (I am open to other ideas.)
  • Start building a set of management strategies for teachers
  • Think beyond the current realities of classroom instruction.  Do we need a different concept of what a classroom is?  What does the field of  educational technology need to offer us?  Do we need to "Amazonify" how students access content? 
I look forward to talking with you at the webinar!

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