TeachLab with Justin Reich

Subtraction in Action: Curriculum

Episode Summary

Teach Lab’s Subtraction in Action series continues as our host Justin Reich explores subtraction in curriculum. Justin reflects, “One of the things that happened during the pandemic is that educators had to reduce. There has just not been a way in the last few years to teach everything that we typically teach in a year, or at least if we choose to do that, we're choosing to leave students behind in a way that I think most teachers are unwilling to do. So educators have had to go back and re-look at their curriculum. They've had to go back and say, "What's the most important thing here? What are the most marginal things here?" Justin is joined by educators around the country who share their experiences in cutting content and reducing standards. Our conversation includes: - Beth Rabbitt, CEO of the Learning Accelerator - Nicole Allard, Executive Director of Educational Excellence and Innovation in the Vista Unified School District in California - Tyler Thigpen, Co-Founder of The Forest School in Atlanta, Georgia & the Institute for Self Directed Learning

Episode Notes

Teach Lab’s Subtraction in Action series continues as our host Justin Reich explores subtraction in curriculum. Justin reflects, “One of the things that happened during the pandemic is that educators had to reduce. There has just not been a way in the last few years to teach everything that we typically teach in a year, or at least if we choose to do that, we're choosing to leave students behind in a way that I think most teachers are unwilling to do. So educators have had to go back and re-look at their curriculum. They've had to go back and say, "What's the most important thing here? What are the most marginal things here?" 

Justin is joined by educators around the country who share their experiences in cutting content and reducing standards. Our conversation includes:


Resources and Links

Watch our film We Have to Do Something Different

Explore our Covid 19 Reports and Resources

Get your copy of Justin Reich’s book Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can't Transform Education

Check out Jal Mehta’s Book In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School

Subscribe to Jal’s podcast Free Range Humans





Produced by Aimee Corrigan and Garrett Beazley 

Recorded and mixed by Garrett Beazley


Follow TeachLab on Twitter and YouTube

Follow our host Justin Reich on Twitter

Episode Transcription

Justin Reich:                 From the MIT Studios of the Teaching Systems Lab, this is TeachLab, a podcast about the art and craft of teaching. I'm your host, Justin Reich, and today we have the fifth episode of our mini-series on Subtraction in Action. Subtraction in Action comes from the idea that there's so much we want schools to do. It's a challenging year. It's been a challenging series of years, and the only way that schools will do their very best work is if we can clear out the marginal and focus on the most important. There might be new things that we want to do to support student learning during this really challenging period, but we're not going to be able to do new things unless we can subtract some of the other things that have cluttered up the educational landscape. If you haven't listened to the first four episodes in the series, be sure to go back. I think you'll enjoy all the great stories that we've heard from educators from around the country, but today we're talking about Subtraction in Action in curriculum.

                                    One of the things that we know about our very best schools is that they do deeper learning in fewer topics. If you read my colleague Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine's book In Search of Deeper Learning, where they go to some of the best secondary schools in the country. They go to very different places, very different teaching philosophies, pedagogical philosophies, project-based learning, International Baccalaureate, No Excuses Charter School. But what connects their efforts is that in all of those great schools, they really believe in going into greater depth on fewer topics. One of the things that happened during the pandemic is that educators had to reduce. There has just not been a way in the last few years to teach everything that we typically teach in a year, or at least if we choose to do that, we're choosing to leave students behind in a way that I think most teachers are unwilling to do.

                                    So educators have had to go back and re-look at their curriculum. They've had to go back and say, "What's the most important thing here? What are the most marginal things here?" There are some ways in which as people were experimenting with online learning, moving instruction from in-person classes to online learning, especially if you're recording videos or recording online class sequences is often an exercise that teachers find helps them focus again on the most important thing. So it's a moment for Subtraction in Action in what we teach. Over recording this series, I've had the chance to sit down with my colleague, Beth Rabbitt. She's the CEO of the Learning Accelerator, a national nonprofit that works to drive new educational approaches in schools throughout America, usually by creating deep consulting partnerships between her organization and with schools and districts. So Beth's work allowed her during the pandemic, beyond the pandemic, to observe many examples of Subtraction in Action across the country. Let's take a listen to some of those.

