Standards, Curriculum & Instruction — Part 3: Instruction

DISCLAIMER: This blog is the third in a series designed to educate and inform readers on the differences between standards, curriculum, and instruction. These blogs are not an endorsement of Common Core State Standards.

In our previous article we defined educational standards and curriculum. In this article we show the relationship between standards, curriculum and instruction. This beginning article on instruction will provide a general overview. In future articles we will explore specific approaches to instruction.

Standards are the expectations, or goals, that are established to drive student learning and mastery of content and grade levels. Curriculum is a method of ordering standards in concise tools for teachers to use to plan lessons and help inform teachers as they create their instruction. Curriculum is WHAT content the teacher delivers to students. Instruction is HOW teachers deliver that content.

Instruction is the method or way of teaching students. The standards, or goals, will never be achieved without a guaranteed viable curriculum. But, that is not enough. Without effective instruction, even the best curriculum cannot lead a student to success. Effective instruction is the most critical factor in student success.

There are a variety of instructional strategies that have been used by teachers to deliver content to students, making every students probability for success very dependent on the instructional approach in the classroom. Some teachers have stood before their students and lectured for hours and hours to deliver content with little or no student interaction (i.e., Lecture). Other teachers have repeated information over and over again (i.e., “Drill and Kill”), forcing students to memorize endless facts without explanation or discovery of their origin. And some teachers have passed out worksheets for students to complete while the teachers retreat to their desk (i.e., Teacher-Centered Instruction).

While many of us have experienced teachers who have used these types of instructional techniques educational researchers have discovered through peer reviewed research and study that these instructional techniques are NOT EFFECTIVE.

For example, many of us had to memorize the 50 state capitals during our time in school.  While this information stayed with some of us, many people have forgotten over time. Unless you are a geography teacher or a contestant on a game show, have you ever had a need in your life to know the 50 state capitals?

Or, would it have been more useful for you to understand why these capitals were chosen?  Maybe study the various forms of state government throughout the United States? Or perhaps to think critically about how they were built and the concepts around how they became central hubs for government?

Although you may have forgotten the factual parts of those questions, the real skills you would have acquired are the ability to think and process information related to those capitals, which are attributes that employers seek in the workplace.

Research in the area of instruction tells us that effective instruction includes a small group environment, working on projects that are designed to push students to think critically.  In addition, teachers serve as facilitators of student learning, guiding students through cross-curricular lessons and infusing technology into the instruction where necessary and appropriate.

The table below outlines several strategies, their characteristics, examples, and classroom effectiveness.

Category Characteristics Examples Effectiveness
Direct Instruction Teacher-directed, practice and drill Teacher lecture, demonstrations Effectiveness is limited to providing information, step by step skills, and basic knowledge construction.
Indirect Instruction Inquiry, induction, student-centered Reflective, discussion, problem-solving, guided inquiry Very effective for problem-solving, life-long learning, student motivation, comparing/contrasting, influence, predicting, summarizing, and analyzing.
Interactive Instruction Peer-learning, discussion, multiple solutions Socratic discussions, collaborative learning, debates Very effective for debates, brainstorming, and problem-solving
Experiential Learning Hands-on learning, active participation, analysis, application Project-based learning, problem -based learning, simulations, lab experiments, building models, surveys Most effective. Greatly increases understanding and retention compared to other strategies. Increases student motivation
Independent Study student-decision making, analysis, self-reliance Student centers, research projects, flipped learning, essays, computer assisted instruction, online instruction Very effective in developing student initiative, self-reliance, self-improvement, and lifelong learning.

Most educators agree that teachers should have enough autonomy to make the best instructional decisions for their classrooms. However, all teachers should be held accountable for implementing the curriculum and using classroom strategies that best meet the needs of their students. A skilled teacher will use a mix of each of these strategies when they are appropriate. For example, when given the TEKS standard:

1.6A The student is expected to: classify and sort regular and irregular two-dimensional shapes based on attributes using informal geometric language,

it would not make sense for a teacher to lecture on the differences between regular and irregular two-dimensional shapes. First grade students are not likely to retain information from a demonstration on an overhead projector describing the differences between regular and irregular two-dimensional shapes. It would be much more effective to provide the students with actual hands-on experience sorting the shapes and classifying the differences on their own, with teacher guidance.

Effective teachers analyze the standards and the curriculum to determine the best strategy for their students. Ineffective teachers stick to one approach and choose that approach based on the teacher’s needs rather than the needs of the students.

