I’ve been watching Marie Kondo on TV.
In case you’re not familiar, she’s an icon of organizing and getting rid of clutter, “tidying up” she calls it. For me, just lying on the couch and watching other people’s closets get a makeover is relaxing.
Even though my closets don’t look great, I highly value neatness, organization, simplicity, and the peace of mind that comes from an organized environment.
I was a teacher for over 30 years, and during that time I designed a writing curriculum for the early grades, K-2. The process of focusing on one particular area of study and taking many years to carefully design and test lessons has been a great learning experience. It has given me a keen eye for clutter in most of the materials I have encountered in the curriculum world.
But first, why is this concept even important and worth your time? We get by and can even live happily with messy closets and a curriculum that isn’t perfect. Of course, we can, and at the same time, I believe there is a hidden level of stress that builds up when we are repeatedly confronted with messiness.
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When you look at your teacher’s manuals, I’m sure they look organized. There is a neat layout consisting of Units, lesson plans with directions, scope and sequence pages, an index, and probably a few pages telling you it’s research-based.
So where is this mess I’m talking about? You have to look deeper to find it.
Many programs are not in sync with the real pace of learners. They teach in large chunks and then forge ahead assuming everyone will be ready for harder stuff. If you’ve ever had the feeling that your class isn’t “where they should be”, it may be that your curriculum has the wrong expectations. It is highly likely that your students are normal learners and that you are an awesome teacher, but that the writers of the program were out of touch with reality.
Lack of specific objectives
The importance of a specific learning objective for each lesson (not a whole Unit) cannot be overstated. A good learning objective that is clear to you and your students is one of the best motivators there is (think video games, there’s always a clear and reachable goal). If you and your students are unmotivated, it may be that the curriculum doesn’t offer clear, reachable, and relevant daily goals.
Too much cognitive overload
The human brain can actually process very little new information before we check out mentally. The most helpful lesson design is 1) review, 2) introduce a piece of new information, and 3) lots of practice of the new little piece as well as practice time for other skills that still need solidifying.
Instead, it’s very common for lessons to include loads of information with little review or practice. Cognitive overload can also be created by new materials, games, routines, lesson formats, etc. often with the good intention of making things fun.
If you have many children who are off-task, need help, or are saying they don’t know wh t to do, the culprit could easily be that they are experiencing cognitive overload. An overloaded brain can also lead to meltdowns and angry outbursts from kids, which then increase your stress levels too.
Lack of accurate assessment and re-teaching
The formula for great teaching is to teach, assess, and then re-teach where students are still confused. It’s a road with rest stops, u-turns, and places to refuel. The road for a lot of curriculum has no stop signs and no u-turns. It’s a superhighway at top speed without even much chance to slow down and look at the map to see where you are.
If you are feeling out of touch with what your students actually know and can do, or are feeling that you are failing some of your students, it may be that the crucial elements of regular assessment and re-teaching are missing.
Here is an example that illustrates all of the above. In second-grade math, word problems are a big challenge for many students. We got a new math curriculum that introduced one-step word problems. If you haven’t taught second grade recently, I’ll tell you the biggest challenge with word problems isn’t mathematical, it’s language.
Students have to decide by reading words what the problem is asking and whether to add or subtract to find the answer. They have to look for clues such as “how many more”, “how many are left”, “how many less”, “how many fewer”, “what is the total”, etc. This is a hard cognitive task that the curriculum writers blithely overlooked by introducing three types of word problems in Lesson 2 of the week-long unit. In a single 45-minute lesson, they introduced word problems where students were to find the total, find the start, and find the change. Students were shown how to find the solutions mathematically without any mention of the words which would help decipher them.
Because I had been teaching for many years by that time, I instinctually knew that this lesson would create a lot of negative energy and that the students and I would all feel drained and defeated by it. If I had been a new teacher, it might have been useful to see it through the lens of some kind of planning helper I imagine below:
This chart may seem overwhelming, but after doing something like this over time (preferably with a team or an experienced partner), I believe teachers can start to see through the fog and identify the clutter without so much effort.
What to do?
First and foremost, stop blaming yourself (or your students!) when students are off-task, frustrated, or unmotivated.
The lessons you are given by your school or district may look wonderful on paper but are actually causing problems.
Second, create a roadmap for the year.
Before we were handed this new math program, we were “in-between” adopted curriculums. Many of us had gradually become disillusioned with the old program and weren’t following it. With nothing to take its place yet, my second-grade team and I sat down to look at all the skills our students needed for the year. We did this on a big piece of parchment paper and made a grid like the one below. In each square we wrote down a math skill expected in second grade, then we added which months of the year we would have that skill as a focus. We also put examples of math problems we wanted students to be able to solve in each square, which made it very concrete. I’m re-creating it here (minus the examples of math problems) from what I remember — I wish I had a photo of the original!
I’m showing the chart here, but just for an overview — I don’t mean for you to read the details of second-grade math. It’s just an example of breaking down a year of learning.
Every month we used some of our PLC time to unfold the big parchment chart and see where we were. We shared materials and teaching ideas we had for the next 4-6 weeks and created some simple common assessments. As teachers, the three of us didn’t do everything the same way, but we were all focused and clear.
One of the important things I learned as we made the chart was that most curriculum tends to be very convoluted. This actually made everything seem a lot simpler!
Third, go at the pace your students need rather than being dictated to by a curriculum.
In the first year of the new math curriculum, I tried out many of the lessons because we were supposed to use them with fidelity. However, with something extreme such as the word problem unit, I had to refuse. With other lessons that weren’t going well, I would explain to the students that it wasn’t their fault. I would take the next day to work on the prerequisite skill they were missing, or just shelve the unit until later in the year. I always kept a version of the skills organizer (like the chart we made) in my planner and used the curriculum units when I saw they would fit in my plans.
And last, if you are questioned by other teachers or your administrators about why you are not on Lesson X by day Y, share with them some of the research and blog articles listed below. They will help to show the importance of correct pacing, specific objectives, preventing cognitive overload, and frequent assessment.
Does all of this take some work upfront? Absolutely! But so does any de-cluttering.
The thrill comes when you are finished and your brain does a happy dance each time you open the closet door (or in this case, when you open your planner!).
Someday, I hope curriculum developers will be more down-to-earth. I hope they will look beyond content (i.e. does it meet the standards) to include good design in the program (i.e. is this how real humans actually learn). Until that time, there will be clutter to deal with. But if you decide to “deal with it” rather than “live with it”, I believe you’ll feel empowered and be more eager to go to work each day.
Cognitive load and lesson design
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