When curricular alignment is mentioned in school reform debates today, it is generally a demand for teachers to align course content with the outcomes in a curriculum guide approved by some governmental body. This is true for Common Core in the United States, for the Curriculum for Excellence in Scotland and for the National Curriculum in England. I ask a different “alignment” question here, and one that resides more at the heart of learning and teaching: Given our fields of study and the knowledge, skills and dispositions we want our students to have when they complete our courses, what conscious operating strategies should we apply as design protocols in order to align our instructional methodologies with what is essential in our course content?
If I were a squirrel in an acorn-rich environment, I know that I would be tempted to get fat on easy acorn pickings. Yet, I don’t like to think of myself as being just a glutton squirrel who might live all winter on what was so readily obtained. I would not want to just keep eating old acorns, but I also would not want to race over to the latest acorn that has dropped from the tree and simply plop it into my cheek. I prefer to think that I’d be more of a “gourmet squirrel”, the kind of cultured squirrel who would work at finding really great acorns and then sip merlot as he ate them. That’s the kind of fat squirrel I’d want to be.
As humans, we do live in an information-rich environment. As a teacher, I know that there is no dearth of experts willing to write about what we teachers should be doing and how we should do it. There are so many educational articles available in blogs, newspapers, magazines, journals, books, and so on that I could literally stuff my cheeks full in no time at all. But to what end? I try to be a little more discriminating in what I read. If I find something of real value, I eat it right away and then try to remember it on a cold winter’s night when my need is great and I can pat my big furry belly with my paws and say, “My, that was some acorn! I will never forget it.”
I have just such an acorn in mind now as I write this post. It is the article, “The Many Faces of Constructivism” by David Perkins that was published in Educational Leadership in 1999 ( http://www.scribd.com/karen_uriya/d/32920521-Perkins-The-Many-Faces-of-Constructivism ). To be truthful, I have never come across much written about this article after I read it. Life got really busy for me after that, and even gourmet squirrels need to move on when a new spring arrives. But, as soon as my paws scratched my belly this morning, I knew what it was that I wanted to write about.
I am not going to use this post as a “book report” on what Perkins said. The link is above, and you ought to read the original for yourself. It provides food for thought, and it might be a useful way to frame some issues we are grappling with today. I think that this article still has some relevance even after all these years. I particularly like the way Perkins envisions different types of knowledge. There is a lot in this Perkins article that I used, but I also modified things to fit my understanding and my needs. I urge you to do the same. You are your own expert.
I believe that we should be having a curricular alignment debate right now, but I think it should be less on the political question of what we need to do in order to align with curriculum guides being dictated to us and more on how to align methodologies and essential knowledge to promote deep learning in our classrooms. I am a pretty eclectic guy. Common sense and necessity were always important to me. When circumstances demanded it, I used a lecture approach in my classes if it seemed to be the best option. I also had specific times when I deliberately wove in more constructivist lessons. Sometimes I went weeks with students working just on individual assignments, and sometimes we worked weeks in group work assignments. Sometimes I used a top down design, and sometimes I used more of a backwards design approach.
I suppose that I should admit as well that I have never been truly comfortable in a discussion with other teachers when someone says, “Yes, that is probably something I should be doing, but I have too much content to get through.” I don’t think we should plan our classes just on the basis of legislative fiat or time constraints or the test at the end of our courses. I think we owe more to our students. Until I read this Perkins article, I do not believe I ever thought much about different types of knowledge. I just assumed that content was content, and let’s just get on with it. That was enough complexity for me. However, the way Perkins defined knowledge and understanding intrigued me, and I set myself to the task of trying to develop some operating strategies that would be beneficial to me in my planning. That is what this post is about.
I am proposing that we ask ourselves a very specific question: Given our fields of study and the knowledge, skills and dispositions we want our students to have when they complete our courses, what conscious operating strategies should we apply as design protocols in order to align our instructional methodologies with what is essential in our course content?
