Last week I was privileged to be able to spend three days with a group of passionate, dedicated, international school educators in Miami to talk about a new curriculum initiative, the Common Ground Collaborative. As you saw last week, there was homework and reflection that happened beforehand, and now I’m trying to wrap my head around all of the things that I learned and to figure out what all of my take-aways are.
The Common Ground Collaborative is the closest thing to a grass-roots curriculum movement that I’ve ever had experience with. It’s a group of educators who saw a need for changing the way teaching and learning happens, and set to work to make that change. I was really struck by how the standards and curriculum framework value all learners and values learners as whole people. Students engage in critical thinking, problem solving (or tackling dilemmas, as Kevin asked us to think of it), and delve deeply into concepts, while simultaneously learning how to learn, and connecting all of this to character development and common ideas and themes that are relevant to all people, called Human Commonalities.
Over the course of three days, we listened to Kevin Bartlett and Simon Gillespie explain the curriculum, engaged in activities and discussions with other educators, both about the theory behind the CGC curriculum, how we can convince our colleagues to get on board, and how, exactly, one makes change happen in a school. We wrote, we talked, we tweeted (although, apparently our hashtag is shared by a Christian youth rally…so you may have to scan through a bit). It was invigorating, intellectually stimulating, and exhausting. I’m so glad to have gone.
As I’ve been thinking through all of this I keep coming back to a couple of key ideas: reframing how we teach, the difference between an authoritative curriculum and an authoritarian curriculum, and, just generally, that change is hard.
Reframing Teaching and Learning
One of the biggest things we discussed was a shift in teaching and learning. The CGC curriculum is a model that says all students can and will learn. This is something I am very passionate about. This is accomplished through defining learning before we design our curriculum. Schools need to have a common understanding of what learning means before we can decide what to teach and how to teach it. CGC defines learning with eight principles (see my responses to those here) and those principles can be distilled into CGC’s tagline: Everyone Learns. I find these principles to be the perfect map for an inclusive school that embraces differentiation and personalization of learning to make school relevant to students.
Instruction is centered on “The 3 Cs” or the “Triple Helix”: conceptual learning, competency learning, and character learning. By defining these three types of learning, and then defining how they are interconnected and spiraled throughout schooling, CGC gives a map not just for defining and designing learning, but for delivering it as well. I want to talk mostly about conceptual and competency learning, but if you want to read more about character learning, see Jen Munnerlyn’s blog post for TIE.
Right now, many schools focus on content (learning facts) rather than focusing on big ideas, or concepts, that cross over multiple disciplines and choosing particular examples to illustrate these concepts. Are the American or French revolutions the only examples of the concept of “revolution” or “change” that we have? Do they need to be taught for children to understand that concept? Probably not. We can choose any number of revolutions depending on our purposes and where we are. Then, once students have built their understanding of that concept, they’re prepared to understand any number of revolutions and make connections between the concept and new event or piece of knowledge. Focusing our learning on concepts rather than isolated pieces of knowledge, and connecting these concepts to the 8 Human Commonalities defined by the CGC, makes the curriculum relevant to students’ lives.
I get really excited about conceptual learning, but I get even more excited about teaching students how to learn and teaching them skills in an authentic, relevant context. As a Learning Specialist, I see one of the biggest strengths of the CGC curriculum as being the competency learning is embedded in the curriculum. In my experience, most kids need to be taught basic learning skills: research, note taking, genre writing, reading for information, but the kids that end up in my program more so than others. Sure, we learn these things best when we’re able to apply them to an authentic, meaningful task or project, but that doesn’t mean that students will absorb it just by doing it. They need purposeful, sequential instruction that is embedded in these larger tasks. The only way this can happen is if we are teaching a concept (understanding) driven curriculum rather than a content (knowledge) driven curriculum. If we as teachers are focused on covering a curriculum jam-packed with facts, we don’t have time to teach these competencies, these learning skills. This is why all of the stands of the triple helix are essential. They work together to create the space where everybody learns.
Authoritative vs. Authoritarian Curriculum
We often use the words authoritative and authoritarian to talk about classroom management, but as my time with the Common Ground Collaborative in Miami went on, these words kept coming to mind as we discussed the curriculum. I hear from a lot of friends who work in public schools that the curriculum that comes from their school or district often feels prescriptive. “Teacher proof”. They feel like they don’t have the opportunity to do what they do best–deliver instruction to a group of kids, and modify it to meet the needs of that group. Or that there is a particular curriculum put in place and, as Kevin joked, it becomes more like a religion than a curriculum. Because of this, I often hear that curriculum would be better if it were put back in the hands of teachers. That’s why when the idea was presented that teachers shouldn’t be writing curriculum, I was a little taken aback.
There was a great deal of discussion about the fact that Gordon Eldridge (the other mind behind the curriculum) and Kevin outsourced the designing of content standards to experts in the field. The biology conceptual standards, for example, were designed by experts at Sheffield University. My knee-jerk reaction when this idea was that sure, biologists have the best understanding of the concepts, but do they know what’s developmentally appropriate? I’m sure we’ve all experienced curricula that seem to have floated down from some ivory tower without any connection to kids. But when Kevin talked about the back and forth that happened between the experts in content and concepts and a group of teachers, I was impressed. Authorities on a subject matter and authorities on student learning and the delivery of content having a conversation and engaging in a revision process together. Suddenly I realized I was seeing the smart way of creating a curriculum. And even more importantly, a great way of creating a curriculum that teachers and schools can trust, as well as a curriculum that implies a trust of teachers and their expertise.
Rather than being a disconnected, top-down, “do this or else”, “take our test to prove you learned/taught” authoritarian curriculum, CGC has developed a curriculum that has the authoritative weight of experts in content and concepts, and has left the decision about how to deliver the curriculum to those who do it best. Teachers. In particular teachers with a shared understanding of what learning means. Schools and teachers can choose to tweak modules to make them relevant to their learners, connecting different pieces of knowledge to the concepts in the curriculum. It’s a curriculum that’s all about doing what’s best for our students.
Change Is Hard
I think a lot of time was also spent talking about how to get everyone on board. I think almost everyone in the room was in. But how do we get everyone else in? I think that many of us were coming from schools where a lot of the faculty sounds like that Grumpy Cat picture above. Change is scary. It’s sometimes easier to complain about the way things are instead of taking the next steps.
What we need to remember is that change is a slow process. It happens in baby steps. In fits and starts. We start with the tiny changes that will lead to improvements in student learning and student engagement. All of those tiny changes, along with buy-in and accountability from the faculty, will add up to something great.
Maybe I’m too much of an idealist right now– you know, that post-conference or workshop high when everything about education has a rosy glow. But I think we can do it. It will take work to bring the CGC curriculum to life in our school and to get everyone on board with the philosophy. It won’t be easy, but what comes out of it will be great for our students. And that’s what we’re all here for, right?