I fear that a lack of focus in hindering our efforts and inhibiting our chances of achieving the “possible” – high levels of learning for all students. I similarly fear that we’re making things too complicated. Three ways in which we must focus and simplify follow:
- We believe that student frustration, failure, and many disability diagnoses are the result of schools going too fast, trying to cover too much. We firmly subscribe to this belief and sets of corresponding practices: Teach less, learn more.
We must plan for greater focus of our curricular units. When we favor covering a large quantity of standards, quality suffers. The need to focus becomes more immediate when we acknowledge that we have not sufficiently prioritized behavioral outcomes, behaviors such as those associated with self-regulation and executive functioning (time management, organization, self-monitoring, self-concept, use of strategy, metacognition, and volition) and those skills described at the beginning the chapter. To those who would categorize some of these skills are more academic than behavioral, we say, “fine.” They still have not been sufficiently prioritized within our teaching and learning scopes and sequences. We must also prioritize, define, model, teach, assess, as well as provide feedback and differentiated supports, for other behaviors, such as those associated with social and emotional learning (self-control, coping, self-advocacy, empathy, and resiliency). These behavioral skills are also as critical as academics. Students may earn high test scores and marks based on their demonstration of academic skills, but they succeed in university and life due to their display of behavioral skills. Devoting the appropriate time to behaviors will necessitate that we prioritize academic content and skills to an even greater extent.
Further prioritizing the content and skills (academic and behavioral) upon which our teaching and learning focuses will allow teachers and students to go deeper, developing the critical thinking and problem solving that will serve students most significantly as adults. School days and school years are unlikely to grow longer in the near future. There are those who argue that today’s high stakes tests dictate the breadth of our curricula, to which we say: The worst way to prepare students for a test that assesses everything is to teach everything. The worst way to prepare students for tests that inappropriately assess shallow levels of understanding is to teach to shallow levels of understanding. We lament that assessments too infrequently match the curriculum that we know we need to embrace and the realities of adult life, but trying to teach everything will all but guarantee that students learn and retain little. Teaching students to think critically and problem solve will enable them to answer questions for which they may not have received direct instruction.
The key to unclogging a crowded content-driven curriculum is to create a clear conception of a few really important ideas and essential questions in order to focus on understanding and integrate 21st century skills…teachers have time to “uncover” it by engaging students in analyzing issues, applying critical and creative thinking to complex problems working collaboratively on inquiry.
McTighe and Seif, 2009
A note on our most vulnerable students: It is probable that students experiencing some form of crisis will require more time to master fewer priorities. We should plan and prepare for this reality. It is misguided to expect vulnerable students to master the same quantity of content as less vulnerable students. Quantity is not the goal, however. When, with the best of intentions, we expect vulnerable students to master the same quantity of content, they fall farther and farther behind over time. Students with vulnerabilities in behavioral areas will likely require more time and support in this area. So be it. This modification will serve them well as developing humans and will help them master academic content and skills at a greater level than if behavior needs were not acknowledged and met. Students with vulnerabilities due to deficits in prerequisite skills will need us to build this background knowledge. This modification will both ameliorate gaps in prior skills and equip students to master the prioritized outcomes of a given grade level or course, albeit not as many outcomes. These modifications will result in covering fewer standards; it’s the right thing to do for our most vulnerable students, and it requires courage and conviction. Depth is more important breadth; mastery more important than coverage.
- Another area in which focus is critical and too infrequently practiced is in intervening and remediating for students for whom the need had been identified. The best intervention is a targeted intervention. Reteaching the entirety of a preceding unit of instruction, when evidence suggests that a sufficient level of mastery was not attained, is impractical and inefficient. Instead, we must focus on the specific outcomes with which students require assistance, and focus on the causal factors (e.g., the way we taught, gaps in necessary perquisite skills) of the difficulty. Similarly, when a student reads far below the level at which they ought to read given their grade or age, providing a broad intensive reading intervention is impractical and inefficient. Reading is a complex set of skills, but a complex set of skills about which we know a great deal. Instead of providing intensive intervention in all domains of reading, provide targeted supports in phonological awareness and/or single-syllabic phonics and/or mutli-syallabic phonics and/or fluency and/or vocabulary/comprehension based on a fifteen minute reading inventory conducted with the student that reveals and diagnoses an immediate and antecedent need.
- Lastly, we must focus the initiatives that we invite or require schools and staffs to implement. Initiative fatigue, or in its most severe form, death-by-initiative, is a very real concern in education. Let’s embrace the wisdom of the Pareto Principle (McKeown, 2014) and focus on one or two improvement efforts for which we have evidence of need and for which there is a high likelihood of profound impacts; other areas not directly impacted by the improvement effort will, in our experiences and based on the Pareto Principle, similarly improve. For example, students with more well-developed behavioral skills learn more academic skills; students who can comprehend texts more confidently and competently are likely to perform better in the sciences and social sciences; students with more mature behavioral and academic skills will probably been more engaged and less likely to exhibit less asocial behavioral skills. Instead of new initiatives, let’s continue to work together, systematically, to improve the significant improvement efforts to which we have, after gathering evidence, researching, collaborating, and planning, dedicated ourselves.
Educating students is complex; let’s not make it more complicated. As we will attempt to clearly describe, the tasks associated with organizing ourselves on behalf of students, and of organizing teaching and learning, are simpler than we have allowed it to be.