~ What I Mean by Operating Strategy ~
Writing a post (in this case, an essay really) on operating strategies for curricular design sounds pretty dull (and probably is dull), but I will try to do it in an interesting way. As a warning, I will tell you that this post is longer than the average blog post. I entertained the thought of dividing this into several posts, but ultimately I decided that it would be best to do in one essay. Once you crack open a good acorn, it needs to be eaten fresh.
I will begin with my definition of an operating strategy because such definitions might vary from one individual to another. I think that an operating strategy is an hypothesis we make about life that governs our thoughts and behaviors when we interact with our world as we perceive it to be. Some operating strategies might be idiosyncratic (i.e., specific to one individual), while other operating strategies might be more general and are shared by a group of people. Learning is impacted upon by the operating strategies held by both students and teachers.
I have a quick example of an individual operating strategy that came from working with a student writer some years ago. At the time, I was preparing my students for a writing test that was required for a basic New York State high school diploma. I required all my students to submit both a rough draft and a final draft to me so that I could assess the types of revisions they were making in their productive writing. One particular assignment came directly from a New York State Regents Competency Test. Students were required to write a business letter in which they returned a defective clock radio to the manufacturer. I was really puzzled by a girl who wrote this sentence in the final draft of her letter: “My family is upset by the upheaval breakage of the clock.” Her rough draft of that sentence was “My family is upset because the clock radio doesn’t work”. When I met with her about her letter, I joked that the final draft made it sound “as if your family broke it in some kind of family brawl” and that her rough draft was much clearer. She just laughed, and, when I asked why she wrote that final draft sentence, she said: “Oh, that sentence did not sound right to me. The rough draft was what I wanted to say, but I figured if it sounds right to me, it is probably wrong, but, if it doesn’t sound right to me, it is probably what you want.” That was the girl’s operating strategy. Teaching her to improve her writing was not a matter of teaching writing mechanics; it was working to correct an operating strategy.
Sometimes operating strategies may exist for an entire class, and, sadly when they go awry, they can be the result of the instruction we provide. For example, I was once teaching a class how to write a formal paper to analyze a work of literature. Students needed to be able to write an extended paper that included the critical vocabulary associated with literary analysis. My unit began well enough. I did get students to write about the content of a literary work, and they were coming along just fine. However, I also needed to get them to extend their analysis by using literary terms (e.g., metaphor, simile, personification, irony, etc.) in their essays. I used a constructivist approach to teach these terms and everything went very, very well. Then, I gave them an end of unit writing assignment to pull it all in together. When I read their papers, they all wrote about literary terms exactly as we had used them in class, but they forgot that the terms really get used to develop a main point or theme that the author was trying to make. I received an entire set of papers with sentences that simply followed one after another like lemmings over a cliff. 25 essays that said, “Line 4 is a metaphor, and here is why it is a metaphor. Line 7 contains an example of simile and here is why I say that. Line 11 uses a symbol.” Their papers were one step forward and two steps back for us. Since we had spent so much time on literary terms, they simply assumed that that was what I now wanted. Last in, first out. They had the literary elements, but they forgot the whole point of writing the essay. An operating strategy.
I found that set of papers painful because I really felt that somehow I had managed to lead the class astray. I could not just drop the papers because it was a problem that needed to be addressed. Our state exam demanded that they write a literary analysis essay. So, I had the students put all their chairs in a circle and held their papers on my lap. Then, I began with a story: “Let’s pretend that you got up this morning, and you found out that your toaster did not work. You know you need a new toaster. So here is the plan you came up with. You decide to get married because you just know that, if you get married, someone will give you a new toaster.” Well, the students laughed, and they mused about how dumb that would be. Then, I said, “Well, I will take the blame for this, but it is kind of what you did in this set of papers and it is kind of what I taught you to do. You do not get married so you can get a toaster, and you do not write an essay just to show off literary terms. It has to be connected to the main point. We all have some more work left to do — you and me.” Operating strategies again. From that point forward, the “toaster” debrief was extremely helpful in focusing on why we were doing what we were doing. It was a group attempt at adjusting a group operating strategy so that we could draw closer to the intentionality of learning.
