Saturday, September 27, 2008

What drives what we teach?

"Why, Señor Cosby, the curriculum, of course," cry a thousand aggrieved administrators and education specialists. The curriculum is a document (or probably several documents) which outlines the learning objectives of a particular course, and it does this in various levels of specificity. Importantly, it leaves specific implementation unaddressed, so teachers can implement a lesson plan that best addresses their students' needs and fits their own teaching style. It addresses the goals of the class, what the students expect to be able to do at the end of the class.

Where it all falls down is the "specific implementation" portion of that. Most teachers and classes have a textbook of some kind. We're smart enough and we've been trained well enough that we now know that textbook /= curriculum. Even so, I (and I'd guess a lot of other teachers) still turn to my textbook first when I have no idea what I should do the next day. I have my curriculum document, a list of the 65 learning goals per her class, which I tweak, realign, and try to implement more fully during the summer. I create unit plans, with learning goals and assessments and teaching strategies. I make weekly lesson plans during the week. And through all this process, I use the textbook as a place where I can steal materials from and then rip them apart and re-assemble them in a way that actually works. But when the chips are down, and my three-tiered planning system fails to take something into account (and yes, like all teachers, I make my plans knowing that they won't work), and everything falls apart (I plan on this happening most weeks about halfway through Wednesday of any given week), I grab my textbook and pick bookwork activities out. There are any number of problems with this.

Grammar-based fill-in-the-blank activities have been shown to be not a very good way of teaching Spanish at all. Vocabulary-based drills--a sentence in Spanish with a key word missing--are better than grammar-based drills, because they provide input and modeling as well as making a student utilize newly acquired vocabulary. The vocab sentences are like Spanish crosswords, only they look like what we think homework should look like. However, it takes no analytical ability at all to see that, in my particular textbook, two pages of grammar instruction and mechanical practice exist for every one page of vocabulary practice. And that's not even counting the supplemental materials, where the ratio is closer to 3:1. In deference to the "communicative methodology" craze sweeping the nation, my textbook has taken all the practice activities that used to be plug-and-chug writing activities and turned them into speaking activities. Same basic formulation, different communication skills. Still not so good. So the first failing of my textbook is that it dedicates too much space to pedagogically flawed activities.

The way the students interact with the textbook also leaves a great deal to be desired. It's as if the textbook is the embodiment of school work. We now have a lot of format options for activities of all kinds--we can make activities on Moodle, or turn them into whiteboard activities or overhead transparency activities or board games, all with relative ease--and while the students still know that they're doing work, it seems to feel less onerous. But pull out the textbook, especially first thing, and the students know that they're in for a day of what my high school Spanish teacher referred to as gruntwork. [Interesting mini-study idea: Take a textbook project. Give it to the students in 3 or 4 different formats, including straight out of the text. Compare completion ratios and success rates. Control for instructional strategy and classroom management issues.]

But because I'm a big-idea type of guy, I have a more fundamental reason for distrusting my textbook, and that's that textbook companies are sort of the devil. In his article "The Muddle Machine," Ansari (2004) takes down the textbook industries in a number of areas, including the way pedagogical philosophy is artificially tacked on as a marketing ploy, the manner in which materials are recycled from other textbooks, and the way textbooks are designed to sell lots and lots of copies and Texas and California, which leads to an almost-uselessly homogenized blend of content. The way that textbook companies operate guarantees that any particular textbook is not going to be as useful as it should or could be, because there's no overhead in a book serving any particular interest. I understand that textbook companies have to make money (and there's a LOT of money in this publishing model). I get it. But I also have to be aware that the textbook companies are motivated by something other than my students' learning.

But for all of this philosophical and practical objection to my textbook, it's still my go-to source for gotta-have-it-now classroom content. My units for my high school Spanish I and II classes are more or less tightly tied to the units outlined in my text. I use the vocabulary lists from the text as my core vocabulary lists, and add or subtract vocabulary as necessary. I present grammar content in the order it comes up in the book, plus or minus a couple of days. (I think it's crazy, f'rinstance, to teach a student to describe where they're going before teaching them how to say where they are.) If the curriculum is the bedrock of the instruction, then my text is the foundation of the house. If the curriculum is the map to the finish line, the textbook is the schematic for the car that will take us there. And as much as I struggle against this professionally repugnant and pedagogically flawed state of affairs, turning to the text comes so naturally.

I wonder what would happen if, for a week, for a unit, for a year, I refuse to use the textbook at all....


Ray said...

I was reading a student's CA60 this morning, which we all want to be doing at 6:15 AM, and in a letter from the parent to the teacher she stated, “So & So used to love school and thought it was so much fun and now she hates it because she doesn’t have any fun”. I often see students starting to dread school about the middle of third grade. This is when the honeymoon is over for the year and the content learning begins. We learn our fundamentals in the early grades and then we start to increase the content knowledge, which seems to be more textbook driven. Learning from the textbook or the “grunt work” just isn’t fun. How do we keep it fun but ensure learning is taking place? Can learning content be fun? In the early elementary we hear singing and laughter. We see movement from students we see teachers prancing around from student to student with a smile. As the classes grow in level, 3rd to 4th to 5th, etc. we see less and less of these things.

Is it okay to laugh and dance in high school classes? Can we move and sing? Go watch an elementary classroom and they have multiple stations at work. You will see a reading group in one place, a couple of students working on computers, others building things with blocks, and another group being helped by the teacher, who is constantly surveying the class and moving to assist those in need. It is an interesting change from elementary to secondary education. Think how 21st century companies are conducting their workplaces. Totally different from the conventional hit the time clock do the work and hit the time clock on the way out. The 21st century business is a more “snappy’ place, almost free-for-all think outside the box don’t stress me place. Do we move schools in this direction?

JohnCosby said...

I think we have to move schools more in that direction, but like in all things, there are a number of interests pulling in multiple directions. I'm torn by the need for truly relevant in-class activities--otherwise, why bother coming to class at all?--and the need for portability--how do I recreate a kinesthetic instructional activity, or a partnered speaking activity, for that matter, for an absent student? In-class instruction wins every time, but catching absent students up is really hard for me. I have the nagging feeling that textbook, worksheet-based models of teaching are a lot easier to catch up on. "Go to the folder, Suzie, and grab the assignment we did yesterday."

It's sad to hear about the student's loss of love for school. I remember that in high school, one of the reasons Spanish was my favorite class was because of the nature of the activities we did. We moved in time with music, we sang, we illustrated stories, we watched cartoons. I was kind of a geek about it, so I translated song lyrics and wrote comic strips, but even students who didn't really like school really liked Spanish. I used to think it was something inherent about language class, but I think it was the way they were taught. I hope I live up to my memories of class, and someday, I hope to feel like I've surpassed it, that I've made another student's class better than mine was.