Oftentimes, I hear teachers complain about how difficult it is to get through their prescribed curriculum. With only about 180 school days in the year, it is estimated that students spend on average between 20 and 25 hours every school year taking standardized tests (Strauss, 2015). That is about 2.5% of the school year sitting and taking a test. You also need to consider the amount of time teachers spend preparing students for standardized tests such as CMAS and PARCC. On average, “teachers estimate spending 14 days preparing students for state-mandated exams, and 12 days for district-mandated exams” (Richmond, 2016). That is almost 8% of the school year. So, in total, standardized testing takes away almost 11% of both teachers’ and students’ school year. No wonder teachers feel that there isn’t enough time to deliver their grade-level content!
With all of this educational noise, I feel that there is a key point missed. Academic content should not be something covered, delivered, or distributed on worksheets. Pizzas are delivered. Content needs to be discovered. In the real world, we rarely sit down and “cover” something that we want to learn. Humans are exploratory creatures, constantly discovering new information all around them. For example, as a teacher I observed that many of my male students were disinterested in reading. I spent time talking with them trying to understand their disengagement so that I could find a way to inspire them to love literature. In a conversation with one student, Tamar, I learned that he loves superheroes. Awesome! I love Superman myself, so this was an easy connection to make. We started chatting about various comics, Marvel versus DC, Superman versus the Flash, etc., and I discovered that Tamar actually reads a ton of comic books. It wasn’t that he was disengaged with reading on the whole, just with the types of reading that we were doing in class. I went home that day and scoured my basement for my old comic book collection. When I brought it to school, that entire group of boys who hated reading suddenly became enraptured with my comic books! We had amazing conversations about plot, conflict and solution, inferences, and many more of the story elements and reading strategies I had been trying to teach them before. I immediately decided to learn how I could teach reading using comic literature.
To be clear, I did NOT enroll in a comic literature course and listen to innumerable lectures on the benefits of teaching using comic books. I did NOT complete various worksheets in order to test my understanding of how best to use comic literature in my classroom. I went to my local comic book store and talked with the owners about the best comics for fifth-graders. I went online and researched best strategies for teaching comic literature. I wanted to know if anyone else was using comic books and graphic novels in their classroom and if they were successful. I did not cover the necessary material in order to be successful with this experiment. I immersed myself into the world of comic literature and discovered the best ways to teach reading strategies to my students using this medium. I learned a ton! I made mistakes, regrouped and tried again. I designed an entire set of learning resources for teachers, pairing certain graphic novels or comic books with specific reading strategies. I became a better teacher and my students better readers.
This is how the real world works. When we want to learn something, we immerse ourselves in our interests and curiosity. We figure out what resources we need in order to learn something particular, and when we fail or make a mistake, we redesign our learning resources so that we are successful in the future. I was able to learn how best to use comic literature in my classroom to teach reading in a fraction of the time it would have taken me to enroll in a specific professional learning opportunity or online course. I quickly entered a flow state where I binged read, reflected, and tinkered with my new learning. Flow is a term coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian psychologist. People are happiest (and learning the most) when “they are in a state of flow—a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation” (“Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi”, 2017). It is often referred to as getting in the zone or a runner’s high. When you enter a flow state, you are so absorbed that nothing else seems to matter. The challenge level is the same as your skill level or current understanding of the topic you are learning about. You are not bored, disinterested, or anxious. You are in a state of heightened learning.
So, when teachers complain about not being able to “cover the curriculum” I immediately understand that they are presenting content and not guiding students to discover their own learning. As teachers, we need to begin thinking of ourselves as designers, not lecturers. Instead of believing that the teacher holds all of the knowledge necessary to complete a task or solve a problem, teachers and students should work alongside each other to design a learning experience that immerses everyone in a flow state. Katie Martin (2016) has a fantastic graphic that explains what this looks like. The role of the teacher should be one of designing powerful learning experiences, not just delivering content. In doing so, teachers who “co-construct the learning experiences with [their] students meet the desired learning goals” (Martin, 2016). This is what the ideal classroom should look like.
In my example of using comic literature to engage my male students and teach reading strategies, I adapted my existing reading curriculum (basal readers and novel studies) in order to better integrate a new resource (comic books and graphic novels). The innovative part happened when I was able to create a completely new learning experience for my students that used comic literature and was based on research-based best practices, my learning goals, and the needs of my individual students.
It is not surprising that educators still view themselves of content delivery people instead of learning experience designers. They are working in a 124-year-old educational system. With new learning technologies created to better help students, they too refer to themselves and content delivery platforms or content management systems. Academic content and learning are not things to be managed nor delivered. Learning is connected to each individual learner. It involves passion, challenge, and connection to both the real world and relevance to the student. It is a cyclical process. When something doesn’t work, we make modifications and try again. Learning is fun! Let’s not forget this and stop covering content. We are not lecturers; we are educational designers, engineering amazing learning experiences for each and every one of our students.
Martin, K. (2016, December 07). The Evolving Role of the Teacher. Retrieved March 30, 2017, from https://katielmartin.com/2016/12/07/the-evolving-role-of-the-teacher/
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. (2017, March 10). Retrieved March 30, 2017, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mihaly_Csikszentmihalyi#Flow
Richmond, E. (2016, June 2). Education Writers Association. Retrieved March 30, 2017, from http://www.ewa.org/blog-educated-reporter/testing-and-test-prep-how-much-too-much
Strauss, V. (2015, October 24). Confirmed: Standardized testing has taken over our schools. But who’s to blame? Retrieved March 30, 2017, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2015/10/24/confirmed-standardized-testing-has-taken-over-our-schools-but-whos-to-blame/?utm_term=.a014c00513f9