Wading into the Curriculum/Instruction Cage Death Match

Posted by Jeff Lucas    


There have been a lot of rounds fired in the curriculum versus instruction battles over the last week or so.  First we had Tom Vander Ark calling for "an uncommon Curriculum" over at edReformer.  He was reacting to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) support for a common curriculum to support the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), the joint National Governor's Association Center for Best Practices (NGA Center)/Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSO) project to define the knowledge and skills that students should have as part of the K-12 careers. Instead, he looks to "next generation learning platforms" that will harness the new and now ubiquitous technologies capable of effectively and efficiently customizing virtually every experience in our waking hours.  These would be the eventual extensions of initiatives such as the School of One project that I posted on here

Almost immediately, he was slammed by Robert Pondiscio on the Core Knowledge blog as carrying the banner for "Ed Reformers for Illiteracy" .  Okay, so not surprising that the folks in E. D. Hirsch's shop are going to prefer focusing on a rich common body of knowledge to focusing on delivery systems, but I thought his "If you are opposed to teaching a common body of shared knowledge to all children, you are opposed to teaching children to read" was a bit harsh.  

Next, Kathleen Porter-Magee from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute comments on the above exchange and adds her own thought that teachers have much more impact on the equation than curriculum.  She reports that her experience with implementing multiple curricular changes showed that time and again the highly skilled teachers had more success, no matter what the content. She then concludes that "the most effective way states can help diagnose instructional problems is to ensure that there are rigorous statewide assessments that are tied to accountability at all levels."  

All three of these folks are really smart people whose opinions I respect and follow in many areas of the education policy debate.  I don't get near the time to devote to thinking about these issues that they do, but I am going to try out something that I hope might be at least a little helpful to the discussion.  Maybe the "system," in school system, is in there for a reason.  It seems to me that not understanding some of the characteristics of dynamic systems, especially those that are heavily involved with the interaction of human behaviors, makes it really hard not to get locked into making choices and pronouncements —  making "either/or" choices rather than looking for "both/and" opportunities.

So can I use system dynamics to solve the ills (supposed or real) of the public education system in the remainder of this post?  Nope, not a chance.  But I thought it might make for an interesting lens through which to view some of the current issues percolating in the education policy world over the next few weeks.  

But let me start with one of the most global of the systems dynamics principles: There is no one right answer.  As Jay Forrester, founder of system dynamics at MIT, put it:  "There are no right answers. Because system dynamics illustrates the interdependencies within the current system, there is never a single right answer to any question. Instead, the discipline reveals a variety of potential actions you may take… Each of these actions will produce some desired results and (almost certainly) some unintended consequences somewhere else in the system. The art of systems thinking includes learning to recognize the ramifications and trade-offs of the action you choose…"   I am hoping in some future posts to take a look at things like how cause and effect are frequently separated by a lot more time and distance than you might think, how pushing harder for change can set up balancing loops that actually create more resistance, and how the obvious fix to a problem frequently makes things worse.  

As usual, the Baldrige community contains plenty of folks that are more deeply versed in systems dynamics than I am, so what principle from the discipline do you think most cries out for application to public education?


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6 Responses to Wading into the Curriculum/Instruction Cage Death Match

  1. Bryan Zak says:

    More then ever the the financial costs of any approach seem to carry the most weight in any decision making. Although the decisions being made may not be the right answers, or even the most reasonable answers, they are often the least expensive approach. So, in the future when the quality of students shows negative trends we will know why.

  2. Marilyn says:

    Re – the above comments …. “folks in E. D. Hirsch’s shop are going to prefer focusing on a rich common body of knowledge to focusing on delivery systems, but I thought his “If you are opposed to teaching a common body of shared knowledge to all children, you are opposed to teaching children to read” was a bit harsh.”
    What Hirsch did say was – teach children to read “with understanding” – the absolute core of education without which there would be no common bond and no ability to, as Hirsch states,”think critcally, collaborate or solve problems”.

  3. Jeff Lucas says:

    Thanks for the perspective Marilyn. I do agree totally with the idea of reading with deep understanding, and the necessity for children to have built a solid core of agreed upon background knowledge before they can do this. My direct quote of Mr. Pondiscio was intended to illustrate the difficulty of taking any of these positions too far to the extreme.

  4. Susan Allred says:

    The principle of the discipline we need in education most is that high performing systems have seven categories all of which must be addressed for success. We spend our lives in categories 5 and 6 without fidelity deployment process results to ensure that whatever the chosen curriculum and instruction methodologies are chosen, they are engaging all learners and continuously improving. We educators tend to have myopic views of what is important and why. So my belief is that we must open our eyes to continuous improvement 7 categories and the rest could take care of itself. Seriously.

