As a person who has spent many hours thinking about teaching and wondering what makes “good” teaching and a “good” school, I have been reflecting recently about how I used to prioritize decisions about the classes I taught and in the schools where I was an administrator. One of the games I often played with colleagues over the years was, “What if we were in charge – how would we do it at our school?” Eventually, I learned to base my decisions on what I thought was best for the children, and that strategy served me well in schools that were already in existence.
Now that I’m retired, I find myself going back to the questions I had when I first began teaching – if I could design a school, how would I do that? What classes would I include? What would the schedule be like? What kind of teachers would work there? How would I ensure that the program would be good for children? I firmly believe that the first decision should be the intent of the program – the outcome of the program should be a best-case scenario for the children who participate. Once I know the desired outcome, then I can determine how best to accomplish that outcome.
I think that the American public education system has put the amount of time needed for schooling as the first decision, rather than deciding first what the outcomes for a graduate of that system should be. Since we have an entrenched yearly school calendar of nine months (although some school districts are experimenting with this), we do our best to “fit in” whatever might be important for our students to know and be able to do, rather than deciding that FIRST and then figuring out how to accomplish that outcome. The curriculum is squeezed and stretched to fit the time allotted to it, running the risk of being fragmented and ineffective.
If I had the luxury of designing an educational program completely from scratch, I would begin with intention: the outcomes the program hopes to produce in and for its students. I would create a graduate profile that describes what students who have experienced the program will know and be able to do by the end it. In other words, I would first determine the mental and moral habits or character; the information and enduring conceptual understanding or content; and the research, problem-solving, communication and critical-thinking skills that the program intends its graduates to possess. Once those desired outcomes are clear, then choices about the academic curriculum, the yearly calendar, the daily schedule, the character education program, the correct qualifications for teachers, and the best instruments to assess the program’s effectiveness, will flow in a focused and coherent way.
To illustrate my point about program design, let’s imagine that you are in charge of designing an academic program and are able to have control over each component. Imagine, for the sake of argument, that one of your stated outcomes is for your graduates to be able to read and write on or above standard grade-level when they finish your program. Now you must make decisions that will result in your students achieving that outcome. You must decide what measures you will use to assess student achievement at the end of the program. You must plan instruction, including choosing instructional materials, pedagogical techniques, and the activities and assignments students will complete. Each of these choices will be driven by what you believe will achieve best results for your students’ reading and writing skills. Because not all students learn in the same way, you will need to have flexibility in what and how you teach, but always with the aim that your students will master the skills you have stated are important. You will need to determine the skills the teachers need to possess in order to be able to deliver the reading and writing program effectively. The school culture will need to be conducive to learning — how will that be accomplished? Your reading and writing program instruction will take time to deliver. You must decide how many minutes per day/week/semester need to be devoted to reading and writing instruction in order to reach the outcome you have chosen.
Unfortunately, in the schools where I have worked, there was rarely sufficient time allotted to program elements to ensure their success. In my experience, many schools have too many desired outcomes (both explicit and implicit) for the amount of time they devote to delivering their programs. Schools often ADD program goals without discarding others, but do not increase the overall time available to deliver the program. Most schools have already decided on the time to be spent before deciding on the outcomes to be achieved. This means that the schedule is always a compromise: most academic courses are trying to accomplish big goals with insufficient time. If an educational program has unrealistic or ill-defined goals and provides insufficient time to complete them, no daily or annual schedule changes can fix that problem.
An exercise in articulating program goals and the amount of time necessary to achieve them could help schools appreciate why their programs are not always successful. I would be very interested to see an educational program with clearly stated outcomes and with a daily, weekly, and annual schedule that is driven by a realistic estimate of the amount of time it will take to accomplish each stated outcome. I am not sure that if I designed a school myself that I would not fall into the trap of choosing unrealistic outcomes. There are so many things to learn, and so many different kinds of learners!