The Virtue of Slow Software: Fewer Fads in Schools?

Online commerce has made it easier than ever to shop, right? Maybe too easy. A recent study by comparison-shopping site Finder revealed that more than 88 percent of Americans admitted to spontaneous impulse buying online, blowing an average of $81.75 each time we lose control. Clothes, videogames, concert tickets. One in five of us succumb weekly. Millennials do it the most.

With the above paragraph, journalist Clive Thompson opens his article on “Slow Software” in Wired magazine. His argument is straight-forward: devices speed up our lives, encourage impulsivity, and buyer’s remorse. For the above example of excessive buying–which, of course, is crucial to the economy which depends upon Americans shopping–Thompson describes a piece of software that slows the shopper down.

[A team of software designers] created Icebox, a Chrome plug-­in that replaces the Buy button on 20 well-known e-commerce sites with a blue button labeled “Put it on ice.” Hit it and your item goes into a queue, and a week or so later Icebox asks if you still want to buy it. In essence, it forces you to stop and ponder, “Do I really need this widget?” Odds are you don’t.

The pace of life has surely accelerated with Facebook Newsfeed, incessant tweets, over the top Instagram pics, and pop-up ads everywhere you click on the web. Misinformation on Facebook spreading swiftly and harassment campaigns on Twitter ever-present, slowing down software seems to be a way of thinking twice before deciding on something important to us. But it is not easy as Thompson concludes:

It’s a Sisyphean battle, I admit. Offered the choice, we nearly always opt for convenience…. Icebox is brilliant but hasn’t yet taken off. Socratic deliberation improves our lives—but, man, what a pain!

Slow software reminded me of what Steve Arnett reported in an earlier post. Ninety-eight percent of the software that school administrators purchased for classroom use was not used intensively (at least 10 hours between assessments)–yes, 98 percent.

The apps with the most licenses purchased are ConnectEd, WeVideo, Blender Learn Discovery and Education Streaming Plus. The apps with the highest intensive users are Google Drive, Canvas, Dreambox Learning, Lexia Reading Core5 and IXL. (Some apps, such as Google Drive, have more users than licenses purchased because they offer their services for free.)

All of this got me thinking anew about who makes district decisions about buying software for classrooms and the muting of teacher voices when it comes to these district office decisions–which, of course, have to ultimately be approved by boards of education.

School leaders need slow software before going on buying sprees of teaching and learning software peddled by companies. Impulsive shopping–see opening paragraph above–hits school leaders as it does the typical consumer surfing Amazon or similar sites. This impulse buying is the way that fads get started (hype transforms fads into “innovations”).

Of course, district officials who spend the money do not need software to slow their decisions down for a week that Icebox proposes. Instead of slow software, they can use some old-fashioned, analog ways of decision-making that bring teachers into the decision cycle at the very beginning with teachers volunteering to try out the new software (and devices) in lessons, administrators collecting data, and analysis of data by mix of a teachers and administrators. And I do not mean token representation on committees already geared to decide on software and devices. With actual groups of teachers using software (and devices) with students, then a more deliberate, considered, and informed decision can be made on which software (or devices) should get licensed for district. Of course, this suggestion means that those who make decisions have to take time to collaborate with those who are the objects of those decisions before any district money can be spent. And time is a scarce resource especially for teachers. Not to be squandered, but there are tech-savvy teachers who would relish such an opportunity.

My hunch is that there are cadres of teachers who do want to be involved in classroom use of software before they are bought and would appreciate the chance to chime in with their experiences using the software in lessons. Teacher validation of an innovation aimed at teaching and learning can not be sold or bought without teachers using the software in lessons.

As Thompson points out it is a struggle to restrain impulsivity when buying stuff because “[o]ffered the choice, we nearly always opt for convenience.” That applies to district leaders buying software for teachers to use in their lessons. And faddishness is the last thing that schools need when budgets are tight and entrenchment is in the air.

A Fad Dissolver period declared at the onset of a classroom trial that runs three-to-six months to determine how valid and useful the software is could halt the impulse buying that so characterizes districts wanting to show how tech savvy they are and avoid the common practice of storing in drawers and closets unused software and devices.




