If only curricular design could be a little bit more like planning school lunches! When it comes to a child’s nutritional needs, school lunches (no matter how limited or maligned they might be) do strive for balance. They do seek to feed the whole child. We want our students to eat wholesome meals, and, for the most part, the meals are an integral part of the wellness program in a school. It seems to me that this is a good thing to do, and the effort does not seem fraught with too much controversy.

But there is always room for improvement. For the sake of argument, let’s just suppose that we added another “growth and nurturing” element to our school lunch program (a bit of scaffolding) just to make lunches more efficient, more intentional, and more aligned with what we do for children during other parts of their school days. Suppose we kept the students in the cafeteria for just another five minutes each day for a more targeted “value added” session.  Here is an idea for consideration. On Mondays, we could let the children eat their meals, and then, once they finish, we could have them all stand, hold their right hands in the air and chant, “Grow Right Hand Grow!”. Certainly, it would not hurt to target the area that we would like all that nutrition to go to. Since we might still want to strive for Aristotelian moderation (and overall wellness), we could perhaps do left hands on Tuesday, feet on Wednesday (“Grow Both Feet Grow!”) and so on.

I would even bet that, if we could get people enthused about such a regimen, one of our commercial publishers could come up with a textbook that would make it so “teacher-proof” that no school could get it wrong and we could buy back the program at a really reasonable price (no more than a few cut field trips for children during the school year). We could even test student mastery by asking questions like, “On what day do we grow right hands?” (with one correct answer and four other days as distractor items). We could even add another row to the rubrics that we use to evaluate teachers, and, as we all know, a 23 page rubric results in higher quality teacher evaluations than a mere 22 page rubric (more data, more knowledge, more certainty, better teaching, better schools, better country, better world. “Grow Omega World Grow!”). Seems like a winner to me!

Now, what makes this such a silly proposal is common sense. When we feed nutritious meals to children, we do so with the intent of feeding the “whole” child. I am thinking that we can all really agree on that outcome. I would imagine that we all want children to be healthier with fewer moments spent eating junk food. I do not believe that we try to micro-manage the process by attempting to direct the nutrition to a particular part of the child’s body (but I admit that I am only supposing on that one).

What does startle me sometimes is that, when we serve those same children “academic nutrition” during the other parts of their day in the form of their class lessons, we are a lot less holistic. Perhaps we have more faith in nature when it comes to physical growth than when it comes to intellectual growth. To me, it seems as if our instructional meals are a lot less balanced, a lot less designed for the whole child and a lot less appetizing than the lunches we serve. Somehow, we seem to have a propensity to chop, slice and dice the curriculum into such atomized bits that we lose the big ideas that shape our academic disciplines. We sap the energy from intellectual inquiry, and our students are left unmotivated and listless.  I do not think that we do this for malicious reasons. I just think that we are well-intended but misguided.

Now, some might be inclined to place the blame for this Procrustean approach to curricular design on the curriculum guides that teachers are forced to use in planning their classes. I can see that argument, but I do not totally agree with it. Whatever issues I might personally have with some of those curricular guides, I do not object to them in theory. Again, I do not think it is a bad thing to plan with the end in mind. I think that a deeper issue involves how we envision the learning process itself. It is less an issue of where we want to wind up than it is with the way we envision getting there.

In an earlier post, I mentioned one of the Common Core Reading Standards for students in Grades 11 and 12. The standard states that students should be able to “Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text, including determining where the text leaves matters uncertain” ( http://www.corestandards.org/assets/CCSSI_ELA%20Standards.pdf ). I do not at all object to that as a goal for our students. In fact, I believe that, by the time students graduate, they ought to be able to do that.

In planning for students to meet this standard, however, a teacher is presented with some difficult choices. And I mean that sincerely as a teacher who struggled with this for years and years.  For example, would it be best to meet this standard by planning some “top down” lesson where we work from this abstract statement towards a lesson plan for a specific work to be read? Should we teach Hamlet, for example, and guide students through the “correct inferences” and then help them to understand “where the text leaves matters uncertain”? Should we contrive to make the uncertain more certain in their minds so that there is can no doubt but that we are teaching appropriate dispositions and skills to frame their future quests for more certainty? Hmmm!

