Do you ever wonder how a school decides what should be taught each day? Most people assume that state standards or Common Core standards list what should be taught and that schools determine how to deliver that curriculum. Some assume that the accrediting organizations set the curriculum. Neither assumption is correct. The story is actually far more complicated.
The state standards are stated in general terms (i.e. a first grade language arts standard is “uses illustrations and details to describe characters in a story” ) without designations as to amount of time or depth of understanding in any one area. Accrediting organizations don't prescribe curriculum, they want to see schools develop a robust curriculum in keeping with the school's mission.
For any given concept or skill, decisions have to be made about what to teach, when to teach, how long to teach. In most public school settings, these questions are usually answered in a scripted manner. The school buys sets of textbooks with teacher guides that lay out the entire year. Teachers may select from a few suggested activities, but the entire process is prescribed.
In Independent Schools, like Wornick, teachers continuously build and rebuild their units and curricula pieces. Why are Independent Schools so committed to this other approach? The answer centers around a commitment to sparking deep engagement in learning for each student. We believe that only teachers who are able to constantly create, reflect and edit their teaching can generate this level of student engagement. This is challenging work, and the teachers who are committed to it model a powerful process for their students. It also means that the students become partners in this process as teachers continuously rework their units and lessons based on student successes and challenges.
At our school much of this work is collaborative – teams of teachers have designated time together throughout the week to work together on curriculum. This week, all of our teachers engaged in additional work with one of our PIVOT coaches. The work was focused on making the grade-to-grade connections along the continuum of a teaching standard. Teachers shared the units that they’ve been working on in the past month connected to one particular standard. The checked to make sure that these linked from grade to grade and they helped each other refine their work. This is essential work that assures a strong academic program and distinguishes us from other schools.
Several years ago, our school adopted a cutting edge curriculum design model called Understanding by Design (UbD). What distinguishes UbD from other curriculum design models is that the work is focused on understanding and on the long term transfer of understanding. (for the research support for this approach see http://jaymctighe.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/A_Summary_of_Underlying_Theory_and_Research2.pdf)
I am sure some of you are wondering what is so new about a focus on understanding. Historically, American education has focused on knowledge acquisition and not on understanding. Knowledge is about facts. Many facts are important to know; however, facts are quite useless and are unlikely to be stored in long term memory when they are not imbedded in broader understandings. In the UbD model, we define understanding as the process of making meaning of, and of organizing, our facts. It is an inference from facts or a conclusion based on facts and prior experiences and beliefs. Using this curricula model, we begin all curricula work with enduring understandings.
In my last two blog entries, I mentioned that the core values that we emphasize at school could easily become enduring understandings. The UbD model begins with figuring out an enduring understanding. An enduring understanding is a statement that summarizes important ideas and core processes that are central to a discipline and have lasting value beyond the classroom. They capture what students should understand – not just know or do. They are understandings that will be revisited over a lifetime and transfer to more than one field or topic. They are the places where students, throughout their lifetime, can connect new pieces of information and skills.
An example of an enduring understanding in social studies would be: Topography, climate and natural resources of a region influence the culture, economy and life-style of its inhabitants. This enduring understanding appears in the curricula units from fourth grade through middle school. An example from mathematics could be: numbers are abstract concepts that enable us to represent concrete quantities, sequences, and rates. An example from science could be: Living things have needs and must depend on and interact with resources in their environments in order to survive.
The route from an enduring understanding to an actual lesson is complex and iterative. Once enduring understandings are set, the teachers ask what questions does the understanding raise (called essential questions), what skills and facts would students need to have to answer these questions, what standards are met by studying these questions, what assessments will assure that students have grasped the understanding. At Wornick, each lesson that is taught everyday throughout the day develops through this process. The work that we are doing with PIVOT this year is to assure that we have tight connections from year to year. The work in teaching Judaic Studies texts has similarly gone through a school-wide process to assure connected units tied to standards grade by grade and we have begun similar work in Hebrew language.
I know that all of our staff find this work energizing. They are always looking forward to finding ways for every student to be challenged and engaged in the work of learning. As our teachers are inspired by their learning so too are their students.
Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom (Happy Holiday),