The test is the chicken and the curriculum is the egg. Perhaps we'll never resolve which comes first, even though the majority of us know which SHOULD come first.
From everything I've seen, heard, and read, though, more and more educators, students, and parents are getting really annoyed with that constant clucking sound. That chicken has gotten out of control, and it's causing the eggs to crack.
Today, I'd like to share an experience observing a 3rd grade class, which took place a couple of years ago. You see, in New York State, graduate education students are required to spend at least 25 hours doing so per core subject. That's before you spend 4 months student teaching on a full-time basis.
Anyway, I was assigned a specific teacher, within the New York City school system. I was to watch and learn from her techniques of teaching social studies and reading, and document my experience, of course. Well, I'll tell you about the reading part another day, but the social studies part specifically relates to that cracked egg.
This teacher did not teach social studies at all, at least during the month or two I was there (I visited for 2 to 3 hours at a time, so I was there for weeks). Oh, except for an occasional mandated read aloud, such as for President's Day.
How could that be? Well, my friends, the state math exam was coming up. And so, when I first arrived, I found myself watching what seemed like endless test prep. She wasn't doing math lessons, but rather math "review" straight out of a sample exam booklet. In other words, she was teaching directly to the test. And when the class wasn't working on math, there were reading activities or groups, or specials outside the classroom (fortunately, science was one of them).
The all important subject of social studies had somehow become buried in the nest, or had fallen out completely, like some wounded bird that could no longer fly.
What did I do? Well, I asked to observe a teacher who actually WAS teaching the subject. And that teacher was not teaching 3rd grade.
Since the big statewide social studies exam took place in the fall of 5th grade (this big exam, which took years to put together, was eliminated in 2010 due to funding issues), you can bet that the trend reversed itself out in 4th grade. Those teachers had to play catch up for the upcoming exam.
Anyway, was I in for a treat. The particular 4th grade teacher I was assigned to just happened to be deeply immersed in teaching the students about the Revolutionary War. And she was fabulous!
I could see right away that our teaching philosophies were similar. She was using graphic organizers, primary source documents, critical thinking and role playing. And the best part was the culminating project. The students were able to research the life and times of a historical figure (of their own choosing), which would be presented orally. Not only that, but they had to dress up as the person too. Now, that's bringing the subject to life.
This particular teacher was a career changer as well, who had a son in high school at the time. So, her life experience greatly enhanced her teaching, as did her passion. But did she teach every subject with the same intensity? Was she too abandoning whole subjects to cover this one? I wish I had asked.
That 3rd grade teacher was not the only one I've seen struggling to get to every subject. Or, even worse, getting to every subject, but only being able to scratch the surface. There are so many topics to cover, at least in the NYS standards, that it's almost impossible to cover any one in too much depth. It really becomes a problem when it comes to math instruction, as it's hard for students to connect the dots this way.
What's the point in learning a little of this and a little of that if students are just going to forget it in a week or a month? It doesn't make sense.
So, that's why I was so excited to read that they're rethinking the Advanced Placement exams yesterday. There's a significant amount of controversy over whether such courses even should exist at the high school level; but the important thing to me is that the testing company actually acknowledged that we need to replace the surface level, rote learning with deeper and more critical thinking.
The pool of education should be about more than just getting by doing the doggy paddle. Students need to know multiple strokes and learn how to immerse their heads in the water. And if they dive, they need to know how to hold their breath and go deep.
The chicken. The egg. The test. The curriculum.
The pool. The ocean.
Life is too short to merely scratch the surface, or to drop too many eggs.
Why are we letting the chicken do all the juggling, anyway?
As always, please feel free to agree, disagree, or just rant or rave! If you have a personal story, please share it with us.
Oh, and I learned other very important lessons from each of those teachers, which I'll share another day.