Monday, April 23, 2012

Don't Confuse Assignments with Content

If you are a teacher, what do you teach?

If you are a student, what did you learn in school? 

Chances are, you answered these questions with things like "history" and "math." If pressed for details, you would probably say things like "World War II" and "how to multiply." Schooling, when done right, will help students learn concepts and ideas and processes that they can then apply to any area of life. A pretty tall order, but certainly one that is worth the time and effort.

For several years now, I've been involved in revising the National Standards for High School Psychology Curricula, published by the American Psychological Association. These standards outline what concepts and ideas students should understand after taking a regular-level high school psychology course. The Standards outline content on three levels - Domains (which categorize the content into overarching ideas), Standard Areas (which correlate to typical units of study in the course), and Performance Standards (which define more specific ideas that might comprise a day's lesson). If I can take a minute to say so, I'm pretty proud of the work of my committee and those who came before us. It's a pretty cool document, if you think curriculum documents are cool.

We used to have four levels of standards, however. Our fourth level - called Performance Indicators - provided suggestions for what teachers could do to determine that students had learned the content. These indicators were written in behavioral language - they all started with a nice verb that was likely to be found on Bloom's infamous taxonomy - so that teachers could create active ways to assess student learning. We included about 5 or 6 indicators per Performance Standard so that teachers could have a variety of things to choose from or use them as a jumping off point for coming up with their own ideas for their own students.

When we went to revise the early versions of the National Standards - the ones with the Performance Indicators included - we sent the document out for comment to various psychologists, both those who taught psychology and those who practiced psychology. What happened during that comment period became overwhelming. Psychologists of all inclinations - both the teachers and the clinicians - blasted the Performance Indicators. Some indicators were too narrow. Others were too broad. Some folks wondered why some were included at all (That's so out of date! they would say), while others complained that their favorite activity was not included. As we culled together all these comments into one massive review document, we quickly realized that professionals in the field had little problem with the actual content in the Domains, Standard Areas, and Performance Standards. What they had incredible problem with was the suggested assignment ideas - the Performance Indicators.

This feedback process made me begin to question the difference between assignments and content. The psychologists who commented on the National Standards were confusing the two, in my opinion. The way they taught certain ideas or concepts had become intertwined with the very ideas and concepts themselves. Instead of seeing the Performance Indicators for what they were - suggestions for how a lesson might look if that idea or concept was taught - they saw them as the content itself. 

The implications of this type of thinking about content affects students every day. As a school administrator, I would venture to say that most of the parent phone calls to my office complaining about teachers and/or school can be blamed on this confusion. When teachers confuse assignments with content, grades become about performing rather than learning. I see this most vividly when working with students who have some type of disability, either temporary or permanent. When students with disabilities begin to fall behind in completing assignments in class, teachers who confuse assignments with content become uneasy and resist modifying or eliminating assignments because they feel they are lowering their standards and not teaching their content. The teacher's confusion causes them to hang on rigidly to their own way of doing things instead of being concerned for the student and finding ways for that child to demonstrate their knowledge in a manageable way.

I saw this most recently with a student who has a neurophysiological disorder that affects her motor coordination but not her intellectual capacity. She struggles to write, taking hours to even type out a paragraph. Her parents are willing to give her whatever assistive technology she wants, but she often resists such gestures as she struggles (as all teens do) with not being "different" from her peers. When her teachers ask her if she needs help, she often refuses, preferring to struggle through instead of requesting the help she is allowed. So, when her grades began to fall, and when one of her teachers took off points for not using the required MLA heading, her parents became incredibly frustrated and called my office, wondering if their daughter was getting the education she deserved. 

When I asked her English teacher about why he did not give credit for the non-MLA-heading essay, the teacher became frustrated with me because expecting the heading was so "simple" and "basic." He asked me, "Is it wrong to ask my students to do something they should have learned in elementary school?" I felt his question revealed his confusion better than any question I have been asked. Of course, it is not unreasonable for him to require his students to do the MLA heading. Doing the heading teaches them that there are formats they should consider when turning in work. Doing the heading helps them learn to follow basic directions. But, for this student, to give absolutely no credit for an essay that obviously required an extraordinary amount of effort to complete simply because the student did not do the required heading places the heading requirement over the essay. Any English teacher worth his salt should never think that a heading is more important than the essay it identifies. The ideas are what is important in learning English, not the clerical details. 

Instead of teaching his student with disabilities that taking care of the little details is important, he taught the student that neglecting little details overshadows your ideas. For this student, the details have always overshadowed her ideas as the world looks at her physical condition and projects it onto her cognitive abilities. If the teacher had not confused his assignment with his content, he would have been all right with this student's effort, gently corrected her neglect of the minor detail, and given her credit for her ideas, teaching her English content and perhaps making a life-long learning partner in the process. An opportunity was missed, of that I am sure. 

When you go to Google Maps and ask it for directions, it will give you four different sets - one for walking, one for taking the bus, one for riding your bike, and one for driving your car. There are many ways to get to where you are going, depending on your resources and time constraints. We should not insist that students arrive at our destinations in the same ways because they have different resources and different goals and constraints. That may cause some students to decide not to travel with us at all.

Resilience is about adapting as problems arise. If we are rigidly holding to our assignments as the only way to demonstrate content knowledge, we are not teaching students to find creative ways to master the concept. Imagine what we could learn about our content if our students were working with us to find ways to show us what they know. They might teach us a little something, if we let them.

1 comment:

Rob McEntarffer said...

Well said, Amy! I got to talk with teams of middle school teachers about "homework" this year, and Vatterott's Rethinking Homework book has been useful. The "big idea" from the discussions is related to your "assignments/content" idea: most teachers ended up reflecting about the purpose of their homework and changing it pretty radically.