Why “Content Coverage” is Over: A Manifesto!


This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >


OK, before you immediately react and make a comment, let’s take a breath! Yes, we live in an education world that is driven by content. We have standards, learning objectives, and the like. We have curriculum, texts, and pacing guides. We have high-stakes standardized tests, benchmark exams, and AP or IB tests that drive our instruction. I’ve taught with all these forces at work. It’s frustrating, and that is perhaps an understatement. Perhaps maddening is a better word?

Regardless, all of these forces move us toward coverage. We feel the pressure to go quickly through curriculum, because the forces at work dictate that there must be a lot of curriculum. But at the same time, we don’t have to admit to defeat by these forces. In fact, maybe we aren’t as rigidly committed to covering all this content as we think we are.

We Can’t!
“I can’t cover all the content.”
“I’ve tried, and failed.”
“I have covered it, but the learning is lost.”

When I hear these complaints from the teachers I work with about all the standards and content they must cover, I always talk about my pressures with AP exams. “World history in a year: go!” We all laugh, but it really is a bit true. We are expected to cover a lot (if not all) of the content for a world history course within a year. In an effort to prepare my students, I would assign a lot of DIY learning outside of school and would also create a plan to cruise through as much as I could. What I found, and what I’m sure many of you have found, was that not only were my AP results all over the place in terms of scores and achievement, but so were the grades in my class. By focusing on covering all the content, I was really doing my students a disservice. Instead of “uncoverage,” I was focusing on coverage. And we know that doesn’t work!

We Prioritize!
The interesting thing here is that many of us unknowingly don’t cover content. Even under all the pressures, we know that we can’t cover every single thing, and that some of it may get left behind. Or similarly, some things don’t get as much time as we would like. I always ask teachers what gets left behind. Many don’t want to admit it, but some things do. Maybe it’s a standard or unit at the end of the year, or maybe it’s a small assignment. But whatever gets left, it means something good. We’re showing that we prioritize. We know what our students really need, and so we plan accordingly.

When I reflected on my poor performance as a teacher in an AP class, I realized that I needed to focus on the important and big ideas, maybe even the big “buckets” that I knew were important for students to know. I even looked at past AP exams for patterns and trends. World religions came up many times, as did the Holocaust and World War II. These were some of the priorities that drove me, but other teachers have all different kinds. Their priorities could be exam driven, or their drivers could be personal factors or things outside of the classroom. Recognizing our priorities is in fact empowering. It allows us to own the facts that we don’t cover every last thing, and that we see the value of spending time on what matters to our students.

We Are Great Teachers!
From all this, it comes down to one major point: We are professionals. We know our students. We know what they need, and yes, we use curriculum and pacing guides as what they should be — guides! We assess our students. We differentiate and plan their learning accordingly to make a difference in the life of each student we have. It is time for all of us to own that we are good teachers, and not admit defeat to the pressures of content coverage. In fact, we make or need to make better decisions in terms of priorities and student learning.

In an effort to empower and affirm your work as an educator, please sign this manifesto by indicating your support below and adding your own points:

I am committed to deeper and life-long learning for my students.
I will no longer submit to the pressure to cover content.
I will prioritize learning for my students based on their needs and passions.
I will aim past the high-stakes tests, yet still expose students to them to ensure that they are ready.
I will use curriculum and pacing guides for what they are intended: guides, not set-in-stone learning.
I will continue to make the best decisions for my students, rather than let the pressure to cover content drive my teaching.

Avoiding “Learned Helplessness”


This post originally appeared on Edutopia, a site created by the George Lucas Educational Foundation, dedicated to improving the K-12 learning process by using digital media to document, disseminate, and advocate for innovative, replicable strategies that prepare students. View Original >


We all have students that just want to “get it right.” We all have students that constantly seek the attention of the teacher. “Did I get this right?” “Is this what you want?” Now while it’s certainly a good thing to affirm students in their learning, many times we want students to be creative with their learning. We allow them to own their learning and create assessment products where they can show us what they know in new and inventive ways. Because of this, there isn’t “one right answer,” yet our students are often trained to think that there can be only one.

Similarly, we want students to be reflective, to ask themselves, “How do I know if I’m on the right track?” or “What could I do next?” Instead of coming immediately to the teacher, we want students to experiment on their own. Many of us wonder why students constantly do the opposite instead. I’ve got news for you. It’s our fault. We, as educators, are often responsible for learned helplessness, and we have a responsibility to change it! How can we empower our students to be self-directed learners?

Curate and Create Learning Resources
If we want to have students seek out other information from sources other than the teacher, then we must make sure those resources are available. Many teachers using the flipped classroom approach already have created or found these kinds of resources. However, think broadly about the word resource. People are resources, texts are resources, and community organizations are resources — to name just a few categories. We have to be comfortable not always knowing the answer, and instead suggesting we find the answer together through the vast amount of learning resources that we have at our disposal. Try curating these resources before, during, and after a unit. Work with students as well to create a culture where the answers are everywhere.

Questions “For” (Not “About”) Learning
What do I mean by this? Instead of using questions to check for understanding and getting the right answer, we can use questions to probe students’ thinking and push them to think about their learning. Questions can serve as powerful redirection tools that promote metacognition. Instead of responding with “Yes” or “No,” ask a student, “Why do you think that?” If you notice an error or gap in learning, try using questions that push the student to think:

What else could you try?
Have you experimented with another idea?
Why do you think this is true?
Questions are powerful tools for helping students own the process of learning.

Stop Giving Answers
Often, when a student fails or makes mistakes, we want to fly in like a superhero and give the answer. “This is what you need to do.” We come to save the day, and pat ourselves on the back for being a great teacher. In fact, we may have done that student a disservice. This doesn’t come from a bad place, or suggest that we’re bad at teaching. On the contrary, we care for our students, so we want to help them whenever we can. Ask yourself this: By helping that student, will he or she own the learning, or are you doing the learning for him or her? This means that sometimes we need to get out of the way. If students are working in teams, for example, and are arguing (safely) about what to do next, we need to let them solve the problem on their own and then check in. “I heard an argument. Did you guys figure it out? Great work at problem solving!” Of course, if students are floundering, and failure is not productive, by all means step in. But also feel free to allow yourself wait time before you do so!

Allow for Failure
I firmly believe that failure is a powerful learning tool, but we have to make sure that we create a culture where it is OK to fail forward. Do you grade everything? If so, you may not be communicating that it’s OK to fail. Do you allow for multiple drafts and revisions and demand high-quality products? If so, you are communicating to students that they have multiple tries to learn and, more importantly, that they can be creative and experiment. In addition, we should be there to support students when they do fail, and to help get them back on the right track.

We need to take responsibility for empowering our students, and to scaffold the process of self-direction. Self-direction doesn’t happen overnight, especially, when many of our students, based on specific structures of schooling, are trained to be helpless. Although we can take steps as individual educators to avoid learned helplessness, we need to reexamine the systems of schooling, from curriculum to assessment and instruction, to allow for empowerment rather than always getting the right answer.

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