I suppose that, in addition to talking about operating strategies, I am also going to suggest that we work harder to promote reflective learning in our classrooms. We often think of classes as having an individual or pair or small group or large group focus (we design for that), but we forget that the same range of options exists for our guiding of students in reflective thinking after the fact. We do not seem to design for reflective learning as often as we design for the events that lead into reflection. Reflective learning activities often save us time because a little more concentration on the discovery of the “operating strategies” behind a performance can save us hours and hours of re-teaching. The misdiagnosis of a problem results in misinstruction, and that is where we lose our time.
We might have to change our questions, however. Too many times we ask, “Why did you not do what I taught you to do in class?” and the answer to that question is not likely to be the same as the answer to “Can you tell me why you made the decision to do this rather than that?” Some questions are more likely to get at operating strategies than others. Sometimes, it’s all about toasters.
~ Inert Knowledge ~
The first category of knowledge that Perkins identifies in his article is inert knowledge. He defines inert knowledge as sitting “…. in the mind’s attic, unpicked only when specifically challenged by a quiz or a direct prompt, but otherwise gathering dust”. I have to say that I believe that some level of factual knowledge is necessary for thinking. I see nothing wrong with teaching facts, and I am not anti-fact. It seems fair to say that, perhaps in some cases, too much time is spent with the teacher in the transmission mode and with students serving the role of passive receptors for “important facts” that cascade down to them. We all know that. And, most of us are guilty of it no matter how much we might deny or demur. I suspect that we try not to do that. Certainly, I spent enough years teaching the difference between Italian and Elizabethan sonnets to avoid being too critical of others, and I have never had a former student come up to me to thank me for teaching them that difference or to tell me that it made a significant contribution to the quality of their adult lives. Such is life.
The problem with inert knowledges seems to be one that is less associated with the type of knowledge and more associated with the design behind the teaching style. I would argue further that the canonization of some facts over others seems to be more of a cultural preference than a cultural imperative. The danger that we face now is that, if society puts teachers and students under attack, the consequence is not likely to be a surge of activities centering on higher order thinking skills. On the contrary, I think there is more likely to be a de facto retreat into “safe facts” and low level mastery of easily testable information. I also suspect that, when all is said and done and we finally do take a look at the “student gains” that this particular era of reform yields, we will find that the gains came at the lower end of Bloom’s taxonomy.
It seems to me that all content areas have some level of inert knowledge that must be transmitted to students. Yes, I am saying that inert knowledge can be a good thing. I am going to use an example here, but I admit that it might not be a perfect analogy. I just cannot think of something better. When I think of inert knowledge, I see an operating strategy that has similarities to how computer viruses can bypass security to infect a system. Rather than send the virus all at once and risk detection, seemingly innocuous pieces of a virus code can be sent over time and embedded in a system. Then, when it is time to activate the virus, an activating agent can be sent that “wakes up” the dormant code and we have a full-fledged virus that had previously eluded detection. I am definitely not arguing that inert knowledge is the equivalent of a computer virus. What I am arguing is that perhaps, instead of lamenting that inert knowledge is at fault, we should spend more time trying to figure out why and what and how and when we can introduce an activating agent to wake up dormant knowledge bits resting in the “systems” of our students. We most certainly can do a better job of designing the “activating agents” for inert knowledge. And I do not think that simply testing the knowledge is a sufficient activating agent.
I think that students who are fed endless days of inert knowledge develop an operating strategy whereby they assume that no “school” knowledge has usefulness in their lives. It is not the knowledge itself that is doing that to them. It is the uninspired transmission of the inert knowledge over time. Students don’t even think to transfer knowledge, skills and dispositions to new learning. It just does not occur to them. It just seems unfair to criticize teachers for the transmission of inert knowledge (especially if it is something demanded of them by the curriculum guides under which they must operate). Even Perkins, who is a constructivist, admits that when “knowledge is not particularly troublesome for learners, … teaching by telling may serve just fine.”
The question teachers need to be asked is not, “Why are you teaching inert knowledge?” but “How to you plan to activate that knowledge so that students can learn beyond that knowledge?” It is that question that gets at the heart of curricular design.
