The most successful classroom experience [e.g., consistently engaged students; enriched content; meeting student needs; increasing teacher effectiveness throughout the school year] demands that the teacher abandons a lock-step approach: by “lock-step,” I mean a class whose curricular speed is constant and advances exactly according to a pre-fixed 36 week calendar. Unfortunately, there continues to be widespread expectation across the K12 landscape (this applies to colleges too, in fact) that a curriculum or a course has been successfully delivered if the instructor has covered the content according to what has been mapped out in advance. This coverage fallacy is what drives school districts into managing so many aspects of the school business, including personnel and compensation policies and practices, with a backward, industrial-model mindset.
I recall a movement around the country, about fifteen years ago, among legislators in several states, to increase the school day and the school year. At the time I called for a halt to this kind of talk, arguing that more of the same would not address our school woes in this country. [Click here to see my Chicago Tribune op-ed piece on this topic: Don’t Eliminate the Dog Days of Summer.]
In place of the lock-step approach, teachers should of course have a plan but must be open to detour into more fertile fields, according to the learners’ styles and interests in the classroom, which can only be known well into the school year. An approach that remains enslaved to the content in the syllabus, and therefore an approach that is blind to learner struggles and levels of understanding or skill development, is a recipe for a downward trajectory of student engagement throughout the year. The best a teacher can hope for with the content coverage approach is to successfully utilize charismatic, showman tactics to keep the students invested over a period of eight or ninth months. Only some teachers can pull this off, but even if they do, it is highly likely that many learners will lose out on the kind of authentic and deep engagement that should have been made available.
Counteracting the lock-step approach means striving toward a rising S-curve on the graph of student engagement and understanding. An analogy with the innovative company may help us understand this S-curve phenomenon I am applying to the classroom. This S-curve idea is a central part of how companies use “design thinking” as a way to stay relevant in the marketplace. Below is an image of how this S-curve applies to a start-up company that needs to and successfully does move beyond their initial product launch.
When the product is launched, there is initial enthusiasm for the novelty of the product or concept, and sales begin rising, but then product fatigue or competition may set in, and without another new idea ready to launch, the curve would begin to flatten out and decline. But the “innovation window” represents a look ahead, another strategy and a new product that will continue to galvanize customer interest, and which yields another rise in sales—the cycle then repeats, upward and upward, so long as innovation and change and customer adaptation are incorporated into the business approach.
Likewise in a classroom, the teacher must take constant stock of the students’ level of receptivity and understanding, along with levels of interest and engagement, in order to keep the curve of learning moving upward throughout the school year. In place of “The Innovation Window,” a teacher can take stock periodically of how the students are doing—by assessing their product/output, their understanding, their level of motivation, etc. A teacher’s checking in directly with the students can be beneficial—are they confident that they are learning? Are they experiencing lots of confusion, lots of boredom? Do they need reinforcement? Would a new phase of differentiated approaches best meet the diverse needs in the classroom? Is a deeper dive into a particular concept or skill warranted, and might there be a different teaching practice, such as a new modality that addresses a different learner trait, that would be more effective?
If teachers can look ahead into their syllabus and seize on opportunities to pause and enter their own reflection, self-assessment, or “innovation window,” they have a greater chance to keep the classroom moving in fresh, stimulating, enriching ways—ways that capture student investment and motivation and that can deepen student understanding. Remaining affixed to the chapters that need to be “covered” will only choke off teacher creativity and will run the risk of flattening the learning and interest curve so that the slide downward may become the dominant trait throughout the second half of the school year, generating drift, disinterest, and boredom among the students—a real recipe for a squandered school year.