Several times in my career, I feel like I’ve gone against conventional wisdom (CW) and accepted practices.
[For those readers who believe that beliefs and actions described below do no or should not represent “contrarian” positions, I would note that when we made these shifts, we were rebels and renegades. I dare say that educators taking these positions are still outliers.]
Instead, we’ve bucked the system and adopted a contrarian point of view.
CW: We must teach all the standards. After all, they’re all going to be on the test. We can’t trust schools or teachers to prioritize standards. And, even when student needs and gaps in prerequisite skills require us to preteach and differentiate, we must teach everything.
The Contrarian Point of View: Quality is more important than quantity; depth is more important than breadth. As a principal and curriculum director, we have taken the (apparently unusual) point of view that students don’t learn more because we teach more content. They learn more when we provide differentiated, rich, and relevant learning experiences. And that takes more time than lecturing, completing low-level activities (worksheets), and moving on to a new topic the next day. Teach less, learn more. Something interesting happened when we focused: student learning – as measured by high stakes assessments that assess everything – grew. They grew a lot. It turns out that opportunities to think critically and problem-solve are important. And those practices take time.
CW: Let’s examine our lowest performing subgroups. How are our socioeconomically disadvantaged students (or English learners or students with special needs) doing?
The Contrarian Point of View: We have adopted the policy that English learners are students first; students who qualify for free or reduced priced lunch are students first; students with special needs are students first. We asked, “Why don’t we just focus on the learning and growth of each student? Perhaps each student should have an ILP – an Individualized Learning Plan.” This had both a symbolic and practical impact. Staff members viewed students as individuals and we designed plans that met the specific needs of each student.
CW: Each classroom at an elementary school is an island unto itself. Alignments within and between grade levels just aren’t possible.
The Contrarian Point of View: A master schedule at elementary school may seem odd, but it transformed our abilities to serve students and contributed to quadrupling student achievement in four years. In order to provide intensive interventions, drawing students from multiple classrooms and even grade levels, we needed a schedule. Working collaboratively and interactively with each grade level team, we compromised and revised until we could tell a grade level: These are the 30-minute blocks during which we will provide phonics (or phonemic awareness or fluency or comprehension) supports to our most vulnerable learners. Please schedule accordingly. Students received core supports and the supplemental supports necessary to catch-up and learn at high levels.
CW: We just have to move on to the next unit, even though there are students who would benefit from more time and alternative supports.
The Contrarian Point of View: We’ve never reached the end of a unit with every single student achieving at the levels of mastery we desire. If it’s predictable, it’s preventable. We drew on the work of Benjamin Bloom from 50 years ago and embedded Buffer Time. Instead of moving on to the next unit the day after the conclusion of the current unit, we built in a few buffer days. Based on evidence gathered throughout the current unit, we provided intervention or enrichment to students during this Buffer Time. All students benefited; both achievement and mindsets improved. The cost: These Buffer Days meant we couldn’t cover as much content within the year. We didn’t care (see the first item above).
CW: All students can learn…something, but there are some students who just can’t learn at high levels because of their reading skills (or their home life or they’re an English learner or they have a learning disability); they should be in a separate class.
The Contrarian Point of View: Every student can achieve at high levels. We believe it fiercely and we really do whatever it takes to make it happen. We do not track students into homogenous groups at Tier 1. It doesn’t work for anybody, including gifted students (see Hattie). We ensure that students know and believe that all staff believe that all students can and that they expect the very best. We demonstrate this through our actions and words. We do not say, “Well, we offered a tutorial period but this student just didn’t take advantage of this option.” There are no options for participation in these supports. We encourage, cheer-lead, cajole, and care deeply about students so that they are “motivated” to try to improve. We provide intensive Tier 3 interventions with the expectation – the certain knowledge – that progress will be made. Students can sense this certainty and…progress occurs.
It’s certainly my belief that the contrarian point of vew should be the norm. Intellectual risk-taking isn’t just for students.