Filed under technology, technology use

Reforming Public Schools–Small or Giant Steps?

Some weekends ago, I attended a celebration of a friend’s book being published. Both my friend and his wife are former students–I see each of them for lunch every few months and we catch up with one another’s families and what each of us has been doing.

At the gathering in their home I saw people I hadn’t seen in many years. Food and drink were plentiful out on the patio but I grew tired of standing with my cane and went into  their living room and sat.  Toddlers and teenagers and  adults flowed easily between rooms and the outside patio. Someone came and sat next to me and we engaged in a conversation that brought to mind many prior discussions I have had with fellow teachers, university colleagues, and graduate students as well as policymakers, parents, and researchers over the years. So here is my version of that conversation.

The young man was in his 40s (yeah, to me being a 40-something is young) and an administrator in a medium sized California district. I had known him when he was an undergraduate student and his family as well—years ago his mother was a student in one of my classes as she completed her doctorate. So the conversation flowed easily about his family, friendship with my former students, and work. And when it came to his job as an administrator is when the conversation turned to the title of this post.

He told me about the persistent conflict he has faced in working as a teacher, principal, and now district administrator about changing the school system. As I recall, he asked for my opinion on the question that has nagged at him for the past few years: why work within a broken public school system and make small changes that make that traditional system work a tad better for teachers and students than it did before when what is called for are major, fundamental changes that get rid of the existing system and create a far better, more equitable one? It is a question that I have wrestled with my entire career within public schools and one that I have answered for myself. Now here was this fine young man asking the same question that had bedeviled me for decades.

I did give my answer in a step-wise argument very familiar to me because I had worked out its pieces over decades. Since it was a back-and-forth conversation the steps  in the argument were more circular and less linear than as I present them below.

First, 90 percent of all children and youth attend public schools. If you want to influence the young, you work within the system.

Second, few, if any, public institution serving the young, old, the ill, and victims of crime have tossed the existing system and installed a fundamentally new one save for instances of political revolution such as had occurred in the America, France, Russia, French, and China, natural disasters such as Katrina in New Orleans or similar cataclysmic events. What has occurred most often in these public institutions has been incremental, not fundamental change.*

Third, each of the above public institutions that have significantly improved over time in reaching their stated goals have made incremental changes in reducing the gap in achievement between minorities and whites and increasing more fairness and equity than had existed before.  Accumulating small steps in building stairs that reach desired goals took many years, political savvy, thought out strategies, and patience on the part of school boards and superintendents. Far from perfect today such districts as Long Beach (CA) under Carl Cohen (1992-2002) and Christopher Steinhauser (2002 to present) who have led the district continuously for a quarter-century and Boston (MA) under Tom Payzant for 11 years) stand out as exemplars of incrementalism geared to achieving goals.

Fourth, those superintendents, principals, and teachers who ardently seek fundamental changes on a short time frame in their districts, schools, and classrooms often exit within a few years disappointed adding their voices to those who allege the intractability of public schools and their resulting failure.

The clinking of a glass announcing a few words from the newly published author ended our conversation.

Had I more time, I would have added the ultimate point that each educator has the deeply personal task of eventually deciding what to do.

The question as I see it is: Do I work within schools and seek incremental changes with like-minded colleagues focused on over-arching goals and willing to learn the necessary skills and make the commitment of time spent in schools and districts or, instead, do I work outside schools in mobilizing political changes to gain paid family leave, expanded unemployment insurance, better health benefits, inexpensive housing, unionizing workers, running for political office or aiding officials who seek changes in economic, political, social, and cultural structures that frame the democratic and market-driven society in which we live?

For tax-supported public schools mirror the larger society and that society has historically strong beliefs, assumptions, and structures that shape what occurs in public institutions such as schools. While changes can and do occur in schools and districts, they will be incremental and maybe significant if harnessed in a concerted way to achieve particular goals. There is a choice.

I had made my decision to work within public schools years ago. My young friend was wrestling with his decision now.



