Curriculum Renewal: There has to be a better way

Sep 21

Saskatchewan is smack dab in the middle of curriculum renewal. The shift is to outcome based education. 

 It is a student-centered learning philosophy that focuses on empirically measuring student performance, which are called outcomes. OBE contrasts with traditional education, which primarily focuses on the resources that are available to the student, which are called inputs. While OBE implementations often incorporate a host of many progressive pedagogical models and ideas, such as reform mathematicsblock schedulingproject-based learning and whole language reading, OBE in itself does not specify or require any particular style of teaching or learning. Instead, it requires that students demonstrate that they have learned the required skills and content. However in practice, OBE generally promotes curricula and assessment based on constructivist methods and discourages traditional education approaches based on direct instruction of facts and standard methods. (wikipedia)

Most of the ideas expressed here are agreeable among most educators and researchers. Clearly education is not a pure science but we continually strive to make learning possible and better for all students. On that point, we move forward.

The implementation of this brand new curriculum has been poor at best. The government mandated a new curriculum, cut staff at the ministry level and asked them to write a brand new curriculum. To my knowledge, many of these were written by one individual. The results is a document that is thin on resources, and supports outside of the big idea/outcome and some supporting indicators.

The province has then asked school divisions to implement these in very short order. The challenge of teaching in Saskatchewan often means multiple grades and up to 8 subjects. As part of a curriculum team we've wrestled with how exactly to support teachers with this daunting shift that is about much more than simply new content. As one teacher said today, "Having been a student for 16+ years, a teacher for another 20+, I feel like this is pretty much starting from scratch".  He's right. Embracing concepts like Understanding by Design, Assessment for Learning, Inquiry, Project Based Learning is to say the least overwhelming if you've not had to do this before. 

We've been given 3 days to work with teachers. We've been asked not to take teachers out of class for more support as they felt like too many teachers have been out of class too often in the past. I understand and appreciate that perspective. Which leaves us as a curriculum team scratching our heads as to how we are going to help our 600+ teachers sort out how they're going to fulfill their obligations to teach these new curricula. 

I don't have the answer but would suggest a few things need to be considered.

  1. Slow Down. If resources and time doesn't increase, there's no way new curriculum can be implemented in a year or even two. If someone wants to tell the teacher who's currently teacher a grade 3/4/5/6 split and has 8 subjects for a total of 32 curricula they need to teach the new stuff now, I'll be on hand with that pail and bucket to mop up the aftermath of that "conversation". 
     
  2. You can't implement many of these concepts with the current school structure. The ideas of project-based learning, inquiry and student-centered learning is not designed to have learning compartmentalized into 45 minute learning blocks. That's insane. Real learning doesn't work like that. Most kindergarten teachers know this but for some reason, we can't figure out that that would be good for all students. This system is not designed for outcome-based education. Discussions need to happen now about what restructuring would look like. Schools need to be given power and autonomy  to begin to explore a new way to teach and learn.
     
  3. Leverage the best. Rather than have all teachers develop curriculum in small pods, this work needs to be organized as a province. I recognize the Ministry is currently strapped for personnel but simply having a few teachers with expertise from various divisions work on developing and completing the curriculum. Currently the curriculum is not ready for the classroom as it lacks resources in many cases, alignment of resources to outcomes and starting points for teachers. Seconding teachers for even 2 months to work exclusively on a single curriculum would be money well spent. To that end, I've proposed we eliminate text book purchases and instead create and build our own. The savings on that alone would pay for any time for teachers to be out of their classrooms. In general, efforts and mechanisms to share must be increased.
     
  4. Stop promoting segregated learning. For years I've heard the push for interdisciplinary approaches to teaching. Learning in isolation is never the best. The whole concept behind project based learning and inquiry lends itself to cross-curricular learning and outcomes. We have few models that work well with our current curriculum. Once again, calling expert teachers to come together to build models that can actualize an interdisciplinary approach is something that is sorely needed and would be of huge benefit to our rural schools in particular but in reality, all students would benefit.

The current approach that divisions are taking in implementing this renewal is abysmal. There is no way that that intent of this curriculum can be fulfilled under the current model. We face a real danger of teachers giving up, reverting to old practices which, while may not be aligned to these philosophies at least provide some sanity in an overwhelming and initiative fatigued environment. I don't blame teachers for that. In further efforts to simply and manage this, we also move dangerously close to a prescribed, dumb down, paint by number curriculum that is devoid of teachable moments and authentic discussions of real world learning. Indeed, with some supports and constructs a teacher could build an entire learning experience around the Oil Spill that hits several outcomes from various curriculum. Fluid learning around relevant issues requires practices, support and flexibility. In the end, this is about good design. You don't learn this in 3 days and no teacher has been taught this in their pre-service days. 

