Monotonous tedium and homogeneous uniformity — the great plagues of education. With rampant disregard for age, class, or ability, a curriculum lacking topography flatlines interest, dulls creativity, and limits potential. Yet, we find ourselves haphazardly careening toward fact based national standards, accountability systems, and teacher pay incentives that further cement our commitment to high stakes assessments. Such batteries that, by proxy, entrench pedagogical practices in the mires of conformity.
What we need now is a hyperbolized metaphor to cast the right light on the situation. Enter 19th century Dickens.
I’m reminded of the orphan scene from Oliver Twist, in which sallow eyed kids lament full bellies while heavy handed lords offer meager sustenance, the lowest common denominator for survival. “Please, sir, can I have some more?” “MORE?!”
Fast forward to the 21st century, the faces of students drawn down by boredom, teachers droning on and dolling out dittos of “test prep” materials. One curriculum looks the same community to community, offering little variety (or interest) for the educators or the learners. Students under such Dickensian conditions soon associate learning and schooling with drudgery, toil, and starved minds.
The rare lesson that engages students to dig deep into an idea or concept, to explore new avenues, and to get a bit messy with creativity awakens and feeds an enthusiasm long suppressed by the sameness of repetition. Students for whom such learning has been absent, or withheld, find their palates whet with the sweet taste of authenticity and relevance. “Please, marm, can I have some more?” “MORE?!”
A bit much you say? Too overstated? How could I possibly compare NCLB to the New Poor Law of 1834?
You’re right to question, to stand up for an education system that endeavors to educate all students, and to advocate on behalf of the millions of educators working to cultivate the minds of our young.
However, the fact remains that while the world around us has changed, much of the education system remains firmly rooted in an industrial society that no longer exists. It is less important now that students can repeat the same task over and over. The standard of yesterday’s literacy, “Can the worker read the signs in the factory to ensure the safety of himself and his colleagues?” no longer applies to the degree it once did.
We enjoy a world with abundant and assorted information, replete with mutliple access points for ideas, concepts, and knowledge. Students of diverse backgrounds (and of both genders) can reasonably vie for myriad careers and a range of higher level learning opportunities, if so interested. Given this, it is of absolute necessity that we seek to add topography to our educational landscape. Homogeneity must give way to heterogeneity if we aim to give all students connecting points.
How do we do that?
Teachers need the demonstrated ability and supported autonomy to effectively tailor curriculum for the unique culture, skills, needs, and interests of each class. Beginning with a framework of basic skills, concepts, and themes, the teacher must seek two main pillars to effectively differentiate for the individuals within an individual class.
What does that mean?
Connections and Contrasts
Constructing knowledge begins with connections. If students are to make any sense of material, they must first find a connection with it. If we are to believe Jay McTighe’s quip that, “Facts don’t transfer, big ideas do,” then it is imperative that we elicit student involvement in order to link the big ideas to their interests and backgrounds.
Teachers have known this for ages. The KWL chart (Know, Want to know, Learned) is a well known acronym in teacher-ese. Beginning with the connection, teachers then need to provide enough contrast so as to stimulate the brain and effectively engage the student. Building (or at least maintaining) nueral pathways requires broad exposure that keep the nueral connections alive, functioning, and well traveled.
Unfortunately, legislation has come to think of that as simply exposure to copious facts we want the students to know. What we’ve ended up with are standards that are a mile wide and an inch deep. What the brain thrives on is consistent contrast.
Students need newness, contrast in experiences, and depth of study. This is the great beauty of the differentiated instruction movement — it seeks to provide big ideas that span the curriculum and add multiple connection points for students. Combined with the Understanding by Design efforts, in which teachers create new experiences that offer a contrast to the experiences of the past, we have the potential for a rich depth of learning that students find relevant, meaningful, and ultimately, useful.
The challenge then becomes, if we aim to leave no child behind and recognize that each student is different, how do we standardize teaching and learning without monotonizing teaching and learning?