imageAt a recent faculty professional growth session, we test-drove our new Critical Friends Group protocol, and one of our teachers presented to her colleagues a dilemma she was having: how to teach her AP course in a way that fully prepared her students for success on the AP while also developing the curriculum in such a way to promote greater student engagement and more “learning by doing.”  It was great to see her confront this conundrum, and to see her colleagues advise her on possible options.

But it is not just a dilemma for her; every US school which is purposefully bringing its curriculum into greater alignment with the best of contemporary thinking about learning is struggling with this question.    Tony Wagner in his book The Global Achievement Gap confronts this question squarely, and answers it when he quotes favorably an AP expert:

“The AP is old-fashioned.  It tests robotic memorization of well-established facts, plus essays on discrete topics for which there is supposed to be one right answer.  I want to see more opportunities for students to have more topics to write about, and to have to do more research and analysis– link issues, see patterns, follow ideas over time.”

The Independent Curriculum Group is a new, leading edge organization setting the pace for the project of best aligning intentional education planning with contemporary, research-based best practices.  It counts as members 13 of the most forward-looking independent schools nationally, and I think it will be important for St. Gregory to consider in the months to come whether we seek membership ourselves.  Its homepage speaks directly to the AP issue when it says that their movement schools “have either dropped or de-emphasized test-driven programs that hinder authentic learning.”    Now, this blogger believes deeply in data collection for school planning, and it is not my opinion we drop testing altogether, but rather that we choose the right kind of testing, testing that assesses whether our students are learning what we think it is most important that they learn for success in their future.   But as Tony Wagner says (in italics!), “success on the AP exams is not a good predictor of success in comparable college courses.”

The ICG has a number of useful overview pages setting out its philosophy of education, but I am going to borrow liberally from one of them today, their “myths about learning.”  From my own experience as an educator, and from my research last fall visiting 21 21st century high schools, I can say that these myths resonate loudly for me:

Basic Facts Come Before Deep Learning
This one translates roughly as, “Students must do the boring stuff before they can do the interesting stuff.” Or, “Students must memorize before they can be allowed to think.” It is the most destructive myth in education. Students seldom retain facts that they are force-fed and are usually rendered passive by the effort. Students acquire factual knowledge as they need it when engaged in deep learning.

Rigorous Education Means a Teacher Talking
Teachers have understanding to impart, but long-term knowledge is more likely to come when students talk and create. The art of a teacher is to create ways for students to discover.

Covering It Means Teaching It
Teachers are often seduced by the idea that if they talk about a concept in class, they have taught it. At best, students get tentative ideas that will be quickly forgotten if not reinforced by a student-centered activity.

Teaching to Student Interests Means Dumbing It Down
If we could somehow see inside a student’s brain, its circuitry would correspond to its knowledge. Since new learning always builds on what is already in the brain, teachers must relate classroom teaching to what students already know. Teachers who fail to do so, whether due to ignorance or in pursuit of a false idea of rigor, are running afoul of a biological reality.

Acceleration Means Rigor
Some schools accelerate strong students so that they can cover more material. ICG schools are more likely to ask such students to delve deeper into important topics. Deep knowledge lays a stronger foundation for later learning.

A Quiet Classroom Means Good Learning
Students sitting quietly may simply be zoned out, if not immediately, then within 15 minutes. A loud classroom, if properly controlled, included the voices of many students who are actively engaged.

Traditional Schooling Prepares Students for Life
Listening to teachers and studying for tests has little to do with life in the world of work. People in the work world create, manage, evaluate, communicate, and collaborate, like students in ICG schools.

All of these myths are fun to grapple with– the one that speaks most loudly to me is the second to last.  Here is a toast to busy, active, energetic, and LOUD classrooms, where students are vigorously doing the work of learning!

You can respond to me by telling me what you think of these myths, and I can tell you I hope to lead a conversation in the months ahead about St. Gregory potentially joining ICG in the next year.