Content or Context?

It’s summer time, which believe it or not means that teachers all over the country are working like mad to get up to standard on the latest practices in their profession. This summer, that means Common Core Standards and, for many, Project Based Learning (PBL). For me, that means a lot of airplane time reading, and reflecting, on how I can support the teachers I’ll work with as we learn, together, how best to reach the new standard. So, what’s the view from 36,000 feet?

Well, unless you live in a very few states, you’re trying to figure out not only how to teach, but how to assess things like “critical thinking” and “creativity.” Add that to the newly defined standards for the subject matter you were lucky to once call your own. Then again, the realization has probably hit you that it’s NOT your own subject matter any more. If that hasn’t sunk in yet, let me offer three reasons why this is the summer where teachers will stop being subject matter experts if they want to keep their jobs.

First and foremost, is the fact that with the exception of History and Social Studies, “core” subjects like English, Math, and Science now have a set of national learning targets that ask you and your students to go higher and deeper into that subject than you may feel you were trained to do. You wouldn’t necessarily do all these things if it were your classroom—you might do some, you might do others, but you wouldn’t do them all, and that means it’s not really your classroom any more.

But don’t panic yet! There’s more. By adding so-called 21st Century Skills or Competencies to your plate you’re also being asked model life-long learning, something professional educators need to take seriously to be more than a content-delivery system piled high and deep. Look at the initials after my name (Ph.D.). Even that’s not enough anymore. Your students aren’t the only learner in the room anymore. It’s not your knowledge that’s center stage any more, but your learning. Get used to it.

Third, and finally, is the realization that if done right, classrooms driven by these new standards and competencies will have your students bringing more an more content into your classroom than that out-of-date but purportedly authoritative textbooks or degrees could ever offer. Student access to on-line sources of information is becoming more ubiquitous, more tolerated, and ultimately more of a differentiator between those who merely “know,” and those who can do. It may be your classroom still (though by next summer, who knows…), but it’s not really YOUR subject any more.

Now, we could all get really upset about this. Indeed, some at either end of the political spectrum are getting very upset and threatening to undo years and billions of dollars worth of work. Few are leveling the sort of “alienation” critique I’m throwing down here, however. They too, are focused on
the content. Stick with me to see why this is different.

To say that it’s not YOUR subject anymore (and it’s not), is not to say that this is the summer that content goes out the window…far from it. It may not be your content anymore, but that very same content will be used now in many states not only to assess your students, but also to assess how well you’re doing your job as a teacher. The formula varies from state to state, but few teachers returning to their classrooms in the fall will have the freedom to ignore what student data says about them as teachers. Yes, the content matters, perhaps more than ever for us as teachers, but it’s no longer ours to control. I could accept accountability to tests if I were the designer, but that respons-ability has been alienated from me, and this has got me reflecting where we should begin. We could take to the streets, as is happening in some cities, but I think there’s a better way and it begins in our classrooms because we still have some influence there.

When leading my workshops, I usually tell people to look for engaging learning experiences in their content standards, and then to look for the places where something interesting fits their standards. This is, indeed, much better looking at a project as a way to jazz up that unit students never like, or that you never liked to teach. If you’ve been teaching for more than a year or two, you know the unit I mean. Reading my friend Dayna Laur’s new book, Authentic Learning Experiences: A Real World Approach to Project Based Learning, I was reassured that this was, in fact, the consensus recommendation. If you’re going to try to use PBL or ALEs to stretch your students with deeper/higher learning experiences (and what ELSE would pulling them in two directions at once do but stretch them?), you should start with your standards. You should look through your curriculum or pacing guide, find the place where an engaging experience is possible, and just tweak that unit. Right? I’ve even got a slide in my presentation deck that says so…

…but I think I need to edit that slide. I’ve been looking at the choice all-wrong, and I am suddenly reminded of the old philosophical axiom that “We must begin where we are.” Leading teachers to find the “Sweet Spot” in the curriculum they are given where everything can come together to make them, and their students, look like model 21st century citizens is not a stretch, it’s a reach. We all know this to be true because in MOST cases, what we actually do when we design a project is retrofit the standards to the idea that has students engaged. The standards aren’t the end in mind; some sort of ideal student learning experience or ideal graduate is the end in mind. If that’s true, and I think it is, then in order for this transformation to take hold, we don’t need formal solutions (i.e., those found in curriculum maps or in neatly produced forms) we need revitalization (i.e., to breathe life back into increasingly lifeless classrooms). To do that, we’ll need to pay attention less to content, and more to context. As with my predictions about this summer, I’ll offer three perspectives on why this is so. Please be conscious of my explicit parallelisms here:

Fist and foremost, we know from test data in early adopter states like Kentucky that students aren’t quite ready to be taught to this test. The professional literature is flooded with hand-wringing about this concern, but teachers all-over the country are preparing to plow ahead hoping, and yes in some schools even praying, that their kids will get through it, somehow. If they don’t, their jobs and those kids’ lives are at stake. Already, at a workshop this spring, a teacher asked: couldn’t we just have a year to practice this before we test it?” Well, couldn’t we? If we don’t begin where we are, some children are, in fact, going to be left behind. Period. So, let’s not look for that “Sweet Spot” in the curriculum where it will all come together. Let’s begin where WE are, meaning where we and our students are in the arc of all this new learning.

Which leads to my second perspective. Teacher professional development is my job, and people tell me I’m pretty good at it. Yet, what am I doing with a team of teachers in a hot DC public school building this week? How can I be modeling life-long learning while the kids are on break? If we’re really going to tell our students that these new standards and competencies are things they can use now, in their lives, to make those lives better, then why aren’t we modeling OUR learning of how to teach these standards WITH them? Why are so many teachers spending intense PD sessions trying to cram before the rubber meets the road, rather than modeling that learning in the first weeks of school? I know the answer: it’s that we’re afraid of the teacher evaluation systems. However, if we’re telling students that authentic project learning experiences can help them meet, or better yet, master standards, why aren’t we walking the talk ourselves as educators? Why aren’t we designing a project rooted in our shared context this coming August? Why isn’t our main question: How can we as students and teachers learn to learn in a new way, together?

By now, you should have guessed my final perspective, which is the answer to all of this is that most teachers are not yet ready to “give up” the notion that it’s OUR content. We don’t like these ideas because they have been the whole basis of our professional identity for over 100 years. Our profession may be on the verge of “melting into air,” but the educational accountability advocates aren’t entirely ready to let this idea go, either. Reforms may be alienating our content and our classrooms, but for all the talk about systemic change, we’re not really changing the context, only the content and, most importantly, who owns it. That said, if we’re not changing the context of our classrooms, do you really think changing ownership and accountability for the content standards is going to matter?

Anyone who’s engaged in authentic, project-based learning knows that the hardest task a teacher faces is learning to let go, to trust the process, to trust the students. If students AND teachers are really going to be in this together, it’s time to let go and embrace where we are. We are at the start of something bold and new and, though I don’t exactly like the terms of the deal, I’ll stand by the vision that says that kids today need to be more than we were in school. They won’t get there, however, by simply mastering higher standards and deeper learning. They’ll get there with us if and only if we’re open to engaging and changing our context. It gets real by engaging our students in our collaborative authentic learning experience.

Content, or Context? I think it’s time to stop preparing for education reform, and time to start participating in education revitalization. I hope you’ll agree, and think about whatever PD you do this summer from this perspective. Begin with the context. Begin where you are, and the content will follow.

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