*The district administrator knew well what I meant in distinguishing incremental from fundamental changes. For those readers who do not. Here are the differences.

Incremental changes aim to end the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of existing structures and cultures of schooling including classroom teaching. By structures, I mean the goals, funding, facilities, and the age-graded school that are (and have been) basic building blocks of the system of tax-supported schooling in the U.S. By cultures, I mean the norms, expectations, and beliefs in the classroom, school, and district that color daily activities.

Promoters of incremental change view the basic structures and cultures of schooling as largely sound but in need of improvements. There are inefficiencies and ineffective practices that undermine the productivity and fairness of the system. The old car, to use a familiar metaphor, is sputtering and rusting but solid. It needs a paint job, tires, brakes, a new battery, and a tune-up—incremental changes. Once improved, the system will work as intended.

Examples of incremental changes in schools would include adding new courses to high school curriculum; introducing new tests; adopting pay-for-performance for teachers and principals; decreasing class size from 30 to 25; Each of these changes, of course, seeks increased efficiency and effectiveness of the system.

In the classroom, incremental changes would include the teacher introducing a new unit in her math course that she had never taught before. Perhaps a teacher who designs a behavioral modification plan with rewards and penalties for good and bad classroom behavior. Or a teacher who decides to use the mobile cart with 30 laptops for one of her classes.

The idea behind fundamental change is that the basic school structures and cultures are irretrievably flawed at their core and need a complete overhaul or replacement, not incremental improvements. That old car is a jalopy far beyond repair. We need to get a new car or consider other forms of transportation.

If new courses, more staff, extended day and school year, and higher salaries for teachers are examples of incremental changes in the structures and cultures of schooling, then broadening the school’s social role in the early 20th century to intervene in the lives of children and their families by offering school-based social and medical services and for advocates of public schooling to see the institution as an agent of social reform in the larger society (e.g., ending alcohol and drug abuse, segregation, creating better people). Advocates of charter schools want more parental choice and competition through altering the fundamental structure of funding. Other reformers wish to replace the age-graded school with ungraded schools that eliminate promotion and retention, the sliced-up curriculum, and self-contained classrooms. Again, designs for fundamental changes are proposed solutions to deep-seated problems or intractable dilemmas.

Applied to the classroom, advocates of fundamental change would transform the teacher’s role from transmitter of information to one who guides students to their own decisions, who helps children find meaning in their experiences, and urges them to learn from one another. These reformers seek to upend traditional teaching where the teacher talks, students mostly listen, use a textbook for the main source of knowledge, and pass tests that determine how much has been remembered. They want classrooms where teachers organize activities that help students learn from subject matter, one another, and the community. Assessment is less taking multiple-choice tests and more working on real world tasks. Such changes would mean substantial alterations in the ways that teachers think about content, pedagogy, and learning.



Filed under Reforming schools

The Way American Parents Think About Chores Is Bizarre (Joe Pinsker)

Joe Pinsker is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers families and education. This article appeared December 26, 2018.

The practice of paying children an allowance kicked off in earnest about 100 years ago. “The motivation was twofold,” says Steven Mintz, a historian of childhood at the University of Texas at Austin. “First, to provide kids with the money that they needed to participate in the emerging commercial culture—allowing them to buy candy, cheap toys, and other inexpensive products—and second, to teach them the value of money.”

These days, American children on average receive about $800 per year in allowance, according to the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. Kids, though, are usually not receiving money for nothing—the vast majority of American parents who pay allowance (who themselves are a majority of American parents) tie it to the completion of work around the house.

Parents’ preference for this setup has spawned an array of apps that let them dole out allowance money once chores are completed, and even pay for an individual chore. Homey, an app that’s effectively a digital chore chart, allows parents to issue payouts upon visual confirmation of finished chores and is used by 100,000 families. A similar app called BusyKid, which launched earlier this year and is used by 25,000 families, also lets children invest in the stock market with their allowance money. (These apps are just two of many new digital tools, including RoosterMoney, Current, and goHenry, for managing children’s money and teaching them about personal finance.)