The reality in education is that the game has changed. The game changer is technology. Technology has created access to knowledge that our world has never seen. As such, students no longer have a need to regurgitate the capitals of the 50 states and they no longer need the teacher to drill and kill those capitals. Teachers are no longer the supreme keepers of the information; Google now has the stronghold on that. Facts are free and readily available.

However, what Google can’t do is help students facilitate, analyze, synthesize or process this knowledge. They need a teacher for that. They need a teacher who can take well-written standards, use a powerful curriculum tool, and plan research-based instruction to help facilitate a purposeful learning environment for students that will help them think critically about the information that is being delivered.

This is learning in the 21st century.  It’s not a conspiracy.

Standards, Curriculum & Instruction — Part 2: Curriculum

DISCLAIMER: This blog is the second in a series designed to educate and inform readers on the differences between standards, curriculum, and instruction. These blogs are not an endorsement of Common Core State Standards.

In our previous article we defined educational standards. In this article we show the relationship between standards and curriculum and why it is necessary for a school district to have curriculum to meet the educational standards. Consider the following:

  • Does it make sense to teach World War I before World War II?
  • Should a teacher conduct a lesson on area before showing her students what a square looks like?
  • How many different ways are there to teach multiplication? When should it be taught?

The three examples above are all expectations derived from our state standards that Texas students are required to learn. Educational standards, like the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS), are goals. These goals inform educators and parents about the content and skills their students are to master in a given school year. Unfortunately, these goals don’t come with a plan. We want our students to know and understand concepts from World War II but much of that lesson will be lost if World War I wasn’t covered first.  It would be impossible to measure area unless we know what the square looks like. And multiplication can be taught in multiple ways for visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners.

Below, is a real example from the Texas standards (TEKS). Each of the four standards are exactly the same at the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th grade:

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Common sense would tell you that a teacher would not teach these concepts exactly the same at the third grade level as she would at the sixth grade level. But, teachers need a plan to know what should be mastered at the 3rd grade level to be prepare for the 4th grade level and so on. This is why school districts need curriculum. While standards are goals, curriculum is the plan to meet the goals. Curriculum is a detailed description of how students and teachers interact with specific content in a specific sequence over a school year to meet the educational standards. The execution of the curriculum, or plan, is the instruction.

Standards are typically written in a plain, straightforward language and are designed to simply state a student expectation of learning. However, the standard does not explain HOW to teach the student expectation or WHAT materials to use to allow the student to demonstrate mastery on the standard. Standards are goals and do not specify curriculum, textbooks, workbooks, or lesson plans, all of these things are at the discretion of the district. It is good that the districts have this discretion. They each have different needs and require the ability to determine which curriculum would best meet those needs.

Research has shown that one of the most effective tools in successful schools is a guaranteed, viable curriculum. A guaranteed and viable curriculum is one that guarantees equal opportunity for learning for all students and adequate time for teachers to teach content and for students to learn it. District curriculum is a large body of work and it takes trained educators to ensure the that a curriculum is guaranteed and viable. Educators who write curriculum must be familiar with the state standards, understand the conceptual development of subject matter over several grade spans, and have adequate time to plan and write the curriculum.  Often, the process includes master teachers who meet over the summertime, evaluate the current curriculum, suggest changes based on data, and then train colleagues on the new curriculum when school begins. Unfortunately, many of the districts in Texas do not have the resources to write their own curriculum.

Another struggle for school districts in Texas is the ever changing nature of our standards. Every time the TEKS are changed, districts have to rewrite their curriculum. The same is true for the timing of the state assessments (STAAR/EOC). The assessments are the means for the state to determine if students have met the goals (standards). For a curriculum to be guaranteed and viable, a district has to have a curriculum (plan) to make sure all of the content and skills are mastered at the time of assessment. Everytime the date of an assessment changes, the district has to update the curriculum to ensure there is adequate time for teachers to teach content and for students to learn it. In other words, curriculum is a very necessary,  never ending process and expense for school districts.

What are these districts to do? Some districts have joined together to write curriculum. Some use the curriculum of larger districts that have the resources to write their own curriculum. Many have purchased curriculum for their districts. There are several curricula available for schools in Texas. One very popular curriculum is the TEKS Resource System (TRS) curriculum, formerly known as CSCOPE. Once plagued by controversy over a few lessons created for instruction (not curriculum), the TRS is now just a curriculum built to be guaranteed and viable for Texas school districts.

