Marzano and the Essential Objective. . .
One of the biggest shifts on my professional learning team----which includes two other language arts and social studies teachers----in the past year has been our recognition that we simply cannot try to teach the entire curriculum if we're going to do anything well.
We've been wrestling with this topic for a while now (see here and here) and we've finally decided to do something about it.
While no one has given us explicit permission, we've dediced to take assessment expert Bob Marzano's advice and identify a handful of essential objectives to focus our instructional time and attention on. In Classroom Assessment and Grading that Works----his 2006 ASCD title----Marzano writes:
“When standards benchmark statements have been unpacked, a district or school is likely to find far more content than they originally imagined…This massive array of content must be paired substantially to fit into the time available for instruction. Again, expert teachers and curriculum specialists can do this efficiently."
(Marzano, 2006, pg. 19)
Where our learning team struggled, though, was in making consistent and responsible decisions on which objectives were "essential."
At first, we caught ourselves selecting the objectives that aligned closely with the lessons that we loved to teach. While we never conciously decided that choosing objectives aligned with current lessons would be the best idea because it would save us time in the long run, I don't doubt that our thinking was influenced by the reality that selecting other outcomes would mean new planning----and new planning meant throwing away hours worth of work that we were invested in.
Thankfully, we caught ourselves, recognizing that our existing plans often covered a range of different objectives connected to a range of different themes and introducing students to a range of different places in the world. There was no coherency to the objectives covered in the lessons that we were the proudest of.
What we needed was a vision statement for our learning team, describing the kinds of learning that we believed was most essential for students to master in our classrooms. A vision statement, we figured, would lend focus to our decisions about which objectives to keep and which to pitch. It would also help us to target broad themes to cover during the course of the year.
So we dug out the standards defined by the National Council for the Social Studies and whipped up this vision for our teaching:
Students of the 21st Century will inherit a world that is increasingly interconnected. Natural and environmental challenges that cross boundaries will call for global solutions—and will be the source of primary conflict between nations. Networked governments and economies will also result in new opportunities for employers and employees. Those who can work across boundaries will be the most successful in this non-traditional tomorrow.
To be prepared for this future, our students must:
Understand the connections between natural resources and the success or failure of nations.
Recognize the impact that different forms of governments and economies have on standards of living.
Analyze the characteristics of culture that both link and separate different regions of the world.
Learn to manage information and to draw conclusions and take appropriate actions based on data.
Then, as we started to plan our units, we selected objectives from our curriculum that aligned closely with this vision. Wanting to share the specific objectives we'd selected with parents and students, we put together unit overview sheets that detailed the content we'd be covering and the lessons that we expected students to learn.
Here's a sample from our current unit:
Publish at Scribd or explore others: Academic Work easterneurope middleschool
Finally, we decided to write one or two meaningful assessment questions that we believed would give us a good look at whether or not students had mastered the essential objectives for each unit. For each of these questions, we drafted exemplars that parents, students and teachers could refer to when trying to evaluate learning.
Here's a sample from our current unit:
Publish at Scribd or explore others: Exams & Quizzes Academic Work easterneurope middleschool
I'm proud of the work that we've done because we've brought clarity to our own decision-making for the first time in a long time. We can tell you exactly why we're teaching the content that we've selected for each lesson. Parents and students also have no doubt about what exactly it is that kids should know and be able to do.
Better yet, if we continue to use our team vision statement to make choices about the content to teach, students will find natural connections between the different regions that we're studying simply because the topics that we present will be purposefully aligned instead of carelessly selected.
But most importantly, by pairing our curriculum down and focusing on a handful of essential objectives, we've restored a bit of sanity to our lives. No longer are we rushing kids through a superficial study of an overloaded curriculum. Instead, our students are exploring content in a deep and meaningful way----something that hasn't happened in a long, long time.
What'll be interesting is seeing how educational leaders react when they find out that we're not even trying to teach everything. While our rationale is sound and supported by heavyweights like Marzano, Reeves and Stiggins, my guess is that there will be some uncomfortable questions to answer.