The Medium is the Message: (5) Other Print Curriculum Materials

In this post I want to consider the constraints and affordances of other print materials that are not textbooks. When I say “other” I mean other types of curriculums in print form. To make this clearer, I’m going to change formats for this post. Instead of listing constraints and affordances separately, I’m going to give a brief overview of several print curriculums I’ve used and discuss their constraints and affordances in context.

Investigations in Number, Data, and Space

The Investigations curriculum was originally developed by TERC  and is now a Scott Foresman product.

I know this curriculum has a lot of controversy surrounding it. Whether you love it or hate it, we can still discuss the constraints and affordances with regards to the ways the materials are designed. So let’s get to it.

What makes this curriculum different from a traditional textbook is that almost all of the print pieces are for the teacher only. There is a textbook that comes with the curriculum, but it is more of a reference book. It does not contain any problem sets.

Instead of a student textbook, the core component of this curriculum is a series of teacher guides. Each guide represents a unit of content and contains all of the lesson plans for that unit. And when I say lesson plan, that’s exactly what I mean. While traditional print textbook “lessons” provide a few worked out problems followed by problem sets, a lesson in this curriculum, called a session, is 60-minutes of discussion, exploratory activity, and/or games that are completely planned out for the teacher.

A typical session goes on for several pages describing how to run the session. The description includes pictures of what you might write on the board, specific questions you should ask your students at various points, and sample answers from students. In the margins you will often find teaching notes designed to help the teacher be more successful while conducting the lesson or to point out an important math concept the teacher might not have considered. This is unlike a print textbook “lesson” where the burden is on the teacher to decide how best to present the concepts.

There is a constraint and affordance here. On one hand, you are given very detailed instructions for every single lesson. There is very little guess work about what you should be doing minute to minute. In addition, there is clearly a pedagogical flow from lesson to lesson. Where print textbooks tend to teach a concept per lesson, the Investigations curriculum is more concerned with short sequences of sessions within each unit. These sequences are appropriately named investigations. The collection of sessions within each investigation work together to build one or two important ideas.

Often the pedagogical flow has specific connections to other units in the curriculum. What this means, on the constraint side of things, is that you do not have a ton of flexibility. If you skip a lesson or make drastic modifications to lessons, it may very well cause you problems down the road. I’ve often heard teachers say they thought an activity was pointless until they got to a unit later in the year and realized how it was setting the stage for something really important.

Another constraint related to this type of curriculum material is that the teacher does not have much say about how to teach particular concepts. If you like teaching with two-color counters, and the investigation only uses spinners, then you’re out of luck. This actually has been the crux of a lot of the controversy surrounding the Investigations curriculum. The writers of the first edition of this curriculum avoided standard algorithms like the plague and there was no textbook at all. This didn’t jive with parents and teachers who felt these are important skills to teach. Regardless of your view on this point, the fact of the matter is that the curriculum was designed in such a way that it took a stand and if you use the curriculum, you are forced into its particular pedagogy.

I do appreciate that in the second edition a textbook was added. Now when students are learning about arrays and other multiplication strategies, they have a reference that they can use themselves and even share with their parents so their parents will understand what the student is learning in class. I think a lot of discomfort from parents was from lack of information. Students came home with homework sheets in the first edition, but the parents had no idea what the students had been learning about in school so it made it difficult for parents to help their children. Frustrated parents are generally not happy, supportive parents.

Units of Study for Teaching Writing

Source: Lucy Calkins

This is another curriculum that is basically a series of teacher guides.

Each guide is a unit of study related to writing. In one unit students might learn about writing personal narratives and in another unit they tackle nonfiction writing. Similar to the Investigations curriculum, each lesson is multiple pages with specific instructions for the teacher about what to do with the students.

The author, Lucy Calkins, is very clear that it is not a prescribed script. What she is actually providing teachers is her script and you are encouraged to adapt the script to your personality and class. The lesson plans are essentially modeling writing lessons for a teacher so he/she can learn how to teach writing instruction in the way Lucy Calkins does.

You might say the series is just as much professional development as it is curriculum. Lucy has written numerous notes in the margin of the lesson plans to give you insights into why she said what she said or why she did what she did at particular points in the lesson. The purpose of these in-line notes is to help teach the teacher more about Lucy’s methods of teaching writing.

