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Building our grassland biome. Circa 2010.

As Modern Teachers, we’re presented with a rather daunting task. Not only are we asked to ensure that all of our children meet a set of predetermined and standardized outcomes, but simultaneously, current best practice is asking us to tend to student interests, differentiate our instruction, and nurture the whole child, meanwhile still keeping the rigor of standards in the back of our minds, prioritizing that above all else in most schools.

It’s an interesting conundrum, this whole “rigor” versus “emergent learning” thing.

But I don’t think it’s quite as grim as it might seem at first glance. In fact, I believe that it is possible to merge these seemingly dichotomous paradigms of education, allowing teachers to use standards purposefully while still tending to student interests and nurturing a child’s innate ability to love learning.

“Emergent Curriculum” refers to a practice where student interests are the driving force behind curriculum choices. Groundbreaking organizations such as the Reggio Emilia schools in Italy or the now popularized Montessori schools have embraced this idea of an emergent curriculum with great success, relying on provocations and immense documentation to inspire learning. However, this idealistic practice can’t be the end-all-be-all. An entirely emergent curriculum neglects what teachers know to be true about standards-based curriculum, formative assessment, and mastery learning.

In fact, in a recent article on EdSurge, Arthur Vanderveen (@avveen) recounts a 30-year old study conducted by the Benjamin Bloom, noting that students who received a personalized one-on-one experience, aligned with mastery learning principles (i.e., formative assessments aligned to outcomes or summative assessments, consistent feedback, etc.), performed at “about two standard deviations above the average of the control class,” meaning that students that received a personalized learning experience performed at the 98th percentile (Bloom, 1984).  In statistics, this is known as “2 Sigma.”  This, as well as a more recent study, also noted in Vanderveen’s article, clearly shows that these principles are helping to increase student achievement on standardized tests, specifically the Stanford-10, in the more recent study.

Vanderveen, in the EdSurge article, as well as Bloom, in his original study, both discussed the “2-Sigma Problem,” referring to the fact it is virtually impossible to offer this kind of personalization within the financial constraints of traditional schooling.  While I agree with that wholeheartedly, I think there is another problem with this supposed personalization of learning.

The Other 2-Sigma Problem

Any teacher knows that standardized tests do not tell us all we need to know, and cannot possibly, in and of themselves, help to nurture the whole child.  Neither of the aforementioned studies take this side of personalization into account.  It takes creativity, and it takes a responsive teacher who takes the diversity of all student needs into account.  Frequently, in these mastery learning classrooms, the curriculum is one-size-fits-all, and the delivery is rarely interdisciplinary.  While perhaps the teachers in these studies most likely differentiated the process by which students grew over the instructional period, it does not account for differentiation of the content or the product of the learning, which are integral components to the learning process.

In fact, in mastery learning classrooms, instruction is mostly delivered in isolated segments, rigidly aligned to the standardized summative assessments, and hardly conducive to instilling life-long learning.  This method of skill-and-drill is not sustainable, long-term, in any classroom.  My prediction is that eventually the kids, especially the ones at highest risk, would turn themselves off, and eventually the learning would slow.  In Bloom’s study, specifically, he mentions how this takes place over the course of only three weeks, which is hardly a long enough time to prove the sustainability of a mastery learning, one-on-one tutoring program.  Sure, you could implement some incentive systems to keep the momentum moving, but I hardly think that’s what we got into this for.  At least I didn’t.

But how is it possible to merge these two seemingly opposing paradigms?  How is it possible to teach in the mastery learning paradigm, yet still cater to student interests and allow curriculum to naturally emerge in your classroom?

The answer, I would argue, is creating lessons or units that are framed by standards, but are shaped by individual student needs, interests, and inquiries.  In essence, this Responsive Paradigm allows teachers to “teach to the test”–and I mean that in the best way possible–while still allowing students to find themselves within the context of that frame.

How might that work?  Come back tomorrow for “Framing Curriculum, Shaping Lessons.”  I’ll specifically talk about how you can frame these lessons or units in order to adhere to standards requirements, while giving you some strategies for how to help make your students more independent so that students make take charge of shaping the curriculum.

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