Recently in The Washington Post, a writer distilled the argument for per-chore compensation in an article headlined “I Pay My Kids to Get Dressed, Do Homework and More. It’s the Best Decision I Ever Made.” A mother of two children with ADHD, she found it tremendously effective to induce her kids to stay on task with small payments of a dime or a quarter; she suggested other parents might find it effective to do the same. “In behavioral psychology, this is called positive reinforcement,” she wrote. “And it works.”

Does it? A range of experts I consulted expressed concern that tying allowance very closely to chores, whatever its apparent short-term effectiveness, can send kids unintentionally counterproductive messages about family, community, and personal responsibility. In fact, the way chores work in many households worldwide point to another way, in which kids get involved earlier, feel better about their contributions, and don’t need money as an enticement.

Suniya Luthar, a psychologist at Arizona State University who studies families, is skeptical of the idea of paying kids on a per-chore basis. “How sustainable is it if you’re going to pay a child a dime for each time he picks up his clothes off the floor?” she says. “What are you saying—that you’re owed something for taking care of your stuff?”

Luthar is not opposed to giving allowances, but she thinks it’s important to establish that certain core chores are done not because they’ll lead to payment, but because they keep the household running. “It’s part of what you do as a family,” Luthar says. “In a family, no one’s going to pay you to tie your own shoes or to put your clothes away.” Whatever the approach, she adds, it’s important to acknowledge that parenting is confusing and exhausting work, and it can be difficult to broker household labor agreements without ever resorting to bribery of some sort.

Luthar’s suggested approach to allowance is compatible with the regimen that the New York Times personal-finance columnist Ron Lieber outlines in his book The Opposite of Spoiled: Raising Kids Who Are Grounded, Generous, and Smart

About Money. He advises that allowance be used as a means of showing children how to save, give, and spend on things they care about. Kids should do chores, he writes, “for the same reason we do—because the chores need to be done, and not with the expectation of compensation … Allowance ought to stand on its own, not as a wage but as a teaching tool.”

This argument has its critics. Many parents may scoff at a system that tells kids the world will spit money out at them on a regular basis in exchange for nothing at all; in households that aren’t upper-middle-class or wealthier, such an arrangement might offend. (Lieber does account for this in his book, suggesting that parents who object to his methods might consider paying kids only for chores that solve problems they themselves identify in the household, or for periodic one-off tasks like washing a car or painting a room.)

Heather Beth Johnson, a sociologist at Lehigh University who studies families and wealth inequality, aligns more with the Lieber school of chore compensation (or lack thereof). “When we pay [kids] to do things that humans have always had to do as participants of communities and families,” she says, “it sends them some sort of a message that they are entitled to [an] exchange for these things,” as opposed to a message that they’re part of a household team and should contribute accordingly.Johnson considers the chores-for-allowance agreement to be of a piece with a broader custom in upper-middle-class households of paying children for things like doing well in school or taking care of siblings. She says that this sort of compensation can give kids the sense that they’re entitled to rewards for fulfilling basic responsibilities. “This isn’t happening in poor families,” she says. “They’re not like, ‘If you take care of your cousins, I’m going to pay you for it.’ It’s just expected that you would take care of your cousins if your cousins needed taking care of.”Johnson’s children—14-year-old twins and a 10-year-old—do not get an allowance. But they do get spending money from their mother as needed, as well as regular conversations about the work it takes to run a house. “Maybe my kids are just really strange,” she says, “but I really don’t have to say it more than once—I say, ‘Empty the trash,’ and they do it.”

But considering the way chores are undertaken around the world, it might be the allowance-earners who are the strange ones. David Lancy, a former professor of anthropology at Utah State University, has studied how families around the world handle chores, and he has observed a development of responsibilities in less well-off societies that looks little like the American way.

After about 18 months on the Earth, Lancy explained to me, children almost universally become eager to help their parents, and in many cultures, they’re brought in to the processes of doing housework. They may be incompetent little things, but they can learn quickly by watching. “Praise is rare,” Lancy says, “as the principal reward is to be welcomed and included in the flow of family activity.” Gradually, their responsibilities get ratcheted up according to their abilities and strength; they may start by carrying messages or small objects, and work their way up to food preparation or caring for siblings. “In effect, they ‘own’ a suite of chores which they carry out routinely without being told,” Lancy says. And they don’t assume they’ll be paid an allowance.

