Pondering Teachers as Curriculum Designers

A few weeks ago I posed the following question:

Is it the job of teachers to design their own curriculum?

I only had one taker, @Mr_Kunkel. Here’s what he had to say:

If there was just one really good curriculum I would say sure. There isn’t. The problem with mass marketed curriculum is that it never meets the diverse needs of all classrooms. I have never found a textbook that was great. They all try too hard to do too much.

I think the power of what we do here on the interwebs, the MTBoS, is that we crowd source the curriculum. We are all capable of coming up with some good lessons. I think the curriculum of the future will be a good indexing of all these lessons that teachers are creating. Some how it would be great to combine them and track them by CCSS. Some people are trying that using their virtual filing cabinets. Actually, a really good virtual filling cabinet would be my ideal curriculum. Forget the books.

I knew I wanted to revisit this topic, but every day I kept putting it off, mostly because I’m still not entirely sure what my own answer is to the question.

While I kept pondering, some of the folks I follow on Twitter serendipitously took up this topic a few days ago. Here’s what they had to say:

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And then today I came across (and participated in) this conversation that hit on the issue from a slightly different angle:

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It’s nice to see others struggle with some of the same things I do with regards to this issue.

It seems clear that curriculum materials are wanted and needed, whether they are written by publishers or other educators. Many consider them a valuable resource. As @crstn85 points out, “a good book has logical order/units.” Someone has laid the groundwork for the teachers. They’re not starting completely from scratch.

We then get into the gray area of the “implemented curriculum” as @mpershan puts it. What is changing from the written curriculum as the teachers prepare their lesson plans and teach the lesson to their students?

From what I’ve read, the teachers I follow on Twitter couldn’t fathom using curriculum materials as they are written. I don’t disagree with them, but I am curious how many teachers do put full faith in their curriculum materials and use them verbatim. I also wonder if any districts require this.

I’m reminded of Response to Intervention. One of its key tenets is fidelity of instruction. If you have fidelity then it means teachers are “consistently and accurately applying a research-based curriculum.” One implication of this is that teachers need to avoid contamination or pollution, meaning they don’t pull together materials from a variety of instructional resources. In order for RtI to succeed, teachers need to get with the program and stick with the program.

I’d like to add a second question that is of particular interest to me, how much effort is it taking for teachers, individually and collectively, to adapt the materials they are using? As I wrote in the second Twitter discussion, I feel that numerous wheels are being reinvented in numerous classrooms across the country. I felt this within my own school district. No need to even think about the rest of the state or country.

For example, I taught 4th grade in Texas. This is one of the two years that students learn Texas history. The other year is 7th grade. This is important to note because most of the instructional and resource materials available outside of our state-adopted textbook were often written for 7th graders, not 4th graders.

The teachers across my district all had the same social studies standards, and yet each 4th grade team in each school was reinventing the wheel on a weekly basis designing lessons to teach those standards. When I would talk to these teachers at trainings, I would hear about the different types of lessons going on in different schools. It frustrated me because it felt really inefficient that we were planning in such isolation.

My last district had 33 schools. It seems ludicrous to think that the 4th grade teams across the district were creating 33 campus-specific lesson plans for teaching the exact same social studies standards. And I can assure you that these lesson plans were across the spectrum in terms of quality.

Now extend this idea to the entire state of Texas. We have roughly 4,000 elementary schools in this state. Assuming that all of the teachers on a given 4th grade team plan together, which I can guarantee you they don’t, that means there are potentially 4,000 or more different lesson plans being written each week to teach the exact same social studies standards.

Let’s say it takes 1 hour to plan a week’s worth of social studies lessons. That means 4,000 man hours are being spent each week to cover the same standards. A school year’s worth (36 weeks) of lesson plans at one school may be 36 hours of work, but with everyone reinventing the wheel at their own campus, this jumps to 144,000 man hours. That’s a huge jump!

I know I’m making some assumptions here, and my numbers are not precise, but that doesn’t change the fact that when a lot of people duplicate effort like this, it adds up. My motto as a teacher, which I was able to live up to with varying degrees of success, was work smarter, not harder. This redundant time spent lesson planning sounds very much like the latter.