  5. Lew Rhodes says:

    Jeff –
    I love your “Cage Death Match” metaphor that captures the nature of the non-ending curriculum vs. instruction fight.
    Actually its not a fair battle because Curriculum and Standards are visible, and tangible — we can “see” the paper they are printed on. (That also makes them easier to file away outside the demands of the daily work setting.)
    Instruction, the direct results-producing process at the other end, isn’t always tangible because it involves interactions across the spaces between people. Moreover, the primary elements of instruction that we do see are usually the actions of “single” teachers. That’s why so much emphasis is put on trying to develop and/or fix them as individuals – as “quality teachers.
    Worst of all, its participants don’t realize that they are engaged in a struggle in which the primary losers are the children whose best interests they think they are battling for.
    So the fact that they lack that understanding is why I applaud your wading into that frustrating arena and offering to help them see that real truth of its shape through a “systems” perspective lens. Especially one in which they can recognize that “the ‘system,’ as in school system, is in there for a reason.”
    But then I found myself bewildered when you proposed that, “in some future posts,” to raise the issue of how the principles of systems thinking and systems dynamics “cries out for application in education.” What about those children now? Why wait… when you really don’t have to?
    NIST now has a unique opportunity to help address this condition without requiring anyone to first learn about “system dynamics” and it’s “possibilities” for education. That situation could begin in a couple weeks at the QUEST conference where the story of the 2010 Education awardee – the Montgomery County Public Schools – will be told. A story which offers an opportunity to see the role the Baldrige process played in ensuring that those “theories and principles” were “systemically” and “systematically” applied in on-the-ground practice.
    They did this by using the “questions” evoked by the Baldrige principles and process as a way to change “thinking” about the individual and collective “work” that the “system” is accountable for…and by concurrently developing an effective process for integrating the “answers.”
    That’s directly relevant to the “Cage Death Match” condition because the “cage” in which those battling advocates are trapped is the frame of beliefs and theories called their “mental model” that structures and aligns their thinking about the “work” of teaching and learning. Developing this understanding of the system’s collective and individual “work” is what MCPS used Baldrige for.
    My fear, however, is that most of the “caged” participants won’t be able to learn what NIST and this school “system” can teach for two reasons.
    (1) First, is the perception within the “cage” that Baldrige is a “business” process. This unfortunately is created by two different ways we unknowingly use the term “business.” In one case “business” stands for a “sector” of society in which a company or other organization buys and sells goods, makes products or “widgets,” or provides services. In the other, “business” is the “work” done “within” the organizations — the tasks or important things that a person has to do or deal with to accomplish the organization’s purpose for being. As in “business-as-usual.”
    And increasingly the unthinking misuse of the term by education advocates in both the public and private sectors makes them unwitting partners supporting the major barrier to the core understanding of how to create the system-wide changes in the daily learning experiences of children that both sides want.
    It isn’t a just a minor semantic problem because the first definition is the one most people default to when they hear or see the word “business’ associated with education. Yet it is the second one that has the critical meaning needed for those who have in effect created false “sides” and polarized thinking about how to fix the “work system” we call schools.
    What they can’t see, (and which you appropriately want to use a system thinking lens to reveal) is something that “already” can be seen in MCPS. “Instruction” is the “business” of the school “system.” It’s not a separate process individuals in isolated classrooms and buildings are to be held accountable for.
    Using this “business model” for doing the work based on the common ways across all “sectors” that adults work together to accomplish common purposes … (and get a little but better every time they do)… seems to enable them to focus on and be accountable for, quality “teaching.” One product is the development “today” of the quality “teachers” that those within the “cage” want in every classroom “someday.”
    (2) But here’s the bigger problem. Notice that in the “Curriculum/Instruction Death Match” the “cage” that frames their understanding doesn’t enable them to see that Curriculum and Instruction are two “totally-different” (but interdependent) work processes.
    While much of the national discussion today is centering on “Standards,” and “Curriculum,” the people who focus their hopes and priorities at this front end of the school “system’s” actually single work process don’t fully understand that “their work” only directly influences what is taught — or “teaching.”
    And at the other end of that single system’s work is another work process – “Instruction” (which includes at its “moments-of-truth”) the “teaching” performance of individual teachers) – and “this” is what directly influences what each child learns – or “learning.”
    Unfortunately it’s their assumed connection between the roles of Curriculum and Instruction that is making them adversaries in a “death match” for the children they both believe they are helping.
    BUT WHAT IF… your Baldrige-enhanced system’s lens might enable them to begin to see:
    a) “Standards” and “Curriculum” as criteria and information inputs to the critical decision-making processes of “Instruction” or “teaching” at the other end. A work process whose nature as a continual, individually-responsive, diagnostic/prescriptive structure requires them? And
    b) school district leaders developing and managing a single, coherent and systemic process that supported the continual daily work of a “teaching” process required to support the continual daily work of each child’s “learning” process?
    It’s that understanding which I’ve seen shaping the integrated learning management system that’s producing MCPS’ “award”-winning results. And I believe the story of how they used Baldrige to create the thinking context to support that can benefit both education and NIST.
    I know, from experience, that’s a lot to expect people to get their mind’s around, when their hoped-for takeaways from QUEST need to be ideas they can get their arms around. But, as you concluded, “the Baldrige community contains plenty of folks” who can help. And I trust the process…and the people.

  6. Roland Metayer says:

    I feel that my personal experience indicates that the student attitude is most important in the educational system I graduated from high school as a C student simply because a C was required for extra cur. activity. Without that requirement I would prbably have been D- student. I was to immature to appreciate the relationship between good grades, a good education and a better life. Every teacher I ever had was absolutely great, they all tried so hard to get me to work just alittle harder for possibly a B. I knew they were right but still had no desire to try harder. There were many more students like me, I suspect that todays drop outs suffer from the same attitude. I cannot help with solutions, but feel that not enough attention is being given to student attitudes

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