In an email, he made clear how this contrasts with American norms: “In our society—and I’d extend this to most modern, post-industrial nations—we actually deny our children’s bids to help. We distract them with other activities, we do our chores (meal prep) when they’re napping, we convey that their ‘helping’ is burdensome and, not surprisingly, the helping instinct is extinguished. Hence, at 6 or 7 when we think they’re ready to start doing chores or at least taking care of themselves and their ‘stuff,’ they’ve lost all desire to help out.”

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Oversold and Underused: Software in Schools (Thomas Arnett)

Thomas Arnett is a Research Fellow of Education at the Clayton Christensen Institute. This appeared in Education Next November 30, 2018.

Earlier this month, education news outlets buzzed with a frustrating, yet unsurprising, headline: Most educational software licenses go unused in K-12 districts. The source of the headline is a recent report by Ryan Baker, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Learning Analytics. Baker analyzed data from BrightBytes, a K-12 data management company, on students’ technology usage across 48 districts. That data revealed that a median of 70% of districts’ software licenses never get used, and a median of 97.6% of licenses are never used intensively.

The findings unveil a clear disconnect between district software procurement and classroom practice. To be clear, not all software is high quality, which means teachers may have good reason to not adopt some software products that fail to deliver positive student learning outcomes. But for quality software tools that can yield breakthrough student outcomes, underutilization is a huge missed opportunity.

So when districts license high-quality educational software, why might teachers still choose not to use the software at their disposal? Some of our latest research at the Christensen Institute offers answers to this question.

Understanding teachers’ ‘Jobs’

In September, my colleagues and I released a research paper that explains what motivates teachers to change how they teach. Drawing on the Jobs to be Done Theory, we interviewed teachers to discover the ‘Jobs’ that motivate them to adopt blended learning or other new approaches to instruction.

According to the theory, all people—teachers included—are internally motivated to make changes in their lives that move them toward success or satisfaction within their particular life circumstances. The theory labels these circumstance-based desires as ‘Jobs.’ Just as people ‘hire’ contractors to help them build houses or lawyers to help them build a case, people search for something they can ‘hire’ to help them when ‘Jobs’ arise in their lives.

Through our interviews we found four Jobs that often motivate teachers to adopt new practices. Three of these Jobs seem relevant for explaining why licensed software often goes unused.

Job #1: Help me lead the way in improving my school. Teachers with this Job are eager to demonstrate their value as contributors to broader school improvement. These teachers will be interested in using district-licensed software when it 1) seems like a viable and worthwhile way to improve the school as a whole, 2) seems simple and straightforward to share with their colleagues, and 3) offers them an opportunity to help shape the direction of school improvement efforts.

Job #2: Help me find manageable ways to engage and challenge more of my students. Teachers with this Job are generally confident with how teaching and learning happen in their classrooms. But they have a few students each year who they struggle to reach. They are often open to software as a way to engage those students. But that software must not only be worthwhile for their students, but also practical to incorporate into their current practices and routines.

Job #3: Help me replace a broken instructional model so I can reach each student. Whether from perpetually low test scores, low graduation rates, ongoing student behavior issues, or a general sense that learning lacks joy and passion, teachers with this Job struggle constantly with a sense that they aren’t living up to their responsibilities to their students. For these teachers, software can be a powerful resource for helping them transform their instructional models. But that software needs to offer new approaches to teaching and learning, not just new takes on traditional textbooks and worksheets.

Accounting for the 70% of unused software licenses

We suspect that in many cases, quality software goes unused because it either fails to align with teachers’ Jobs or fumbles at delivering a good solution for meeting their Jobs.

For example, teachers who are looking to lead the way in helping their schools improve (Job 1) likely don’t look first to software as a way to fulfill their Job. Their school improvement instincts typically orient them to look for new instructional programs, not silver bullet software. To meet their Job to be Done, software providers need to start by offering an evidence-based set of practices that will help schools improve on key metrics. Then, once they’ve made the case for new instructional methods, they can discuss how software tools help to facilitate those methods.

