INSTRUCTIONAL NEEDS AND PROFESSIONAL GROWTH IN PUBLIC AND INDEPENDENT SCHOOLS
Why America’s public school system demands extensive training, certification, and ongoing professional development for its teachers: The public school system in America serves a very diverse range of children, who come from all different backgrounds and have different needs. In order to be able to effectively teach and challenge all of these students, teachers need to be properly prepared and have ongoing professional development. This helps them to learn about different instructional practices and to stay up to date on research about teaching and learning.
In contrast, children attending independent schools are more similar to each other: for example, prep school students are typically highly competent and motivated, with parents who are heavily involved; students at therapeutic schools are similarly grouped and provided with more resources. This might explain why teachers at independent schools are not expected to have formal training in instructional methods beyond their subject area expertise and credentials from a prestigious university. The appeal of “academic freedom” is another factor, as it is a cherished rallying cry among secondary teachers at independent schools, where constraints such as teacher licensing, prescribed curricula, lesson planning, and scope and sequence of instruction are not the norm.
Times are changing and children are coming to school less prepared to learn. The personal challenges they face are more complex than in the past, such as learning differences like attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders, dyslexia, and autism. Families are also less supportive than before. Even though we know more about teaching and learning than ever before, the call for academic freedom in independent schools is less defensible as a reason not to pursue strategies for instructional improvement.
FADS THEY ARE NOT:
ADVANCES IN WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT TEACHING AND LEARNING
Tony Wagner (2001) argues that teachers are like craftspersons in that they take pride in developing their expertise and perfecting their courses. He observes that many teachers believe that educational innovations are fleeting and not to be believed because they are often imposed by leaders who come and go.
Research on teaching and learning has improved a lot in the last ten years and this has led to the development of “best practices of instruction.” These practices are taught to public school educators as part of their certification programs and are also discussed at national education conferences. However, unless independent school educators keep up with these innovations, they may not know about all the different research-based “best practice” methods that are being used in classrooms across the country.
The following research-supported advances in teaching and learning have proven their value in the classroom: the theory of multiple intelligences, differentiated instruction, formative and “backwards design” assessment, opportunity to learn (OTL), cognitive neuroscience (“brain research”), demographics and learning, and inquiry science methods. However, many independent schools are not yet employing these updated research-based best practices.
THE CRAFT OF TEACHING
Why should schools go through the instructional review process? There are four basic reasons why curriculum articulation — which is an ongoing process involving regular dialogue among teachers from different grade levels and subjects to review what is taught and assessed, when, and why — is a vital practice for effective schools:
- To develop a seamless and published scope and sequence of instruction, without gaps or redundancies between grade levels or within department course offerings, that accurately represents what teachers teach and assess and what students are expected to learn from kindergarten to commencement;
- To increase school-wide awareness of the school’s curriculum and of instructional strategies, priorities, and talents among and between colleagues, as they emerge over time in the ongoing school-wide dialogue;
- To record a written scope and sequence of instruction that will help new colleagues prepare for their teaching assignment when they come to the school, and which will also illustrate the school’s instructional program for prospective students, accreditation teams, and others;
- To provide the basis for an ongoing discussion each year about what we teach, why we teach it, how we assess it, and how we might want to do things differently to better serve our students and capitalize on our own talents.
The curriculum articulation process can help to identify gaps and redundancies in a school’s instructional continuum. It can also be rejuvenating for faculty. Professional development opportunities that involve gathering with colleagues to discuss and discover how to teach more effectively can refresh veterans, inform newcomers, and inspire naysayers on a faculty. Here are the key objectives of any curriculum articulation process, addressed to faculty members:
- Identify minimum competencies. What are the fundamental skills and information that students should gain as a consequence of satisfactorily completing a course?
- Gauge the preparedness level of your incoming students. In what ways are students entering your class well prepared by their previous courses to meet or exceed the minimum competencies, and in what areas are they deficient?
- Identify what is actually taught, in what sequence, in each grade/subject. This oversimplifies what is termed “curriculum mapping.” The goal is for teachers and departments to honestly record what is taught and when it is taught. An accurate “map” shows where there are overlaps, gaps, deficiencies, overemphases, etc.
- Compare goals with the national standards to identify priorities and gaps. This is a crucial and somewhat subjective part of the process — it requires that teachers and teacher teams make decisions about what they value specific to the school’s instructional goals and mission, compared with what students need as reflected in the national standards, knowing that, in most cases, it is not feasible to teach the entire range of national standards in every course or grade level.
- Record the scope and sequence of the curriculum: Once a school has articulated its curriculum objectives, it’s important to carefully record them, for reference and for future discussions.
- Conduct ongoing evaluation and revision: Curriculum articulation never stops, as needs, standards, students, teachers, and priorities change.
INSTRUCTIONAL IMPROVEMENT AS “MORE WORK”
School leaders can help their faculty colleagues develop a more receptive attitude towards curricular and pedagogical change by reinforcing the perception that the process leading to it is rewarding and worthwhile. They can do this by highlighting the benefits of reflection, dialogue, research, experimentation, and ongoing repetition of each phase of the cycle, and by providing support and encouragement to those who engage in these activities.Focus on the process, not just the product. instructional improvement should be a collaborative dialogue between teachers that focuses on exploring, considering, and refining their methods. This journey should lead to better teaching, not just following the outlines in a curriculum document. It takes planning and commitment, but it can be rewarding.