~ Ritual Knowledge ~
The second type of knowledge that Perkins identifies is ritual knowledge, which, he says, “has a routine and rather meaningless character. It feels like part of a social or an individual ritual: how we answer when asked such-and-such, the routine that we execute to get a particular result.” I like the fact that Perkins identifies the category of ritual knowledge, but I disagree with considering it in only a pejorative way.
I actually think that there are benefits as well as problems with ritual knowledge. Sure, there is the danger that people will grow up and hum the Roy G Biv song on the way to work some day. I don’t suppose that hurts, and it probably got them to pass a test somewhere earlier in their academic careers as they were acquiring the credentials to get that job. And, I also know that, if we persist in turning complex knowledge into sing-song routines, we can diminish the intellectual content of what gets learned. As a secondary teacher who taught more advanced secondary courses, I have had my share of parent conferences over the years that went like this: “I just cannot understand it. He always did so well in English and he enjoyed his classes. This year — with you, he seems to be struggling. He is so unhappy, and, to be truthful, we are not too pleased either.” Well, if you are a teacher with a Regents exam in New York State or a teacher with a Higher exam in Scotland or an A Level exam in England, you know how uncomfortable it is to twist in your seat at such conferences and say, “But I expect him to think and not just parrot back facts to me.” (By the way, I use this example only because it was the age level and course I taught. The same problem presents itself to teachers at all grade levels. It is wrong to believe that higher order thinking only kicks in at 13 or 16 years of age. Young children are also involved in higher order thinking. It is not just upper level secondary teachers standing out there with the Scarlet Letter on their chests, so let’s drop that canard when it comes time to play the “blame game”). In this sense, I very much agree with Perkins when he considers ritual knowledge to be a problem in schools.
At the same time, the problem with ritual knowledge may be a bit like the problem with inert knowledge. Maybe it is not type of knowledge but the operating strategies involved with the knowledge that are important. Maybe we could mitigate that problem with a little more intentionality in our curricular designing.
First of all, rituals are not necessarily bad. There is enough fragmentation and isolation in life that students (and teachers) can easily feel a bit stressed out by overload. Rituals can provide us with comfort and a belief that somehow life has a flow to it that will carry us. Any of us who have survived traumatic events (e.g., the death of a loved one) knows the consequences of trauma and how disorienting that can be. When they have happened to me, I generally fall back on the rituals of my life and ride out the storm. I can see students in schools taking comfort in rituals (even ritual knowledge) because it gives them a certain amount of seeming control over their lives. And it works most of the time early in their careers and some of the time late in their careers. I do not believe that the positive benefits of ritual knowledge have changed much since earlier people sat in their mead halls listening to their poets recite Beowulf with a rhythmic chant (there is a measure of relief in hearing that our ancestors survived tough times and that somehow we will survive as well).
The problem with ritual knowledge might be that students develop an operating strategy that tells them that ritual knowledge alone is sufficient for success in school as well as in their lives thereafter. When they are taught ritual knowledge initially, the chances are that they do have some success with it. It gets them from Point A to Point B, and they feel good about that. Ritual knowledge works well in times when only short term transfer of knowledge is required. But they may not realize that there is a Point N or a Point Q or a Point Z that requires them to go beyond ritual knowledge. Far transfer of knowledge requires more than ritual. Students may not understand that there is both theme and variation in their learning. Ritual knowledge emphasizes the “what is there” in our curriculum, the continuity of the apparent. For children who have not seen it before or understood it before, just seeing the common theme (the ritual knowledge) gives them a sense of control. Of course, it is not enough to end their educations with that, but it is a reasonable start for many children.
As an operating strategy, we may need to adjust how we use “ritual knowledge” to its best advantage in our curricular designs. Maybe we need to go beyond ritual by designing a bit more for variation. To become expert in any field requires us to note and understand what is there but to also see what is not there (and to learn from that). We need to perceive what discrepancies or anomalies are present that might be an indication that “ritual knowledge” is not sufficient in dealing with a specific situation. It is easy to teach the ritual, but it is much harder to teach the children to discern the departure points, the jumping off points, that launch an intellectual trajectory that takes them beyond ritual knowledge. These trajectories are almost like the lines and shapes in a Kandinsky painting that take us beyond the frame of the painting and have us project somewhere beyond the painting.