There are other curricula used in Texas schools. For example, if a student is in an Advanced Placement course, the instructor is required to use the AP curriculum. When Texas was one of the largest consumers of national curriculum, publishing companies used to write curriculum to meet the Texas standards. However, with the adoption of the Common Core standards in 43 states, we are no longer a top priority for these publishing companies. Therefore, most the curriculum published is aligned with the Common Core. Publishing companies haven’t forgotten the Lone Star state. They now retrofit the curricula written for Common Core to meet the TEKS. As a result, much of what we see in Texas, created at a national level, will be considered aligned with the Common Core.

The national organizations who write these curriculum follow a process to develop their content. The writers collect and analyze standards from all 50 states and attempt to align similar standards found in each state.  It is common to find standards in some states that are not found in others.

All of this begs the question: How do we ensure that our districts are not using Common Core standards? The answer has already been given. The goal for all of our educators in Texas is to meet the standards given to us by the state of Texas, the TEKS. The plan is to have a curriculum that is guaranteed and viable to meet this goal. Teachers will execute this plan with high quality instruction based on their curriculum.

Since a variety of instructional materials are frequently used by teachers to meet their standards, one could expect to see a worksheet, lesson plan, workbook, or instructional guide with the words “Common Core Aligned” printed on the material; especially since 41 states (40 as of Thursday, June 5, as Oklahoma has dropped CCSS) have adopted CCSS and Internet resources with a “Common Core” label are easily found. This simply means that the curriculum writer who developed that content went through a process of aligning similar standards from a particular state with the Common Core Standards.

In fact, if a district has adopted a national curriculum to meet the state standards, teachers may have to use instructional materials that are “aligned” with the Common Core. Consider this, humans share 92% of their DNA with mice. But, mice and humans look nothing alike. The TEKS share 68% of their standards with Common Core. The curriculum and instruction in Texas classrooms will look nothing like Common Core, or we won’t meet our goal. In part three of our series, we will examine classroom instruction and the variety of instructional techniques teachers can use to process both standards and curriculum.

Ten Things Texas Students Need for the 21st Century Classroom

Our world, our nation, and our state are a changing at a rapid rate.  As the world changes, the goals and methods of public education must change as well to prepare students for the requirements they’ll face in the 21st century. We can no longer rely on outdated practices, technology, and approaches.

Our future is dependent on producing students who can think critically, collaborate, and produce project and systems driven assignments. We have talented students in our schools, and it’s time to give them the tools they need to be the next generation of great leaders. So what does Texas’ public education system need to keep up with the needs of educating a changing workforce?

1)   Update the cost of education
Simple fact: The state of Texas has not updated the cost of education since 1991.  We are currently funding schools using a complicated funding formula based on data that is more than 22 years old – from a time when a gallon of gas cost $1.12, a pound of bacon cost $1.95, and Internet usage reached a whopping one million users. Fortunately, the ruling from the most recent school finance law suit will likely require the state legislature to update the Cost of Education Index (CEI), which will create a new baseline for funding.  The adequacy and equity will hopefully come later.

2)   Funding
Once the state of Texas updates the CEI, the need for adequate and equitable funding for Texas schools will be paramount. Texas is the second most populous state in the US with a growing population of students.  Among these students are immigrants, students whose first language is not English, students in poverty, and students with special academic needs.  These are aspects of our schools that are costly and desperately need attention by the state.  Funding our schools is complicated and will require strong leadership in the next couple of years to see it through.  This important need and constitutional requirement cannot be ignored and is a critical for the future our state.

3)   Reduce the class size
After $5.4 billion was cuts from Texas school funding by the Texas legislature in 2011, many school districts adjusted by reducing teachers and raising the numbers of students in classrooms.  School districts across the state asked for record numbers of waivers from the Texas Education Agency to increase class sizes beyond the required 22:1 in grades K-4.  As the 83rd legislature returns some (but not all of the lost) funding to schools, it will be imperative for school districts to work to reduce the student to teacher ratio. Students are easier to mange, instruct, and are more engaged in smaller classrooms.  This is also a similar argument used by charter school advocates to promote more charter schools across the state.  Again, with adequate and equitable funding, manageable class sizes – for all grade levels – is essential.

4)   Technology
How quickly do things change?  Five years ago, Twitter, Facebook, and iPads were not found in any classroom in America; now they are essential.  The methods by which we need to educate students have to change and that will happen through technology.  Many students today are coming to school as “digital natives,” having experienced a wide range of technology but are not being allowed to use that experience in the classroom environment for a variety of reasons (lack of funding, equipment, training, ideology, etc.) Nonetheless, technology is here to stay and will continue to change through the life of our students. In addition, the education research related to instructional technology is conclusive that it has a significant place in our schools and in our students’ learning.