As another example, teachers in search of manageable ways to engage and challenge more of their students (Job 2) could find a lot of benefit in the multimedia-rich and game-like aspects of many edtech products. But software platforms that are great for engaging students may yet fail to get used because teachers find them hard to incorporate into daily lessons. Software developers, hardware suppliers, and district technology teams all need to consider things they can do to make it easy for teachers to incorporate software into their lesson plans and then manage devices during class.

As a third example, consider a teacher who is frustrated by a sense that he is failing to meet the needs of most of his students because he feels stuck teaching to the nonexistent middle of his class (Job 3). The right software could be a powerful platform for helping him create individual learning pathways and mastery-based progressions that meet each of his students where they are. But if the software available from his district just supplements whole-class, direct instruction, that software won’t fulfill his Job.

Explaining why 97.6% of software licenses are never used intensively

One significant finding from our research illustrates another potential pitfall for software utilization. When new software licenses come down from the district office without clearly communicated benefits for teachers or pedagogical support, many teachers likely take a quick look and conclude that the software doesn’t fulfill any of the first three Jobs for them. Nevertheless, they feel compelled to use the software, at least occasionally, so as to not set a bad tone with their administrators. They do what they need to do to check the appropriate boxes on their teacher evaluation rubrics, but they don’t actually use the software enough for it to make a difference for them and their students. The new Job that the software creates for them amounts to, “Help me not fall behind on my school’s new initiative.” This insight likely explains why even though 30% of software licenses that get used, only 2.4% are used intensively.

In education, money isn’t easy to come by, which makes it especially frustrating to learn that many districts spend money on software that doesn’t get used. The district staff members who make software licensing decisions surely don’t intend for their purchases to go to waste. But yet, as Baker’s report illustrates, there is a disconnect between software purchases and classroom adoption. A good sales pitch may get a product through the district office’s front door. But only by helping teachers fulfill their Jobs can high-quality educational software make it through the classroom door and into the hands of students. In short, software only gets used in classrooms when it meets a Job to be Done for teachers.


Filed under how teachers teach, technology use

Cartoons on Teaching

For this month I have gathered a melange of cartoons about teachers of various subjects that made me chuckle, smile, and even grin. I hope they do the same for you as we bid goodbye to 2018.




























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Why Change is Often Confused with Reform: The Multi-layered Curriculum

I published this post in 2012. I have updated both text and references.

After extensive deliberation and committee meetings, state and district officials publish curricular frameworks and courses of study in academic subjects from kindergarten through high school. This is called the intended curriculum (see here and here).

Consider science curriculum in California. The first science framework in 1990 laid out content standards, grade by grade, as to what teachers should teach and what students should learn. Since then, there have been revisions in the state framework (see scienceframework-1  for 2004 and 2016)

The purposes of the two science frameworks are stated clearly:


Educators have the opportunity to foster and inspire in students an interest in science; the goal is to have students gain the knowledge and skills necessary for California’s workforce to be competitive in the global, information-based economy of the twenty-first century….

This framework is intended to (1) organize the body of knowledge that students need to learn during their elementary and secondary school years; and (2) illuminate the methods of science that will be used to extend that knowledge during the students’ lifetimes.


The goal of the California Next Generation Science Standards (CA NGSS)
is to prepare California students to be future citizens and future
scientists, which leads to a specific vision about science education:
Learning science depends not only on the accumulation of facts and concepts but also on
the development of an identity as a competent learner of science with motivation and
interest to learn more . … Such identity formation is valuable not only for the small
number of students who, over the course of a lifetime, will come to view themselves as
scientists or engineers, but also for the great majority of students who do not follow
these professional paths . Science learning in school leads to citizens with the confidence,
ability, and inclination to continue learning about issues, scientific and otherwise, that
affect their lives and communities . (National Research Council
[NRC] 2012a, Chapter 11)


Note that these purposes for the two frameworks seek to have students leave school inspired and interested in science, equipped with knowledge and skills to enter the workforce, and conversant with how scientists think and act. Note the different wording in 2016 that de-emphasizes the economic thrust of the science standards and the workplace goal. Multiple and competing purposes drive these frameworks, a situation that has characterized science education for decades.