I know that this line of thinking might be a bit abstract so I am going to connect it to a particular curricular issue. I am not going to use percentages here because I am doing this off the top of my head, but it is true enough. Most of the English language is pretty predictable in terms of grammar. As native speakers of a language, there are probabilities that children can rely on in their productive uses of the language. However, almost as soon as formal grammar study gets introduced in schools, we turn our attention from the predictability of the language that children can, as native speakers, depend upon, and we focus on the exceptions to rules rather than on the rules themselves. We may have textbook chapters that try to keep that balance alive, but the practice questions at the end of the chapters (and too many of the standardized tests we give) focus on exceptions that militate against children feeling comfortable with their predictable competencies. We tweak their operating strategies until they see grammar as a trick and not as a competency. We create children who begin describing broken clocks in terms of “upheaval breakage”. The purpose of grammar study is to perhaps improve speaking and writing skills, but we ought to be testing them by having them actually speak and write. To give them standardized tests that in too many cases distort probability and focus on exceptions so that we can fine tune our ability to discriminate among students is not really educating them in my view. It is a manipulation of students and a capitulation to statistics. It is a little bit like having children stare into mirrors looking at their bodies and saying to them, “Now the important point is that you not be concerned with the size of your nose in relationship to those ears of yours.” We must find ways to teach students to see variations without destroying a sense of probability and predictability. We do need to design for the leap beyond ritual knowledge without denying the value of ritual knowledge.
I would also like to take the focus of this discussion beyond what Perkins was dealing with and to consider — just briefly — the impact of ritual skills and ritual dispositions. We are not just teaching content. We are teaching children, and we are doing that in the context of a culture and a community. Some rituals are important because they are also “operating procedures” that benefit curricular design. When I made my first foray into a constructivist mode of teaching, I worked really hard on a particular Beowulf lesson that I wanted my students to experience. I wanted that lesson to go well, but it failed quickly. When I told the students to arrange their desks in groups of fours so that they could work on the challenge, they were not able to do that. They banged their desks together, raised havoc with each other and I quickly retreated. Somehow the measure of control that I had over them when I lectured was not the same as the control I had over them as they moved into small group. At first, I just thought that, since it was a somewhat troublesome class to begin with, there was little that I could do. I sat in my classroom feeling defeated that afternoon, a bit like Forrest Gump holding a box of chocolates on his lap. Eventually, I did have to leave the shame of my classroom that day and go home. When I discussed this failure with my wife, who taught second grade, she said, “Of course, it did not work. You need to teach them how to move their desks in your room.” I defended myself by saying, “But they are 18 years old. Why would I have to teach them how to move their desks?” Yet, the next day I went back in and did just that. I spent a class teaching them to arrange their desks quickly, quietly and safely. I had them arrange their desks for a formal lecture, for work in pairs, for small groups, and for a large group debrief. I ran that class almost like a fire drill. I endured the noise, the confusion, the fooling around, the loss of instructional time, the guilt that came with the loss of instructional time and so on. I tried to maintain a sense of humor about it. At the end of 40 minutes, the students had the “rituals” down and I was able to transition among curricular designs for the rest of the year. I could lecture for 15 minutes and then break into any number of connected activities and have my room back in shape for my next class without too many problems. Taking care of a practical problem in a ritualistic way was beneficial to me and to my ability to teach my academic content. Such things are possible. Those 40 minutes of immediate time saved countless minutes of future time for the remaining days of that course.
I sometimes think that our problems with varying curricular designs and approaches are not a failure of our intellects or our imaginations. They are more the result of our failure to teach community responsibilities to children and to provide them with the “tools” needed to be successful in adapting to more flexible curricular opportunities. In order to make this statement here, I do not need to accuse readers of anything. I can base it simply on my own experience. I do not believe that we ought to avoid ritual knowledge, skills or dispositions. It is not the rituals that are bad. It is the fact that we do not do enough to use those rituals as the departure points for trajectories that “go beyond” when “going beyond” is necessary for deeper learning.