5)   College Readiness
Many of the jobs that will be available to high school graduates in 15 to 20 years will more than likely require a college degree.  This is a simple fact. More jobs are requiring students with prerequisite knowledge that can only be attainted through higher education in a two-year or four-year setting.  In addition, our students will be in significant competition with students from India, China, Japan, and Western Europe for the top jobs in engineering, science, math, and technology.  Our students will need to be critical thinkers, creators, evaluators, and more than likely need to speak more than one language –not French, German, or Italian – but Farsi, Hindi, Mandarin, or Spanish.

As such, it will be essential that we provide challenging instruction for students, promote them to take upper academic courses, and have better advising for them to promote careers that best support their individual skill sets.  As we work to differentiate their instruction through their lives, we may also need to differentiate their career choices when they are ready for the “real world.”  This means helping to make our kids “college ready” and “ready for college.”

6)   Best practices
In every profession, people maintain their skills through professional development and practice.  Education is no different.  There are countless conferences, staff development sessions, and other learning opportunities that education professionals attend—year round—to maintain required certifications and improve their craft.  This is commonplace in education. However, professional development has been cut in recent years due to the school finance crisis.  There have been less opportunities for educators to travel for staff development sessions or for districts to bring staff developers into their district.  Training is being compromised and students will ultimately feel the impact.

As such, it is increasingly important that educators are using the best practices research has to offer in our profession. We have a multitude of research to support the best instructional (Marzano, Danielson), discipline (Sprick), classroom management (Danielson, Jones, Emmer), and curriculum (English, Resnick, Stenhouse) and educators needs to employ these strategies early and often in our classrooms.  We are at a time when parents and politicians are expecting the best from our schools; we need to offer them the best.

7)   Support programs for students in poverty
Federal sequestration has hurt our poorest schools by cutting funding to low socioeconomic schools.  In addition, the poverty rate among children in Texas is significant at 25%,presenting a clear need for quality programs for students in poverty.  Texas schools will need more social workers, food programs, tutoring opportunities, and increased personnel to help teach, support, and grow our students.  Research tells us that students in poverty come to our schools with learning gaps, family problems, and a culture of low expectations. In addition, education has a habit of placing teachers with alternative certifications or limited experiences in our highest need schools. These schools, students, and teachers need our help and support to meet the expectations of state testing, college readiness, and the public.

8)   Deeper understanding of our changing population
Our state is changing.  Texas’ Hispanic population is growing, we have more children, we have more Spanish speakers, and we have more poor people than ever before.  However, our legislature is primarily made up of white men with private school educations from affluent areas of Texas.  This dichotomy in ideology and lack of understanding of our changing population cannot continue. Ultimately, it will hurt our schools. Our state must understand and adapt to our changing population by implementing training, funding, and supporting the educational system that will ready the next generation of Texas’ workforce.

9)   Instructional differentiation
We can no longer teach like we did 50, 25, 10, or even five years ago.  Technology has changed much of this need, but so has a significant amount of quality research dedicated to instruction.  In addition, our students are not “one size fits all”; meaning that one type of instructional technique is not going to work for every student.  We have a variety of students with various learning needs.  Special education students often need very different instructional techniques as gifted students do.  The same can be said for Hispanic students and white students.  The method of delivery must be adapted to meet the needs of the students.

Texas teachers will need help in learning various instructional techniques and be provided training on how technology can enhance and improve the learning experience of our students.  In many school districts, teachers are turning to Twitter chat sessions and Pinterest to work with educators nationwide to learn ways to improve instruction in the classroom.

There are many different ways to teach a single concept and teachers need to employ as many ways as possible.

10) Early childhood education
I want to make a bold suggestion that would be a significant paradigm shift in education:  it’s time to change the first grade. No longer should first grade be for six year olds.  First grade should begin at three years old.  The education gap is a significant challenge for our schools, as educators cannot control the level to which students are prepared before they enter school.

Many parents have the time, resources, and interest in providing their children various opportunities to prepare them for school before they begin and many parents do not have these resources or desire. It’s time that Texas schools take the lead and begin to close that gap by providing high quality instruction for children as young as three years old.

Many students begin kindergarten without having learned their alphabet, numbers, colors, or shapes when these concepts could be captured earlier in life. In addition, the very young brain is a sponge that soaks everything it can when it is in tune with the environment.  We can teach our young children two languages at once, provide opportunities to experience their environment through local travel, give them opportunity to interact with other children, adults, and various types of technology.  These learning experiences will close the education gap that so many of our students in poverty encounter and set our students up for fruitful adult lives.

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