One idea that comes to mind to save time is to do what @j_lanier recommends: put together a crack team of great teachers together, give them time to write, and you will get great instructional materials. Districts have done this. Even the state of Texas has done this. And it has failed.

The state of Texas failed pretty spectacularly in fact. Several years ago, districts across the state started adopting a program called CSCOPE. The idea was to give teachers sets of exemplar lessons for teaching all of their content. However, it was also meant to become a bank of lessons. I’m not sure of the logistics, but the idea was that as other wonderful lessons were written, they could be added to the CSCOPE library. Teachers could then pick and choose which great lesson to use in their classroom.

Unfortunately, this aspect of the program never materialized. There was no choice, just the one set of lessons. Teachers were handed their CSCOPE curriculum, and they were told to teach it the way it was written. These were well written lessons, so why change them? This backfired big time, and in 2013 CSCOPE was eliminated.

So the state level may not be the best place to create and distribute quality lessons. Maybe it should be done district by district? Making 1,000 sets of lesson plans sounds like a lot (this is about how many school districts there are in Texas), but it’s significantly better than the 4,000 sets I was describing earlier. The benefit here is that districts can tailor the lessons a bit more to the needs of their population of students.

At this point I can really only speak to my experience, but I have seen this backfire as well. As I said, my last school district only had 33 elementary schools, a far, far cry from 4,000. The district provided scope and sequences and lesson plans for all subjects, and yet teachers were still resistant to using them. The instructional materials still felt like they were coming from “on high” and didn’t reflect the realities within our own classrooms, even though the people who wrote the materials were skilled teachers from our own district.

So I guess we’re back to the idea of writing lessons plans school by school and teacher by teacher. And then what it comes down to is the amount of time each teacher has to gather materials (textbooks, workbooks, lesson plans found on blogs, etc.), review those materials, and craft lesson plans that meet the needs of their students. And we all know how much free time teachers have to do this.

And it’s not just about time actually. It’s also about how resourceful the teacher is in locating quality materials and how strong the teacher is at making important pedagogical decisions when picking and choosing and tying it all together. This definitely leads to variability in the quality of the resulting lessons. Which leads us back to wondering if teachers really should be curriculum designers.

And maybe there just isn’t a right answer to this question. I feel like I’ve talked in circles and I’m no closer to having a clear idea of what I think the answer is. If you’ve made it this far in my post, thank you for following me down the rabbit hole. The great thing about having this blog is that I can revisit topics again. This is clearly a topic that demands more attention, and maybe next time I’ll be one or two steps closer to an answer.

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2 thoughts on “Pondering Teachers as Curriculum Designers

  1. Wayne Watson

    One concern I’ve always had with math teachers, myself included, writing and implementing their own lessons, units, projects and the like is the almost total lack of statistical feedback as to whether these make a positive difference over canned textbook lessons. Other than anecdotes, feelings or a very, very small data set there isn’t much to go on. Some textbook publishers certainly try and stuff as much stuff into textbooks as they can so they can say it does everything from Saxon to Investigations. That does tend to make them large, expensive, pretty, school board friendly LOL and therefore a bit less less useful that those with a more focused purpose. Nevertheless, textbooks are at least piloted, revised and judged by more than one person and in more than one classroom. Plus they try to use some form of statistical analysis in the process and give a nod to consistency and continuity.

    Look, most every teacher does and often should take”liberties” with most every lesson, be it from a textbook series or from a colleague down the hall. It has been my experience that this makes sense to is but that it can get out of control to the point where there isn’t much content consistency from class to class even when teaching the same course.

    My belief (or more accurately my hope) is that the math common core content standards will act as a structure around which there will be more content consistency and the math practice standards will help there be more consistency in how the content is experienced by students.

    Reply
  2. David Wees (@davidwees)

    I have a few thoughts here.

    1. What is learned by a teacher who creates their own resources for their classroom?
    2. Teachers have conceptions and misconceptions (they are learners) about their own teaching; hence someone else’s resource may not fit their classroom experience because their model of teaching might be vastly different than the curriculum creator. Hence, a lesson plan that includes a different model of teaching often needs explanation.
    3. Some use of other people’s curriculum is probably a good thing, particularly if the teacher is reflective and willing to test hypothesis about the effectiveness of the material in helping them achieve their aims.

    Reply

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