THE REAL PROBLEM IS CHANGE ITSELF
Evans (2004) explains that while schools and educators are usually resistant to change, this resistance is normal and even necessary to some degree. He argues that there needs to be a balance between a long-lasting, predictable ethos that transcends generations and the healthy adaptations that acknowledge different needs from one generation to the next.Wagner says that most educators have a personality that doesn’t like taking risks, and they got into teaching because it’s a stable profession. However, change requires people to not avoid conflict and to be okay with things being uncertain. Evans says that in schools, people try to avoid conflict because teachers are around children all the time and they want to emphasize the positive. But this makes it hard to change anything in private education.
PLANNING FOR INSTRUCTIONAL IMPROVEMENT
and How will we know if the change is successful? When designing and implementing an instructional improvement program, educators should keep in mind that faculty have the right to understand three things from the start of the process: the reason for the change, what the change will be, and how they will know if the change is successful. (Evans, 2004) The answers to these questions will vary from school to school, but in addressing the first one, Lois Hetland of the Harvard Graduate School of Education puts it compellingly as follows:
Learning something new means questioning those things we do well automatically. It means questioning our tacit expertise….It is the willingness to risk some clumsy movements that allows us to become explicit and intentional about what we do. And that, as far as I can tell, is how we can best honor the mystery of learning in our teaching (1996).
The goal for faculty members is to create conversations about what students and teachers need from instructional design and delivery, and how they can best be enriched and challenged throughout the course of their experience at the school through structuring and delivering curriculum and instruction.
FIVE STRATEGIES FOR IMPLEMENTING INSTRUCTIONAL CHANGE
Assuming that there is enough time to prepare, communicate, and plan, school leaders can use the following strategies to effectively change curriculum and instruction.
- Aim for “subtle shifts.” Changing curriculum and instruction should be a gradual process, a matter of modifying single lessons rather than entire units. Successful instructional change is a matter of reflecting, planning, communicating, planning some more, making a “subtle shift” in practice, reflecting some more, and then repeating the process.1 At Hawaii Prep, preparing to expand our kit-based science program at our K-8 campus, we sent a team of teachers, administrators, and community members to a weeklong training program (Leadership Assistance for Science Education Reform at the Smithsonian Institute). Rather than purchasing kits for science instruction in every classroom in grades K-8, we’re inviting teachers to try individual units on a pilot basis, and, so far, several teachers have plunged into the program on their own initiative. In time, we believe others will be drawn to kit-based science by the infectious enthusiasm and by the success they witness in their colleagues’ experiences — but it won’t be a curriculum program that’s forced upon everyone all at once, which would have a low threshold for buy-in among our talented and accomplished (and autonomous) faculty.
- Start small. Work with individual teachers at first, or with small clusters of motivated individuals who buy into a proposed change and are excited to become experts in the new process and practices. Enthusiasm fueled by early successes and spread by word of mouth among students and teachers is contagious! This strategy shortcuts all the energy and time spent trying to convince skeptical, reluctant, and resistant faculty members to jump aboard an “untested” change. Build it — with “it” meaning an instructional innovation that works — and they will eventually come.
- Be patient. Instructional change agents should anticipate anxiety. Individuals respond uniquely (at times unpredictably) to new ways of doing things, no matter how sensible or appealing the new ways might be. Expecting colleagues to hold to the same levels of performance and pliability one has for oneself leads to repeated frustrations and slows the process on a number of levels. Over time, favorable changes unite a critical mass of teachers whose collective enthusiasm overcomes initial resistance and gently diffuses the pervasive this-isn’t-how-we’ve-always-done-it attitude. It takes time — often years — to successfully implement instructional change across a department, division, or entire school.
- Make time for instructional review within the school day. Schools that place a high value on curriculum review and professional dialogue about instruction build it into the workday, rather than adding more meetings during the afternoons, evenings, or weekends when many teachers are involved in co-curricular activities or wish to enjoy precious family time or time alone. This is a vital consideration. Above all else, teachers need time to realize meaningful instructional improvement. The simplest way to create more time is to extend the length of the school year and add periodic in-service days for articulation; but, in some independent schools, this order of change could provoke a battle that might then undermine the good intentions of a curriculum review before it even gets underway. At other schools where I’ve worked, faculty members were afforded opportunities for collaboration on a regular basis when the school redistributed instructional time incrementally. For instance, adding two minutes to the beginning and end of the school day, and one minute less at the beginning and end of lunch, is hardly noticed, but it adds 30 minutes per week of instructional time in schools with a five-day week. This would allow for 60 minutes of instructional review every two weeks to be built into the regular workday, with a minimal disruption to the existing schedule.
- Provide ready access to the resources necessary for change. For example, a number of excellent organizations host websites and conferences dedicated to instructional improvement, including the superb resources provided by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (www.ascd.org). It’s important to anticipate increased needs that will emerge as a consequence of instructional change. At Hawaii Prep’s K–8 campus, for example, with the move to more kit-based science instruction this year, we provided a part-time resource teacher to assist with setup and materials support to facilitate the new program’s implementation. While the new position is a strain on the budget, we see it as a resource essential to the success of the initiative — and balanced against the big picture of potential benefits for children and teachers across the years ahead, plus considering the hundreds of hours already invested in the instructional change, a part-time resource teacher is a small price to pay. Plan ahead and make sure your new programs (and teachers) aren’t starved for support.