Since moving out of Asia, I’ve been shocked by the sheer number of home improvement reality shows both in Australia and in the US. I notice the confusion, the speculation, and the disagreements teams have when designing or redesigning a space.
Can’t the contestants just go to IKEA, assemble some items, and make the house work? Of course not. Along the way, teams discover leaky pipes, faulty wires, and shoddy insulation – things they never factored in to the original plan or budget. Builders could ignore these issues, assemble the trimmings, and make it all look nice. But the structures won’t last.
So why do educators think that learning can be built from assembling some items produced by textbook companies? If teachers follow the pre-assembled scripts, texts, and activities, are they fostering understanding or creating a facade?
Teachers can learn lessons about curriculum from reality shows, particularly home improvement reality shows.
This post expands on the house-building analogy, taking a slightly different spin on the house analogy used in Schooling by Design: Mission, Action, and Achievement
(although the foundational ideas are the same – pun intended).
In Terms of Building a House…
Outcomes or Standards are the specs. Curriculum is the blueprint. Textbooks or resources are the materials you use to build and furnish the house.
If you’re building a house, you know what you want. You’re pretty clear about the specs. If you’re following Common Core or Australian Curriculum, the specs (outcomes) are set for you.
Outcomes are not curriculum. Outcomes comprise lists of what students should know and be able to do. Outcomes are often called standards because all students should know and be able to do these things when they leave school. By analysing the outcomes, you learn what a child leaving school should “look like” academically.
Architects use the specs to create a blueprint. Teachers use outcomes to design curriculum. Curriculum is a set of plans, or an ‘academic blueprint’, that show how a teacher will lead students to achieve the outcomes.
Textbooks, in contrast, are resources that may or may not be included in a set of curriculum documents. Admittedly, textbook companies try and write materials that align with outcomes. Relying on a textbook company to write your curriculum is like going to IKEA, picking out a bunch of furniture, assembling it all according to instructions, and hoping you come out with a house.
Teachers are both the architect and the builder. They must know what the final outcomes look like. They then design curriculum units and individual lesson plans. Finally, they assemble or create resources and use them to their full potential. Teachers notice which parts of the written curriculum are working or not working and re-design the curriculum blueprint as necessary. It’s likely curriculum will be designed differently according to the needs of a particular class or the resources available.
While standards are standardised, instruction should not be. Teachers should not be mandated to follow scripted programs. Doing so is like asking reality show contestants to build a facade over leaky pipes. No one program can fix student misconceptions and meet the needs of all students. Teachers cannot ignore foundational differences in student needs in order to finish programs. If you exclusively trust packaged materials, you build a hovel of learning that comprises a random clutter of facts and skils.
Get the plan right before building and purchasing materials.
I often hear teachers and other school leaders saying that they want to find a curriculum for Common Core or Australian Curriculum standards. What they’re really saying is this: We are looking for the “magic bullet” educational materials that will help students’ test scores improve.
Imagine builders who decide they want a fireplace, a pizza oven and a home theatre system – very cool items they’ve seen in other houses. To preserve money and time for such luxuries, they fire the architect.
Bricks for the fireplace arrive at the house. Leather reclining chairs are dropped off along with a gynormous television and state-of-the art surround sound equipment. Then come another stack of bricks and some metal items presumably for the oven.
Suddenly, the builders realise there is no room for the TV and no outdoor wall fit for a fireplace. Should the pizza oven go inside or outside of the house?
Sounds ridiculous. But educators do it. Without engineering a curriculum, we purchase levelled readers, iPad apps for 500+ devices, microscopes and bunsen burners – all of which are fantastic learning tools within a solid curriculum plan. We complete a school year realising we never touched half of the apps. Students couldn’t use the bunsen burners because there was no budget for safety goggles, and only one teacher knew how to use the levelled readers.
Reality show contestants have a very small budget – much like schools. They can’t afford to measure incorrectly or purchase unnecessary materials. As educators, we can’t afford to purchase items that we can’t use. If time is taken to design solid units of study we can make more informed choices about what materials are most useful.
Make sure the curriculum blueprints are solid.
The decor should match the personality of homeowner.
I can’t allow students to be creative or learn what interests them. If I do, we won’t have time to cover everything they need for the standardised tests.
As stated earlier, you can teach to standards without standardising instruction. The wiggle room comes in knowing that standards include what students should be able to do.
Take, for example, a writing standard consistent with Common Core and Australian Curriculum: [Students will be able to] Write opinion pieces on topics or texts, supporting a point of view with reasons.
Classroom A: A school purchases materials that guide the class through a step-by-step process of writing essays. Teachers follow the lessons as prescribed. All students write opinion essays about homework, the topic suggested by the publisher.
Classroom B: The teacher realises that opinion pieces are stronger with research, and research skills and nonfiction reading skills are also listed as outcomes. The teacher designs a unit around the question How can my writing change people’s minds? The teacher allows students to choose their topics but expects them to demonstrate research, nonfiction reading, and persuasive writing skills within their areas of interest. When teaching research skills, a boy interested in dinosaurs evaluates sources of information about dinosaurs. A girl evaluates sources writing about Justin Bieber. After finding reliable sources, the teacher creates mini-lessons that teach students to break articles into chunks, write margin notes, and use post-its to form follow-up questions and thesis statements. Finally, the boy chooses to write an opinion piece convincing people that volcanic eruptions led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. The girl writes an opinion piece about how Justin’s Bieber’s early music is better than his current hits.
Both classes teach to standards, but the teacher in Classroom B is able to engage students by allowing them to demonstrate skills in the context of their interests.
Using the analogy of a house, both Classroom A and B build a nonfiction opinion-writing ‘room’ in the house. Students in classroom B connect the persuasive ‘room’ with research skills and nonfiction reading ‘rooms’. They choose the rooms’ decor, creating a final project they are proud to share.
It is not necessary to standardise instruction in order to hit the same standards. Schools can maintain creativity and passion in a standards-based classroom.
Home improvement reality show contestants work in pairs.
Contestants do the design thinking together then separate and work on different aspects of the plan. They regularly pull back together to address an unexpected problem or assess completed work.
Curriculum design is hard work. Teachers should work together on the original design thinking. They can distribute the labour related to finding and creating resources to use within those units. Problems will arise that require creative solutions – and teachers can come back together to think through possible solutions.
In the end, people will judge your work.
Contestants in reality shows get judged and receive scores. The scores are subjective – sometimes we agree with the judges and sometimes we don’t. While it’s easy to focus on who is winning, it’s good to remember that each of the houses ends up looking heaps better than it did in the beginning.
Schools are judged by students’ performance on standardised tests. As unfair as it seems, the tests aren’t going away. If standardised tests are the only visible evidence of learning we give the community, that is the only evidence by which we will be judged.
By carefully designing curriculum, students demonstrate authentic learning in ways that elicit the “Wow!” factor from parents and members of the community. Parents beam when their son or daughter independently works on a project at home, Imagine the proud smile on a parents face when they read a persuasive letter from their child, outlining all the reasons the child should be able have ears pierced.
Let’s make authentic projects and assessments embedded in well-designed curriculum be the measure by which our schools are judged. In the process, students will learn information necessary for standardised tests. I promise.
We have work to do in education. But, we have innovative teachers who care about student passions and are capable of creating lessons that teach to standards. Accomplished teachers know their students and how they learn.
We’re not building houses, but we’re building learning environments. Let’s teach to the standards in ways that are individualized, differentiated, and personalized.
What curriculum units are you writing?
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The photo was purchased from freedigitalphotos.com.