~ Conceptually Difficult Knowledge ~
For me, one of the most difficult problems in curricular design (especially in matching the teaching method to the essential knowledge of a course) was a when issue: “When should I use a lecture approach? When should I take the time to do more active learning? When should I have students work individually? When should I have them work in pairs? When should they work in small groups? When should they work in large group?” I really did not want to choose my method based on student discipline and behavior (which most certainly do impact upon such decisions), nor did I want to make the decision based on something as transitory or as arbitrary as the time available (and time is admittedly a limited resource).
Part of my difficulty was that I had kind of a “marching band strategy” that dominated my design processes. I think maybe I saw myself more as band director whose job it was to get the students marching in synchronized harmony. I saw my curricular designs as cues for student performance. I wanted to cue them “correctly” so that they would all work as individuals. Provide a different “correct” cue and they would all reassemble as pairs. New “correct” cue and, voila, small group. New “correct” cue and, bingo, they all wind up in neat little rows so the classroom was arranged for my next class coming in. On a personal level, I saw them as individuals but, once the class started, they were really members of a marching band. I think this was closely aligned to a “fairness to all” principle that I thought justified my methodology. I simply believed (uncritically perhaps) that, if all students were working on a common assignment, they needed to have “instructional sameness” so that I could justify my “fairness”. Such is life inside the sausage machine of too many classrooms (particularly at the secondary level where we might define ourselves more as “teachers of content” rather than as “teachers of children”).
What I can tell you is that, when Perkins described conceptually difficult knowledge, he got my attention. Conceptually difficult knowledge, he asserted, was knowledge that confounds the ritual responses that students have toward what is learned because that knowledge seems counter-intuitive to their prior learning. Ritual knowledge might well be embedded in a group context, but understanding conceptually difficult knowledge might demand more flexible designs. This was a real insight for me (much to my professional shame). Conceptually difficult knowledge can vary from one individual to another individual. What is counter-intuitive for one is not necessarily counter-intuitive for another. Nor, for that matter, do all people work their way through counter-intuitive information in the same way. Some might need to do that with a period of individual reflection. Others might need to do that in private discussion with one other person. Some might demand teacher time, and some might want to explore with another student. Yet, others might want a wider range of thoughts to select from and might be more amenable to small group processing. Sometimes, we set up these learning moments by starting in large group and breaking down into other settings, and sometimes we start in the smaller settings and do our large group teaching during a post-experience debrief when we can fine tune the learning in reflection.
Thinking back to my own experiences in school confirmed this for me. Math has always been a difficult subject for me. If I were doing a math assignment, I often preferred to work alone at it for a while to try to see what it was I knew and could do (at least then I could subvocalize my cursing without greater jeopardy). After I had some processing time as an individual, I might need some individual teacher assistance or I might be able to move into a pair or into a small group. However, my primary need at the start was to be given time to read and assess and approximate where I was in the context of what was being asked of me. When it came to an English assignment, however, I was much more comfortable and confident. Often I could bypass alone time, and I was just anxious to work in pairs or in small groups. My approach to learning was very different.
Considering conceptually difficult knowledge in this way opened my eyes to the need to learn how to design a lesson that could be an individual assignment for one student but a pair assignment for others or a small group for still others in a classroom or perhaps an opportunity for whole group instruction. I could really appreciate the intentionality of the design. It was not really a fairness issue; it was a learning preference and a learning need. I was not a band director. I was a facilitator of learning. I was a teacher and a guide and a fellow learner. It was not a matter of my choosing the technique; it was having the design capability to match the technique to the student. It was personalized learning. For me, the realization that conceptually difficult knowledge might vary was a wake up call for a re-think.