In terms of an affordance, I think this is wonderful. You basically have books containing someone else’s lesson plans along with their notes to help you understand their plans even better. You have to decide if her methods are methods you want to mimic of course, but if they are, you are given a great window into the mind of another teacher.

Now, there is a constraint here as well. This constraint applies to the Investigations curriculum also, but I saved it for now. The teacher has to do a LOT of reading in order to familiarize themselves with these materials. Each lesson plan goes on for pages. I’ll be honest, there were days that I did not have time to prepare well enough. On those days, I basically had to read the book as I was teaching the lesson to the students.

Let me tell you, this is not how the curriculum was designed to be used. You really should read the lesson in advance, reflect on it, and jot down your own plan for how the lesson will go in your room with your students. I want to believe that every teacher will take the time to do this, but I’m evidence that it doesn’t happen all the time.

One of my teammates said it was just too much reading for her. According to her, a lesson plan shouldn’t be more than two pages. If it’s longer than that, she wasn’t going to use it. She also didn’t believe that she should have to spend a lot of time prepping before each lesson. As a teacher with 8 years of experience, she felt that she should be able to skim a 1-2 page lesson plan, get a sense of what to do, and then teach the lesson.

FOSS (Full Option Science System)

Source: FOSSweb

This is a science curriculum that is known for its large trunks of materials. Each unit contains detailed lessons plans (notice a pattern?) as well as 1-2 trunks of materials that you will use with your students to do hands-on science activities.

I feel like I’m covering a lot of the same ground here, but I wanted to share this curriculum because I feel it is the opposite of a science textbook. Where a science textbook gives the impression that science is all about reading and learning information, a curriculum like FOSS gives the impression that learning science is about experimenting and doing science.

This is a really important point! This is a prime example that the medium is the message. Imagine a curriculum whose primary component is text – chapter upon chapter of science information. Imagine the type of activity and learning this lends itself to in the classroom. Now imagine a curriculum whose primary component is trunks of materials and binders with instructions for leading hands-on activities with those materials. Depending on which curriculum you use as a student, what is that telling you about what it means to learn science? What is that telling you about what it means to do science? I believe the materials we use with our students have a profound impact on how they perceive the subjects they are learning. I would go so far as to say that the primary materials used in the classroom and the activities that result from using them may have a profound impact on students’ beliefs about the nature of knowledge, in general – whether it is something that can be created, and whether its something that they can create themselves as students.

Going back to my discussion of FOSS, the last time I used the curriculum there was a text component in the form of science stories, which are collections of fiction and nonfiction articles related to each unit. These science stories are by no means a textbook, however. Generally they provide additional context to the concepts explored in the hands-on activities.

A constraint with this curriculum is that it is expensive. In order to do hands-on science, you need a lot of hands-on materials. The materials can be kind of specific, too. Certain sizes of cups and straws were chosen to work with other materials in a kit, so you can’t always run to the store to buy extras if you’re low. In my old district we only had one of each kit so we had to share materials. This added its own constraint because it made it almost impossible for all of the classes to teach the same science concepts at the same time.

Social Studies Alive!

Source: TCI

I’m not going to go into depth about this one, but like FOSS, I believe this curriculum is quite opposite from traditional social studies textbooks. There is a textbook included in the program, but like the Investigations curriculum, it is secondary to the teacher lesson plans. The curriculum uses a lot of role playing, discussions, and simulations to teach important social studies topics. There is a middle school program called History Alive! I’m not familiar with that one so I can’t speak to its use of textbooks.

In Closing

So to summarize, I get the feeling that non-textbook print products tend to focus more on providing teachers detailed lesson plans. The affordance is that this can be extremely helpful guidance and support, especially for novice teachers or teachers who are trying to change their teaching methods. On the constraint side, rigid lesson plans can rub some teachers (and parents!) the wrong way if the teacher isn’t sold on the pedagogy. In addition, using these materials successfully may require a lot of reading and planning ahead on the part of the teacher. Just because the lesson plan is written for you does not mean the lesson is going to teach itself! Teachers still need to take time to become comfortable with what is being asked of them from the lesson so it feels natural. They also need to plan ahead to adapt the lesson for their students to ensure it meets their needs.

After several posts about print products, I’m finally going to shift gears in my next post in this series. It’s time to talk digital! Join me next time.

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