The Cure for Boring Curriculum

The New York Times published a story this weekend about an amazing research-based discovery: a way to fix boring high schools. The writers (Jal Mehta, who teaches at Harvard, and Sarah Fine, who works at High Tech High in San Diego) spent six years traveling the country, visiting 30 public schools, looking for a cure for boredom, since only about a third of students report feeling engaged in high school.

They assumed that kids were bored because the work was too conventional and easy—and that ‘innovative’ high schools and more rigorous core classes were the solution. But no. It turned out that the answer was curriculum and instructional strategies more like ‘electives, clubs and extra-curriculars.’

In essence, two different logics reign in the same buildings. Before the final bell, we treat students as passive recipients of knowledge whose interests and identities matter little. After the final bell — in newspaper, debate, theater, athletics and more — we treat students as people who learn by doing, people who can teach as well as learn, and people whose passions and ideas are worth cultivating. It should come as no surprise that when we asked students to reflect on their high school experiences, it was most often experiences like theater and debate that they cited as having influenced them in profound ways.

Well. Speaking as a former instrumental and vocal music teacher, my first question is: It took six years and 30 schools (and, undoubtedly, a hefty grant) to figure that out?

I have a few additional questions and observations:

  • The authors mention that about ¾ of fifth graders report being engaged in school. So why didn’t they start there? What is it about being 11 that makes school at least moderately interesting, across the board? Does any of this terminal ennui have anything to do with being an American teenager and all that entails?

 

  • The authors lump all courses that are not ‘core’ (read: not subject to standardized testing) into an ‘after the bell’ category. In fact, lots of elective courses are squarely part of the standard curriculum in any functional public high school: Visual arts, physical education, band, orchestra and choir, theatre arts and core-related courses like green engineering, gender studies, school newspaper—and on and on. What these courses and activities have in common is the fact that they are chosen              by students, not required by the school or state. There was a time when we allowed  students far more choice in selecting their own classes. These days, much of that      choice has been taken away by ‘merit’ requirements for endorsed diplomas. And,       of  course, testing.
  • In core classes, focus has narrowly shifted to What’s On The Test. Textbooks are selected because they’re ‘aligned.’ Huge chunks of instructional time are dedicated to test prep. Engaging instructional methods like project-based learning are scrapped when test scores don’t go up. It doesn’t matter whether the subject matter is easy-peasy or advanced. When the goal is better test scores, both curriculum and instruction suffer. Kids understand meaningless credentialing and data competitions better than anyone.
  • My own experience with boredom is that it is often a sign that the student doesn’t fully understand the intellectual content and is fearful of being outed. Or is hoping to be entertained, rather than having to invest attention and effort in something difficult with no ensured success. Or it is subject matter that carries zero interest and no prospect of future use, in the opinion of someone who’s 16.

So what’s to blame for this epidemic of boredom? Here’s what the authors say:

Students are batch-processed, sorted into tracks based on perceived ability and awarded credits based on seat time rather than actual learning. Making matters worse are college admissions pressures, state testing, curriculum frameworks that emphasize breadth over depth, simplistic systems of teacher evaluation, large classes, large teacher loads and short class periods.

SO disappointing. There is plenty of reason to re-think curriculum and instruction for high school students. But please—let’s not blame teachers and schools for failings based on boneheaded policy written by people who don’t respect the deep caring and relationship-building essential for student engagement.

Many teachers and school leaders get great results in spite of large classes and student loads, 48-minute periods, college anxieties, testing overload and whacky teacher evaluation models. Because they’re skilled and experienced enough to go around all the policy barriers to meeting the kids where they are– then teaching them something they find valuable.

The authors finish with one of those ‘we need to’ sections, wherein we get rid of the batch processing, mile-wide-inch-deep curricula etc. and the future is rosy. If they really wanted to be helpful, however, they would go after state legislatures and federal accountability policies, as well as for-profit curriculum publishers and test-makers. Not the weary foot soldiers trying to do the right thing for teenagers.

They might even consider challenging the Talking Ed-Heads at their own and other elite universities, who put out pieces like this one—Don’t Give Up on Curriculum Reform Just Yetin which yet another Harvard-based researcher blames the failure of more rigorous curriculum to yield better test results on teachers who aren’t smart enough to interpret more ‘complicated’ curriculum.

Somebody is paying these folks to study these things. Why don’t they just ask teachers?

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4 Comments

  1. In education you pick one of two groups: teaching or the ivory tower where you teach but the focus is on putting out research based articles. There is almost a vanity line between the two and if you choose to teach (as I do, with my Ph.D.) you are “dumbed down by many who enter the ivory tower and remain there except when doing “field research” but they never integrate with their subject(s) for fear of some kind of contamination of the research. They won’t ask teachers because, God Forbid!! That could be them covered in paint or with chalk coarsened hands.

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    1. Thanks for your comment. I agree.
      I know—from my truncated doctoral work— that the goal in higher ed is writing articles (or books, or chapters) about findings and recommendations gathered through their research. (The other goal is getting grants to do the research, but that’s another blog.)

      You can see how the article got written. Someone does a study showing that kids are bored in school—and get increasingly bored as they grow older, culminating in high school. So Jal Mehta, at Harvard, decides to study solutions to the boring nature of high school. Because he’s at Harvard, he gets six years’ worth of funding. His hunch is that kids are bored because the work is too easy and monotonous (because when he was in HS, he thought the work was too easy). He doesn’t even consider the nature of what the accountability culture has done to HS curriculum, narrowing it to what’s tested, putting a hyper-focus on competitive college admissions and data.

      So he and his partner spend six years and study 30 schools and kids tell him what we’ve always known—what kids like best is elective classes and after-school programs and athletics. That’s where they learn the most and have fun. The people with paint and chalk on their hands know this.

      What drives me crazy is the lack of awareness that research-based interventions to improve schools (mostly measured by tests) often *cause* boredom. Which researchers then try to fix. From afar. So as not to contaminate their research.

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    1. Maybe it’s the old ‘they think they know about schools because they were once students in one’ syndrome?

      I actually rambled on, speculating about how a Harvard professor might not know that hands-on classes and extra-curriculars have pretty much always been the place where kids learn the most, in an early comment. But yeah–this one was a head-scratcher.

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