Then, too, there are “teacher quality” issues connected to the impact of having students experience the reality that a text might indeed leave “matters uncertain”. By Vygotsky, do we not owe it to students to make the uncertain certain? Isn’t that what a good teacher ought to do? Does a good lesson plan allow students to wallow in the uncertainty (even though that might well be a condition of adult life)? In describing Shakespeare’s genius, Keats once attributed his genius to “negative capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” ( http://www.mrbauld.com/negcap.html ). Certainly, Shakespeare may have had that capacity and that may be a major reason for his genius, but can we afford to nurture that in our students and still maintain that schools and teachers are doing a good job? Can we really teach Shakespeare that way?

To me, it is not the fact that a lesson is a top down design that matters. What does become a problem is when we assume that we can target learning with laser-like precision. Yes, we need focus, direction and an “end in mind”, but maybe it is going to happen more because a mind has been fed and less because we decide to chant, “Grow Right Hand Grow!”. We perhaps need to nurture more of a “negative capability” in our teachers and then build a system around that if we want to nurture genius in our children.

Our problem in schools may be that we mirror society too well. For whatever reason, we seem to be living in an “either-or” world where things do not seem to be thought out carefully. We see life more as a matter of mutually exclusive choices and less as a range of possible thoughts and decisions and actions. And, worse still, we seem more committed to “right answers” than to truth.

For example, if someone were to read what I said above (and happened to agree with it), the response might well be, “Ok, if top down designing has dangers and weaknesses, then the answer must be that the best way to plan classes would be a reverse “bottom up, backwards design” model. Let the children experience first. Let them learn by doing. Let them discover. The answer must be that we follow a constructivist, problem based learning approach. Critics could respond, as they often do to constructivism, by saying that those teaching methods are inefficient, time consuming, unfocused, and misguided. While I personally believe more in a bottom up, backwards design model than a top down model, I can accept those criticisms and I admit that they do have some validity. A poorly designed constructivist approach can have students running around a classroom and engaged in a lot of doing but still not lead anywhere in terms of understanding. There is always the danger of drift in constructivist approaches.

Increasingly, I see that we need to switch the debate from top down or bottom up designing to a wider examination of learning itself.  I feel strongly that we need to make a greater commitment to formative assessment and reflective learning. We must provide children with intellectual challenges that engage them as complete people. We ought not to micro-manage that process and season their meals with our own hubris. Nor, for that matter, should we truncate the process to the point where they are simply connecting the dots but not actually drawing pictures for themselves. Yes, the teacher ought to design a lesson that will meet the requirements of their curriculum guides, and those can be top down designs or bottom up designs or any combination that we deem necessary. However, as students are learning, a teacher ought to spend more time observing, suspending judgement, taking notes on what is really happening (and being learned), and preparing to play back to the students in a meaningful way that which did occur during the process. In this observation phase, the teacher would do well to practice “negative capability” until the process plays out. It is hard to suspend judgement until the process is completed, but perhaps learning does require patience — in both the student and the teacher. Good formative assessment is really a discussion among learners (with the teacher being one of those learners). Teachers do not need to be perfect planners, but they should be careful observers of learning. We will only achieve quality learning when we respect the learning process. Quality learning begins with quality information.

The problem with American schools (and maybe this is true elsewhere in the world) is that formative assessment is a phrase that we like to repeat but often do not understand. As I look at the reform efforts in the United States, I keep getting the feeling that we are confused about formative assessment. There seems to be a prevailing opinion that, if we give summative assessments often enough, they will eventually become formative assessments because the pain will be so great that they (meaning teachers and students alike) will change if only to avoid having more pain inflicted upon them. In many cases, teachers have been trained to document learning, but the documentation we do seems to be more intended as justification for a summative assessment than it is as a learning aid for students. Our observational data is not instructional; it is exculpatory. And therein lies our problem.

We also make frequent references to reflective learning, but that is all too often a rhetorical sigh and not a genuine commitment. Somehow, we allow our clocks to dictate what gets learned. We keep putting clocks in our classrooms, but, when we look at them as we engage in reflective learning, we often see them as melting Salvador Dali watches (interesting that the name of the painting I refer to is called The Persistence of Memory) and we “save time” by dropping the reflective learning bits from our instruction. That is where constructivist approaches often fail. It may not be that the experiential bits are poorly designed or managed. It may be more that we do not sit back after the meal and savor it. We do not give children the time to digest what they have eaten. This is not too surprising. Perhaps we are a fast food culture, and our schools have taken on the same manifestations as our restaurants.

Ah, just some food for thought!