This post, the first in an occasional series, provides a framework for infusing rigor and relevance into a standards-based curriculum by looking for opportunities to help gifted students develop conceptual understanding and requiring them to use that understanding in the context of real-world problems.
I squeeze into the wrap-around desk, shuffling the stack of syllabi, policies, and brightly colored fliers that implore me to donate tissue and hand sanitizer and post-it notes. It’s the last seven-minute period of what’s been a long Open House, but I’m particularly eager to hear from these two teachers who will be teaching my sophomore daughter’s cross-disciplinary English and AP World History course. The bell rings and a young man walks to the front of the classroom.
“My job,” he says, “is to prepare your child for the AP World History exam.”
My heart sinks.
“Because if your child passes the exam,” he continues, “he or she will earn college credit, and that will save you money.”
My temper rises.
“Don’t be ‘that guy,’” I tell myself, resisting the temptation to challenge (aloud) this teacher’s assessment of his vocation.
But inside, I’m full of questions: Don’t you want to instill a passion for history? Or create an appreciation for how the past shapes the present and the future? Or foster a deeper understanding of concepts like power? Or, at the very least, develop plain ol’, generic critical and analytical thinking?
To be fair to this guy, preparing for the exam may encompass all of these things and more. But as a former AP English teacher myself, I know that words matter, and his words reveal a problem.
Going for the Goal(s)?
The word curriculum comes from the Latin for “running” or “a racing course.” Building on that concept, Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins assert that “[c]urriculum is a means to an end” (The Understanding by Design Handbook, 37). So what’s the end – the finish line – of the racing course that is our curriculum?
Yes, in many cases, our students will face a standardized test at the end of their time with us, and yes, the results of those tests do (or should) matter – to them and to us. But if we think about what we want our students to gain from our course, the answer will (or should) include knowledge, skills, and understandings that are deeper and more meaningful than those that can be captured on a bubble sheet.
A research collaboration between Duke TIP and researchers from Vanderbilt University helps us broaden our field of vision even further and demonstrates what those deeper knowledge, skills, and understandings might look like in our students’ futures. This study found that students with “extraordinary academic promise… went on to achieve extraordinary educational, occupational, and creative accomplishments in adulthood.” These individuals are now business executives and educational leaders. They have published in prestigious journals and earned U.S. patents and doctoral degrees at higher rates than the general population. They are accomplished professionals who are transforming their communities and the world. Isn’t equipping and inspiring students for that type of future the finish line?
In graduate school, Dr. Gerald Unks reminded me and my fellow teachers-to-be over and over that “you learn to do what you do, and not something else.” So if we want our gifted students to develop deeper understandings and to be prepared to solve complex problems, we have to create a curriculum that requires them to do those things. Such a curriculum will be rigorous and engaging, and it will place standardized tests in a different, and more appropriate, context. Those tests will no longer be the finish line, but a stop along the way as our students race into the real world.
The Problem with Problems
A first step in creating this sort of curriculum is recognizing, and ultimately changing, our thinking when it comes to the word “problem.” In the prepare-your-students-for-the-test model, “problem” typically means a discrete question requiring a solution, often determined by following the appropriate steps. For example:
When the experts of the World Economic Forum think about problems, however, they see a very different picture: an interconnected web of global trends and global risks.
Now many of our talented students will know how to handle the first problem, or one like it. They will know all the steps and they will be able to solve the equation every time, even when we change a variable here or there. And they may assume that their knowledge is enough, because that’s all the test will require.
But if we want to ramp up the rigor, knowing how to accurately complete each and every step simply isn’t sufficient. Instead, we need a curriculum that requires students to look at a web of interconnections among food crises, involuntary migration, failure of urban planning, and extreme weather events and recognize that their ability to solve a calculus problem is an essential tool in addressing these far more significant, real-world problems. The differential equation is a means; helping to mitigate a rise in chronic disease is the end.
As teachers, we’re faced with choices every day. And with all the demands on our time and intellectual energy, it can be all too easy to choose the path of least resistance, to opt for the default curriculum or pacing guide that is placed before us because that’s what’s expected of us and, well, we’ve got lunch duty and training on the latest district-wide, “this-system-will-save-education” trend du jour. Unfortunately, when we adopt this approach – understandable as it may be – we’re taking the same view of our work that our adolescent students so often do of theirs: “Do I [they] need this for the test?”
So let’s challenge ourselves, and our gifted students, to do more. Let’s commit to looking for ways, big and small, to modify our curriculum to help students
- develop conceptual understanding (e.g. that differential equations are useful in determining rates of change); and
- use their knowledge, skills, and understandings in real-world contexts (e.g. creating a mathematical model of immigration patterns based on economic, political, and climatalogical data).
Meeting this challenge might look like
- changing a single problem or question on a unit test to add more real-world context;
- replacing a traditional test or quiz with a more open-ended product; or
- re-conceptualizing a unit of study by beginning with a relevant problem (like one from The Risks-Trends Interconnections Map above or one based on these United Nations Global Issues: Fast Facts) and facilitating students’ knowledge, skill, and understanding development in more of a just-in-time fashion, rather than the typical, front-loaded, just-in-case method.
Making these challenging choices will infuse our curriculum with more rigor and more relevance, and such a curriculum will challenge our gifted students as they engage in more divergent thinking and reflect on what and why they’re learning.
And we’ll be equipped to answer the age-old question, “When will I ever use [insert content or skill here]?” with a more meaningful answer than my daughter’s AP World History teacher’s “on the exam.”