Curriculum Development Philosophy

Originally posted at https://medium.com/@jdslagoski/advocating-for-teachers-as-curriculum-coordinator-5d77f6ffe9d5

I’ve been in the field of education (teaching & learning) since I was a preschooler at the age of four. For most of this time, I have been a student. It’s only been in the last 18 years that I’ve been in the role of a teacher and 4 years that I’ve been in an administrative role that supports teachers. So I’ve seen teachers in many contexts from different perspectives, and my favorite teachers have been and still are English and foreign language teachers (social studies teachers come a close second). It seemed such a fun job when I was a student, and for the most part, it turned out to be a fun job as a teacher. However, the pay is quite modest and even low for foreign language teachers who can get a full-time gig. I know why I and my friend-teachers do it, but why do others do it? I have my assumptions, so I read Why We Work to confirm my assumptions and to learn something new. I didn’t expect the author to describe my line of work that much, but he did.

Immediate Relevance

Starting on page 41, after he explains the appeal in working for Toyota, he starts describing how the fun of teaching is being taken away by the types of jobs I’ve had for the past four years. He writes:

In large part, what we’ve done is create systems that are designed to make teacher quality irrelevant. Curriculum specialists, sitting in offices at boards of education, design curricula that are “idiot proof,” spelling out in excruciating detail how the lessons should go. The idea, borrowed from Adam Smith, Henry Ford, and F.W. Taylor, is that if you create a smart system, you don’t need smart and dedicated teachers.

He then describes stories of teachers who expected teaching to be fun and found it more like assembly line work. This model peaked during the No Child Left Behind era of the Bush II and most of the Obama administration. Fortunately, parents and some administrators have been growing in numbers resisting this model, but it’s still quite dominant. He continues later on to describe the rationale for such a model of education:

Supporters of this approach to education were not out to undermine the engagement, creativity, and energy of good teachers. The scripted curricula and tests were aimed at improving the performance of weak teachers in failing schools — or forcing them out of teaching altogether. If lesson plans were tied to tests, teachers’ scripts would tell them what to do to get the students ready. All teachers, novice or expert, weak or strong, would be required to follow the standardized system.

There’s so much irony in this paragraph because some of the administrators and parents who dislike the factory model of learning for their students/children believed that it could be solved with the factory model of labor for teachers. This is what many educators call the one-size-fits-all approach, which is a convenient model for publishers and testing centers like Pearson to advocate. On the flip side, there is the personalized approach, which is a convenient model for technology companies like IBM to advocate. See my last blog post about their Watson/Cognitive Learning product.

Successful Teaching

The key to successful teaching is not

  • following a well-designed script
  • measured by students acing standardized tests
  • asking questions that IBM’s Watson suggests or approves

The key to successful teaching is

  • making the content or subject meaningful and accessible to each student
  • sharing your high expectations for each student with each student
  • giving students the confidence they need when they lack it

As a curriculum coordinator, instructional designer, and instructional technologist, I refuse to take away from the teacher the creative and spontaneous elements in the classroom, the “teachable moment.” The best way to teach is knowing what each student needs at that teachable moment. As an administrative staff member sitting at my desk, I cannot know that. Maybe someday Watson can tell me, but I won’t be in the room (and I would be interrupting the “teachable moment” if I were).

Great teachers live for the teachable moments and for the aha moments when the student’s lightbulb shines brilliantly. With a scripted lesson plan, the ownership is taken away from the aha moments. With a scripted lesson plan, the teachable moments are considered straying off course and punishable in some contexts as described in Schwartz’s book.

As the title of my post suggests, I am an advocate for teachers. When I see expert or master teachers, I stay out of their way. They only need me when they need help or when the program is going through a change. For other teachers, I make sure they have a good rapport with their students first before we even begin to discuss curriculum. A teacher can have the best lesson plan in the world, but it will fail if the rapport is not there. And sometimes the teacher has little control over the rapport of some students. That’s life, not poor teaching.

As curriculum coordinator, I can say “This is what the research suggests is best for most students,” but I cannot say “This is what is best for your students.” It is important to remind myself and my teachers of this essential difference.

Control?

I like to operate on a level playing field with teachers. They are the experts of their students whereas I can claim I am the expert of the curriculum. I prefer open discussions to help these two sides meet. This is the best way to accomplish what educators call praxis, the intersection of theory and practice. If our program can have open discussions about curriculum often, then I believe we will have the best curriculum we can offer our students.

But my position calls for a bit of management. I need to make sure that all the teachers understand the student learning outcomes and the purpose of these outcomes. Some teachers may interpret them too loosely and some may think outcomes are secondary to following the textbook’s procedures. That ruffles my feathers, and I have to raise a little fuss. But I will never tell them how to teach unless the teachers request it. Our program does not have a prescribed teaching method or approach. If the eclectic approach to English language teaching can succeed for an individual, then I assume it can succeed for a whole program.

Why We Work confirms my assumptions that controlling teachers too much takes the joy out of teaching. Teachers then begin to feel it’s just a job that pays. I see it as taking the soul out of the teacher. If you put a soul-less teacher in the classroom, it will be more difficult for that teacher to put their emotions into their efforts. And emotions are essential in the keys to successful teaching:

  • making the content or subject meaningful and accessible to each student
  • sharing your high expectations for each student with each student
  • giving students the confidence they need when they lack it

Most students who have this disengaged teacher will learn less, and the program has just screwed itself by controlling teachers too much. So the program has the choice of continuing to control with the one-size-fits-all approach as mentioned in Why We Work or the engaging emotional approach as I describe. I am happy to be in a program that supports the latter, and I am happy to be the catalyst to maintain this environment.

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