The California science standards are connected to approved textbooks that teachers use in their elementary and secondary school lessons and, further, the science standards are linked to the California Standards Test given at grades 5 and 8 and 10 and in the separate sciences (biology, earth science, chemistry, and physics) in grades 9-12. Thus, curriculum standards as a structure are connected to the age-graded school, instructional materials for teaching the subject matter, and assessment of whether the content has been taught and whether students have learned what was taught. This, then, is the intended curriculum.

I say “intended” because once states adopt curricular frameworks in science they will have only a passing similarity to the science content and skills that teachers will teach once they close their classroom doors. In the real world of age-graded schools, pedagogy, assessment, and professional development are thoroughly entangled while the official curriculum too often sails above the clouds loosely tethered to what happens in classrooms. How can that be? The answer is in the other layers of the curriculum structure.

Teachers, working alone in their rooms, make up the second layer. They decide what to teach and how to present it. Their choices derive from their knowledge of the subject they teach (elementary and secondary school teachers differ greatly in their knowledge of science), their knowledge of children and youth, their beliefs about how teachers should teach and children should learn, prior experiences as a student, their affection or dislike for topics in the framework and textbook, and their attitudes toward the students they face daily. In fact, researchers continually find that teachers in the same building will teach different versions of the same course while claiming that they are teaching to the state standards and to the prevailing desired pedagogy. Thus, the intended curriculum and what teachers teach may overlap in the title of the course, key topics, and the same textbook, but can differ substantially in actual subject matter and daily lessons.

The taught curriculum overlaps with but differs significantly from what students take away from class. This is the third layer. Students pick up information and concepts from lessons. They also learn to answer teacher questions, review material, locate sources, seek help, avoid teachers’ intrusiveness, and act attentive. Moreover, children pick up ideas from class-mates, copy their teachers’ habits and tics, imitate their humor or sarcasm, or strive to be as autocratic or democratic as the adults. So, the learned curriculum differs from the intended and taught curricula.

And what students learn does not exactly mirror what is in the tested curriculum. Here, then, is the fourth layer of curriculum. Classroom, school, district, state, and national tests, often using multiple-choice and other short-answer items, capture some–but hardly all–of the official and taught curricula. To the degree that teachers and students attend to such tests, portions of the intended and taught curricula merge. Furthermore,  many of these tests seek to sort high achieving students from their lower-achieving peers. The information, ideas, and skills contained in test items for such purposes represent an even narrower band of knowledge.

There are, then, four curricular layers, not one unvarnished curriculum. The official curriculum, often derived from state curricular frameworks, professional associations, or national standards, is the top layer of the formal structure of content and skills that teachers are expected to teach and students learn. It is the exterior layer that reformers continually change in their effort to alter what teachers teach and students learn. But the official curriculum rests atop three other layers that assemble and distribute knowledge and skills in the age-graded school through pedagogy, assessment, and professional development: the taught, learned, and tested curricula.

I have omitted one important fact about this multi-layered curriculum. Previous reforms create the historical context for the multi-layered curriculum and influence the direction of contemporary reforms. This historical context is like a coral, a mass of skeletons from millions of animals built up that, over time, accumulates into reefs above and below the sea line. Its presence cannot be ignored neither by ships nor by inhabitants. Yet many eager reformers in science education do ignore the coral reefs, pay little attention to the historical context for the new science teaching and learning that they champion.

Having a four-layered structure called curriculum that has been changed time and again is precisely how reform-driven policymakers end up again and again confusing change with reform. In changing the exterior layer of the multi-layered curriculum, decision-makers are confident that they have now improved, nay, reformed the curriculum. They believe that teachers will teach more and better science, students will learn, and test scores will mirror those improvements. When the anticipated results fail to materialize in classroom lessons and student outcomes, confusion, disappointment, and disillusion occur.