Today, I see that these design issues as being central to our consideration of universal designs in the context of Common Core. Americans are not alone in this. The same issues are being raised in England, Scotland and Wales. Although these are places with which I am familiar, I would not be surprised if other countries are not also grappling with them. It is no longer an alien concept to me. Rather than extend this discussion further in what is already a “too long” post, I will come back to this on future posts more specifically focused on a specific curricular context. I will say, however, that this issue is not really just a problem with curricular design. It is a cultural issue. For us to do this, we need to change the culture of our schools so that learners are respected more as people and considered less as numbers to be crunched in some forced march to progress.
~ Foreign Knowledge ~
A fourth type of knowledge that Perkins describes is foreign knowledge, or knowledge that “comes from a perspective that conflicts with our own”. For example, it could be a conflict that results from different faiths, different ethnic backgrounds, different nationalities and so on. One particular concept that Perkins uses as an example is “presentism in historical understanding” where a student might “tend to view past events through present knowledge”.
I know that, as I originally read this article, my mind drifted back over my years of teaching literature. Discussions of word choices in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, or the use of “awful” as an adjective to describe God in the Puritan sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God”, or Swift’s biting satire in “A Modest Proposal”. If we switched disciplines, we could discuss the ethics of Jefferson as an owner of slaves and yet as the author of some important documents in American history. Or, we might discuss cultural differences that govern “edible” foods from one culture to another, or the way in which a particular culture mights use animals differently, or how various societies treat children or the elderly. We do not lack for examples.
I did find Perkins’ identification of foreign knowledge to be a useful distinction because it reminds us that learning is a social activity. For some learners, there may well be a kind of “perceptual blindness” that impedes learning and that some inquiries simply lend themselves better to group activities than to individual ones. That is useful in curricular design.
If I had written this post several months ago, I might have ended with the strategy above as my main suggestion. However, something happened in early May that really has me rethinking the operational strategies for foreign knowledge designs, but it has less to do with the alignment of methodologies and course content and much more to do with courage.
I can give a really clear example that I mentioned in a post a few weeks ago. In early May, New York State was giving its English test to 8th graders. One of the reading passages on that test was “about a pineapple challenging a hare to a foot race through the forest … . The fable described several animals assuming that the pineapple must have a trick up its sleeve that would enable the immobile fruit to win the race, and when they discovered that it didn’t, they ate it. Test-takers were asked: Why did they eat the pineapple?” ( http://ideas.time.com/2012/05/04/what-everyone-missed-on-the-pineapple-question/?iid=pf-author-mostpop2#ixzz1wNWnWlrh )
To its credit, the New York State Education Department decided to exclude that reading passage in determining student test scores because the passage made so little sense. However, a key question remains: Why on earth would that passage be on the exam when there are so many other potential reading passages that could have been used? Andrew J. Rotherham, writing in Time Magazine, made a very cogent observation. He said “state officials are often choosing not the best but rather the least problematic option to do their state assessments. And that includes state officials shying away from reading passages by Mark Twain or about the Vietnam war or anything else that contains even a hint of controversy. “The Hare and the Pineapple” is an absurd and almost trippy story, and it is emblematic of the sort of sanitized material that makes it onto tests and into too many classrooms because … interest groups have collectively created a culture in education that makes rich and provocative content out of bounds and leaves fun but nonsensical passages like “The Hare and the Pineapple” to fill the void” ( http://ideas.time.com/2012/05/04/what-everyone-missed-on-the-pineapple-question/?iid=pf-author-mostpop2#ixzz1wNWnWlrh )
We say that we want 21st century skills, but all too often we want to develop those skills by ducking real 21st century issues. When it comes to designing for foreign knowledge, we may have to accept the courage to confront issues as a key part of our operating strategy for curricular designing. The failure to have courage is not simply a disservice to students. It is a disservice to thinking itself.
I realize that this is not a particularly entertaining post. It was a serious treatment of a serious issue that concerns me. There are times when we simply have to endure and smile and just push ahead. And sometimes we have to read and reflect and have the courage to confront issues so that we can provide better opportunities for our students to learn. This post is simply a nudge in the direction that I think we need to be going.