Beth Rabbitt:                So the first thing which we would actually say we saw many, many districts drop was, well not drop, but perhaps refocus is actually refocusing around a core number of standards. So many, many districts took time during the pandemic to step back and say, "What is most essential, what is most important?" And dropped a lot of content and a lot of standards that they still want kids to gain mastery of, but they really had to prioritize. They were spending more time on fewer standards.

                                    Another thing that they dropped was just less direct instructional time, which allowed students to spend more time in self-directed and peer inquiry. Where we really saw it happening was at the level of the district, because districts were trying to suddenly stand up to support a bunch of teachers curriculum and tools that they could bring into their classrooms. And so a lot of districts we spoke with, Cedar Rapids in Iowa, Austin, Texas, brought together teams of teachers from across campuses to say, "What do we believe is most important? And how will we organize our time against that?"

                                    The places that seemed to do it most effectively were those that actually had engaged their teaching staff in those questions because that allowed teachers to not only work together to spend time really looking at their curricular practices and the things that they were prioritizing, but it also supported some teachers in letting go of some lesson plans and projects that candidly weren't as essential, and that ranged from lessons that teachers might have been teaching for 20 years to maybe some fun things.

                                    One of our leaders in Iowa noted when we were in class together for eight hours a day, maybe it was okay we were spending an hour watching Shrek, for example, but we don't need that right now. And that process, though, of having professionals come together and really inquire with each other out what was most important and scrutinize how we were spending time seemed to be a really important thing. Now, obviously during the pandemic, a lot of teachers did that intuitively on their own, but we did see a lot of district movement, which frankly freed up others who perhaps didn't have as much power in the district to feel comfortable spending time going deeper rather than broader.

Justin Reich:                 One of my huge frustrations during the pandemic was that we knew anyone who knew education knew that in the years of the pandemic, we were simply not going to teach students as much as we do during a typical year. The 2021 NAEP test results just came out. Students performed more poorly on these tests than they have in a couple of decades, and there is no one who is surprised. We knew that we were teaching them less during this period.

                                    However, to my knowledge, there were not really state departments of education that said, "Okay, we know that you're going to have to teach less, and so here is some guidance about what you should focus on and what you should not focus on." I think there were some schools and districts that did some of that work that said, "Okay, we're going to call these standards power standards. These are the things that show up year, after year, after year. We're going to have sixth grade teachers talk with seventh grade teachers. Seventh grade teachers talk with eighth grade teachers, really think about vertical alignment and make some collective choices about what to cut and what to keep." But in way, way too many classrooms, in far too many of the classrooms in our 130,000 schools in the United States, teachers just made it up and they made it up on the fly based on how their students were doing, how they weren't, when they were out, when they were not out. That is not a way to run a coherent educational system.

                                    I think it connects to an unfortunate, broader pattern, which is that folks in state departments of education tend to be elected officials or political appointees. Teachers are functionally civil servants. And we saw all throughout the pandemic that high level political appointees punted really hard decisions down to civil servants, to the people who are closest to the ground. And it was, in my view, and a lot of cases, it was just a lack of political courage rather than a reasonable strategy. There should have been guidance for educators saying, "We know that you can't do what you would do in a typical year, and here's how we're all going to work together to do that in some coherent way."

                                    So one of the things that Jal and I have gone back and forth about is when is it a good moment for subtraction? Is subtraction a forever project? It was urgently the case during the pandemic that we should have thought about narrowing our standards so we can focus our curriculum. It probably is still the case that that is a good and powerful exercise. There are a bunch of educators in British Columbia across their system who have just gone through this exercise of reducing the scope of their curriculum, of essentially reducing the number of standards so you can focus on the ones that you have more effectively.

                                    I mean, none of this is about teaching kids less. We always want kids to be learning lots during the year, but it is simply not the case that teaching them more subjects means they learn more things. They learn less about more things, but that might not be the best way to prepare them for the challenges of life ahead. So I'm pretty much looking across the American curriculum. Yesterday was probably the best possible day to think about reducing our standards so we can deepen our curriculum, but if yesterday was the best possible day, than today is the second best possible day to do this work.