Much of that confusion and ultimate disappointment over new science curricula over the past century, then, has had to deal with the discrepancies within and between the multi-layered curriculum and the historical coral reefs upon which it rests.


Filed under Reforming schools, school reform policies

To Truly Improve a School, Teachers Must Be on Board (Thomas Arnett)

“Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow in education for the Christensen Institute whose work focuses on the changing roles of teachers in blended-learning environments and other innovative educational models. He also examines how teacher education and professional development are shifting to support the evolving needs of teachers and school systems.”

This article appeared on The 74, September 24, 2018

Misconceptions are dangerous things. They shackle our visions of what’s possible and doom us to consequences we do not expect. For example, a student who believes her genes predetermine her academic abilities may avoid crucial learning experiences that are initially challenging. A student who believes his postgraduation success will flow from his intellectual prowess may gasp when he loses his first job due to interpersonal ineptitude.

School leaders, especially, need accurate notions of how the world works if they want their school improvement efforts to succeed. Yet many bold and promising ideas to transform schools falter when leaders rely on conventional wisdom about how to make their initiatives flourish.

Recently, my colleagues and I released a research paper that unveils common misconceptions about change management in schools. Given that many school initiatives falter for lack of teacher buy-in, we set out to uncover what actually causes teachers to change their practices. Using research methods based on the Jobs to Be Done Theory — an approach for identifying the causes driving demand for new products, services, and solutions — we asked teachers about the specific circumstances and events that led them to adopt new instructional practices.

Our findings shed light on a number of widely accepted, yet inaccurate, change management ideas that often lead well-intended initiatives awry.

Misconception 1: Student-centered practices appeal intrinsically to most teachers

The teachers we interviewed wanted to do what’s best for their students. But when school leaders extended this notion in the belief that student-centered strategies would have universal appeal, their approaches often ran afoul. For most teachers, proposed new practices are dead in the water unless they integrate with existing practices without excessive complication or hassle.

This isn’t a selfish inclination. As teachers hone their craft year over year, they collect resources and strategies that build on what works. New strategies — no matter how good they may seem for students — cannot gain traction if they require teachers to radically change their methods. In short, most teachers buy what school leaders are selling only when new practices square with their practical reality.

Misconception 2: Early adopters are the key to building buy-in

New initiatives always have early adopters — the teachers who are ready and eager to try out new practices. But it’s a mistake to assume that age or personality type is what makes someone an early adopter. Our research reveals that circumstances, more than personality traits, predict whether a teacher will be eager to jump on board.

Teachers naturally seek new practices when they realize they need something better than the status quo. For example, a teacher of students with learning disabilities will naturally look for new ways to engage them when the default teaching strategies leave those students lost and acting out from frustration. The new strategies teachers pick are those that best address classroom challenges with a minimal amount of friction in transitioning from the old approach. In short, circumstances prime teachers to seek new practices; thus, any teacher can be an early adopter when the circumstances are right.

Misconception 3: Beginning-of-year professional development ensures an initiative’s success

Professional development consistently earns top billing in the list of essential elements for effective school change management. We don’t disagree with its importance. Unfortunately, even if teachers receive the best technical training in the world, that may not compel them to adopt a new approach.

From a change management perspective, the purpose of professional development is not only to give teachers tactical knowledge on new practices but also to help them feel confident in the change management process. Most teachers won’t feel comfortable pulling new practices into their classrooms unless they feel assured that they’re going to be able to implement those practices effectively. For example, many of the teachers we interviewed said ongoing, job-embedded support is more important than workshops presented at the beginning of the school year or at the start of an initiative on how to use new tools or strategies. In short, effective professional development should address the stresses and anxieties that make teachers reticent to change.

These misconceptions point to a general principle that explains why so many change management efforts miss their mark. When leading change, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the merits of a particular solution and lose sight of the people expected to adopt it. No new instructional program can impact student learning unless teachers decide to pull it into their classrooms. Thus, if school leaders hope to see teachers adopt new practices, they need to understand the circumstances their educators wrestle with on a day-to-day basis.


Filed under school reform policies