Today many of our teachers met to begin the work of curriculum renewal. I can't tell you how positive the majority of these teachers are in attempting to do this work. This work is hard. Very hard. These are good people, good teachers who desperately need guidance, leadership and support. We as a curriculum team are equally desperate to provide them with exactly that. Given the limitations of time and structure, I'm not sure we can.

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3 Pingbacks/Trackbacks

  • http://fjeldstrom.blogspot.com Priscilla Stratton

    Thank you so much for posting this! I found it to be really interesting and concise. It is refreshing to see someone talking about the things that need to get looked into rather than just ignoring the facts. I agree with you about what you’re saying and know we need a better approach to all of this renewal. Thanks Dean!

    • http://ideasandthoughts.org Dean Shareski

      Thanks Priscilla,

      I’d be interested in hearing about your approach and where you’re finding the most frustration and perhaps some glimpses of success.

  • http://dmcordell.blogspot.com Diane Cordell

    Dean,

    I hope you have teacher/librarians on your team. #4, especially, would seem to cry out for cross-curricular, collaborative projects facilitated by an embedded librarian.

    • http://ideasandthoughts.org Dean Shareski

      Diane,

      The teacher-librarian state is a whole other issue that is also in dire need of support and renewal in our division and province.

  • http://dmcordell.blogspot.com Diane Cordell

    Well, Dean, there’s a whole Tribe of us ready, willing, and able to connect online. Let us know how we can help.

  • http://transformededucator.blogspot.com Terry Kaminski

    I encourage your teachers to search out all of the talk about “Standards Based Grading” that is occurring on the web. It complements OBE very well and makes a lot of sense. I worked in an OBE district 20 years ago. It was a very frustrating experience trying to figure it out all on our own.

    Standards Based Grading also gets teachers to think about assessment in a whole new light. It incorporates AFL and summative assessment into the discussion.

    • http://ideasandthoughts.org Dean Shareski

      Thanks Terry,

      The grading is one aspect but really the implementation is the challenge. Our own Ministry understands that lack of resources and supports are holding us back.

  • Peter

    You hit the nail on the head. I do not know how our curriculum consultants can handle the daunting task that has been placed upon them. The amount of curriculum related work that has been created at one time is enormous. Thanks goes out to all of you that are trying to help teachers with this massive change!

    • http://ideasandthoughts.org Dean Shareski

      Thanks Peter,

      But my concern is more for teachers like yourself who have to deal with what is expected and what is reality. Knowing that there’s a better way but not being able to get there is frustrating for everyone and in the end, students pay the price.

  • http://www.alan-stange.ca Alan Stange

    Thanks Dean; its encouraging to hear your perspective and know our team of consultants understand the problem of curriculum reform in this province.Your own task is unenviable under the current circumstances. Ambitious time-lines will not be met and implementation will happen as best it can. I’m optimistic.

    I’m also ambivalent. I’m attracted to the spartan design of the documents because in the eighties I embraced the huge ‘Activity Guides’ that accompanied the smaller curriculum documents. It was too easy to try and work one’s way through the modules and activities with little reflection. There was little in that curriculum approach to encourage differentiation. The more you refine a curriculum (or course) the more committed you are to implementing it precisely. That works against the need for flexibility, differentiation and adaptation. It also probably works against student centered learning.

  • Jason Stein

    As a teacher with a a moderate amount of experience, one thing that I really would encourage curriculum writers to do is to understand the intended audience. While the curriculum is a necessary tool for all teachers, it is especially important for new teachers and teachers who are teaching outside of there field. Many of the curricula I have read are clearly written by leaders in their field, who are good teachers. They have so much experience, that the leave the details out. And good teachers don’t need the details, but new teachers and teachers outside there discipline need the details. I’m not sure what the solution is to the problem, but one of the reasons that text book learning is prevalent is the level of detail that can be found there. You certainly don’t find that in a curriculum.

    • http://ideasandthoughts.org Dean Shareski

      Very true Jason. We I think about those teachers teaching multi-grades and subjects, they need something that works in the classroom out of the box. This isn’t it. On the bright side, we’ve been able to enter into a discourse about pedagogy, backward by design and quality, formative assessment. That’s the good news and yet we could still have had those conversations with a curriculum that was ready for classroom use. It’s unfortunate.

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  • Deb

    I read of your curriculum revision with much interest. We are revising our nursing curriculum also. I have reservations that our curriculum change has been throughly thought out. Yet it is being served up and the courses have not been developed just named…..It is hard to understand when so much rides on our students being able to pass a national board exam at completion of their educational journey

    • http://ideasandthoughts.org Dean Shareski

      It’s basically a political issue. The government wanted a new curriculum but failed to consider the resources and time needed to do it well.

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