                                    Nicole Allard in Vista also observed the teachers in her district narrowing down and focusing it. So let's hear what she had to say. In terms of shrinking the curriculum, I know for sure that your high school, you've got math teachers, you've got science teachers, you've got English language arts teachers, you've got history teachers, you've got all kinds of other tech subjects, music, arts, all these kinds of things. You could probably put them in at least two categories of folks who teach towards some kind of standardized test. And then lots of folks who don't teach towards any particular kind of test, both the ones that are mandated by the state of California and all the other ones that are out there. It's one thing to go to teachers, "Hey, cover less stuff." But that leads to a whole lot of questions. So do I get rid of Hamlet? Do I get rid of factoring polynomials? How do you help teachers think concretely about what some of that narrowing down and focusing looks like?

Nicole Allard:               Yeah, that's a great question. I think for us, it was all about becoming more student-centered and personalized. And in order to do that, there has to be a time for co-creation and time for reflection and time that when you're covering, you're not able to give proper intentional space to. And I'll tell you, I wasn't a COVID principal, but COVID principals, this is the perfect opportunity for them to have this conversation because especially when you're learning virtually, you can't get through everything, and yet these students can still get a rich experience. So it's really about drilling down to what does it mean to master this curriculum enough to feel confident to move on to the next level? So it's a lot of that vertical articulation. It's a lot of what are the core standards or the core essential learnings that my students need to know in order for me to feel confident that they earned an A or B in this class and be able to move on to the next level or the next grade.

                                    And so it's a lot of really collaborative conversation, not just in isolation with say, English nine teachers, but it's English nine, talking to English 10, talking to English 11, talking to English 12, so that we have that pathway up and that we get to what we need to get to in that first level to be able to move to the second. But it's also about really digging into what skills are important instead of just the knowledge and how can we incorporate those skills into the learning so that the knowledge is just as important and sometimes even less important than the skills that we're learning as a mathematician, as a historian, as a writer, as a person speaking a different language and learning a different culture. And so really also giving them an opportunity to dig into skill work within projects and assignments and lessons.

Justin Reich:                 In that work that you were doing as a principal, are there moments that you can think about where you got to either sit down with some teachers or hear back from some teachers when they had a real aha moment about this and can tell us a specific story about some teachers who you feel like really got some of these ideas about narrowing down and focusing in?

Nicole Allard:               Yeah, we had a really brave sophomore English teacher who said, "All my life, it was about teaching this book and then this novel, and then this novel, and then that novel. And that's how I organized my curriculum, but the more I dig into student-centered learning, the more I dig into personalized learning, the more I realize those novels are vehicles for me to teach students finding their voice, finding their cause, leveraging their actions, things like that." So she redesigned her entire curriculum on her own in order to have the book be a resource, and the skills and the student discovery being the main idea of her classroom. And when we talk about subtraction as a principal, that was a conversation she and I had to have, and I had to give her permission to do that just because she was that person that didn't want to disappoint me or do something wrong.

                                    And so I met with every single one of my staff members individually every year and said, "What is your biggest goal? What is your wildly important work that you want to do this year?" And then it gave me an opportunity to sit with them for 20, 30 minutes each person and write a bunch of things down and figure out how budget-wise I could support them, master schedule-wise, I could support them, meeting-wise I could support them because I also didn't want her doing that work in isolation. I wanted her to be able to work with the other people.

                                    So I think it was an aha moment for both of us because she was one of my canon ballers that jumped in right away of how can I better support this person, cannon balling into this pool with the time, space and resources? And then for her, it redesigned her entire unit and she had more fun, more engagement, more students caught saying, "This was my favorite class I've ever taken." More students owning the books because all of a sudden they saw it as being relevant, authentic, and meaningful to them and what they were experiencing.

                                    I mean, I say our biggest success is we didn't talk about standardized testing once. And at the end of this journey, we had the highest standardized test scores in the county, including over private schools because when kids are engaged in their learning and they're able to really dig in and have powerful moments and experiences, the rest of the stuff comes. And I think that was a big aha for her because I think there was fear that her students weren't going to do as well or the grades weren't going to be there or things and at the end of the semester, it was better than it had ever been.

