Last evening I had the pleasure of moderating the film, “Most Likely to Succeed” at the Fort Macleod Film Festival. The American documentary challenges our thoughts on where education needs to go in order to “perhaps” better prepare our students for an ever-changing future. The main focus of the film is High Tech High, a charter school with extremely progressive and innovative methods. Unfortunately, the audience may get lost in the enormous leap from where many schools are today compared to High Tech High, instead of looking at where we might begin to make the necessary changes in our system of education.
I began my comments with the acknowledgement that we live in a vastly different society compared to how most of us grew up. Yet, while we’d not accept using medical techniques of the 1950s or farming practice of the early century, we are reluctant to take the same leap in our educational structure. All of us attended school, some of us were successful in school and we know it! There is a certain amount of comfort in keeping school static, just like it was when we attended. While I don’t believe that all systems can make the wholesale transformation to High Tech High tomorrow, I believe there is one shift that we can start with that will be helpful in this journey.
Let’s begin with content! If you have ever sat on a curriculum development committee you will be reminded of the difficulty of drafting a curriculum that satisfies everybody. Depending on your viewpoint, this outcome or that outcome needs to be incorporated into the new curriculum. It is amazing how everything becomes important and nothing can be defined as essential. The result is a curriculum that is far too wide, forcing many educators to cover instead of ensuring deep learning. In essence, we take on a mentality of teaching to the test just in case it is on the test! That regurgitation of knowledge is not well supported in research as true learning since many students lose that knowledge within three months.
Even though I often get my knuckles rapped, I continue to advocate for our teachers to collaboratively define the key learner outcomes in each grade/subject that are necessary for success in the next level. Once established, focus on those outcomes and go deep in the learning, capturing student interest. It is not sufficient that our primary response to the question, “Why do we need to learn this?” is “Because it is in the curriculum.” By focusing on key learner outcomes, we build in the time to really teach and therefore improve overall student learning. Students begin to recognize that there is a purpose to their learning, they have time to build their mastery and isn’t it nice that we can teach them a little about autonomy along the way!
There is another essential component to thinning the curriculum. Standards still have to be met and so teachers need to build common assessments around these key outcomes. Baselines must be established to inform our practice and set our direction to achieve high quality learning. The conversations around these common assessments assist in improving teacher practice. Comparatives are important in professional dialogue. But comparatives are made more difficult when everything needs to be taught and/or assessed. We cannot move toward an improved education system without reducing our content and without greater precision on what is most important!