Justin Reich:                 After some firsthand experience, my colleague Tyler Thigpen, the founder of The Forest School in Atlanta, Georgia, is actually quite brave about subtracting from the canon. Here's how he talks about it,

Tyler Thigpen:              What I think a typical high school in the US and middle school has a lot of books that the local community has decided learners have to read and we subtracted, actually, the entire list. And instead, we allow learners to choose what they want to read and they have to meet certain criteria and go through an approval process. So the subtraction in that would be subtracting what's required. It's not necessarily subtracting at all the love of reading and the in depth analysis of various types of literature and genres, but that's definitely something that we found increased motivation and buy-in and really increased level learning and reading over time.

Justin Reich:                 So when you've got students who are all choosing what they want to read, what does that do to collaborative discussions in class? Are there still seminars that are happening or how does that work?

Tyler Thigpen:              There are. Learners have to go through a process to select and complete what we call a deep book. To select them, they have to do some research on their own and find a book that they would make an argument is actually worth reading and is a life changing, meaningful, worthy of spending your time on book. And then they have to pitch that to a small group of learners and they have to convene that group and that group has to approve it. And then once it's approved by that group and of course, our guides, which is what we call teachers, are overseeing that process. Once it's approved, then they dig in and they read it. And then when they're done, they have to write a report and host a discussion on it and recommend it or not to their group of peers, and then have a discussion about why.

                                    And then lastly, publish. They have to write a book summary, book review, and they have to write multiple versions of that. And the expectation is that the second and third versions of their book review improve over time after they get feedback from peers and feedback from experts. And then they finally publish in on Goodreads. So there's still collaboration that's happening, but it's just more learner led than it is teacher led. And they're really wrestling with the book in ways that are compelling and they're reading stuff they love.

Justin Reich:                 I think one of the most well established goals of the cannon is to have people read excellent representations across different genres. That, I think, was probably amongst the most important original roles of the canon. I think a revised role of the updated canon is to say, you should not only do that, but you should really read from authors with really different perspectives.

                                    If a student were to only read literature written by affluent white dudes, then they would miss out on something. How do your teachers or curriculum handle those classical purposes of the cannon? And I guess also with the caveat that there's not a lot of stuff that we do in schools, I don't think, that you can say, Oh, come on, that was just entirely stupid. Of course, we can easily get rid of that. Most things that we do were built by sensible people and part of the work of subtraction is to be like, yep, that's a value and we're going to let it go because if we do everything we value, like your Marzano example says, we're going to put a 25-year curriculum in a 12-year school system.

                                    But just to role play and role model these kinds of conversations around subtraction, I think there are plenty of English teachers around the country who would have one of those two defenses of the canon. Which of those have you found a way to deal with? And which of you have you been like, yeah, that's good, but we're not going to do it?

Tyler Thigpen:              Yeah, I'm really grateful for this nudge, Justin. And if there's a teacher out there who has an updated, revised, truly multicultural version of the canon that has garnered widespread buy-in across this country, I would love to see it right now because I think what's fascinating and really important and a great evolution in the field is the evolving nature of the canon, moving from a white dominant western-focused canon to one that is truly multicultural. And I've seen some lists and we pull from those lists and we stock our library with those diverse lists, but I am hungry for, as a leader, I'm hungry for a widely accepted, truly multicultural canon.

                                    And in the absence of one, and again, I could be missing one, but in the absence of one, what we do, and the way we structure this, Justin, is so we don't have grades at our school. We have badges because it's mastery-based. And so in order to get the Deep Books Badge, learners actually have to choose when they read and when they do storytelling challenges, they have to choose from a variety of genres. And so their portfolio of genres is diverse. And then they also, 33% at least of the authors or protagonists of those books have to be of characters that are different in some meaningful ways than the learner themselves. And so they're always pitching a diverse set of books.

Justin Reich:                 Well, and I think what you're describing is taking a bunch of informal criteria that probably lots of educators are using to select classroom books or select district books and giving that responsibility over to students, which is a lot of times a great way of handling that. No, that's really helpful. So part of what it sounds like you had to do as you're subtracting one unified canon is to say, "Well, okay, here are some important principles and some good things we were doing in the old system. And if we're going to get rid of shared books and have there be more individual choice, then the people making those individual choices have to have some incentives or some other things to meet some of the goals that we had when we built the original thing."

Tyler Thigpen:              That's a great way to summarize and describe what we're trying to do for sure.

Justin Reich:                 On the topic of content, another subtraction that Beth witnessed was the subtracting of assignments.

Beth Rabbitt:                Another thing that Monterey did was many schools, particularly at the high school level, they realized quite early on in the pandemic that they were issuing a lot of failing grades to kids. And so what they did was actually step back and say, "What do we care about most in terms of kids showing their mastery of academic content? And actually how do we get rid of all of the other grading points that we're just capturing and putting into... Obviously, the ADF grading scale is itself something that we probably should drop. But they really stepped back and said, "What are the ways in which our requiring of all of these assignments and these many data points from kids might actually be keeping us from being able to understand whether or not they've really mastered?" So they worked with their teachers to actually have them refocused around two assignments rather than the many assignments and give kids more opportunity to turn in the best work that they could.

                                    And that actually resulted in dropping the number of failing grades by, trying to remember, it was definitely more than half in the district, which I think we've learned we definitely want to gather formative data from kids around where they are in their learning process, but when it comes to actually knowing, do they know what we need them to know and can they do what we want them to be able to do and what they want to do? We probably don't need 30 grades. We probably need two. And that was another thing that they did, which was cool.

Justin Reich:                 Beth also observed educators letting go of some structure and direct instruction throughout the pandemic. So I want to loop back to one of the things that you said earlier, which is another way that you saw some schools simplifying their time is by having less, I heard it as having less teacher-directed instruction and more time in the day that was set out for individual student work, for student teamwork, but student-directed learning of one form or another. Obviously, there are a lot of schools that prior to the pandemic had that as a real goal, as a central pillar of their pedagogical design, their school architecture, whatever else. Can you tell us about any schools or districts that you saw move in that direction in productive ways during the pandemic or in the last couple of years?

Beth Rabbitt:                Yeah, so in Chicago Public Schools, I mean, I think we do have to acknowledge that we are in a different place now as we've been looking toward for schools advancing beyond where we were pandemic than we were in sort the heart of the early shutdown days. But I do think the early shutdown days gave a lot of schools the opportunity to think about, well, if we don't have a student in my classroom for 50 minutes or however many minutes, if we were on a block schedule, how might I work with them differently?

                                    And so for example, in Chicago Public Schools, they piloted week long learning arts, self-directed learning arts for students where students came together at the start of the week and then were basically given a set of learning tasks that they'd work on, that a teacher was checking in on that Friday, they would come back together and say, "Let's look at our data, let's reflect, let's see how did this go? What were we able to do? What weren't we able to do? What was working? What wasn't working?" And I think some of those muscles that were built in those places actually have carried forward as kids have come back together. At the same time, realistically, I'm not sure... The system is a rubber band in some ways. We've seen some snapping back, but it gave a lot of teachers opportunity to see what it looked like to maybe let go of some of the control, if we're talking about cutting out some things, let go of some of the control over learning to really allow their students to show that they could make movement forward.

                                    Now, what many people learn is that suddenly taking a kid out of a high control environment and throwing them into a self-directed environment, as you and I know as adults sometimes is really, really challenging. And so kids also need support modeling explicit instructions around what to do and how to stay on track when they're working on their own too, which obviously became a big aha moment, I think, for a lot of districts. We've lumped a lot into the category of social and emotional learning. We saw a lot of districts actually add to the day, but really what we're talking about is specific skills for self-direction as it relates to goal setting, being able to organize your space, being able to find resources when you get stuck. Knowing when and how to reach out for help and to whom became more important, but actually really important skills for kids arguably to be building in life generally, as we imagine preparing them for the future beyond K12.

Justin Reich:                 I had a hard time during the pandemic keeping track of what was happening in schools. It's just really hard to know what actually is going on in 130,000 schools or 3.7 million teachers or millions of classrooms across the United States and there's so much autonomy, so much different practice. Over the pandemic, I got a sense of some of the common patterns, and I feel like as much splintering and difference as there was during the pandemic, there's even more of that now. There are some schools in the United States, I think you can visit mostly in affluent neighborhoods, in affluent areas that really feel just totally post-pandemic, that feel like, ah, this is about how we were doing. Our kids have some social development issues that we're catching up on, some pockets of things that we might have expected them to learn over the last couple years that they're not quite as strong on, but we're basically back to school here.

                                    In some of those places, back to school means incorporating some of the new practices they brought on from before. I've definitely heard multiple teachers talk about the technology proficiency of their students. They can ask their students to do more with technology with less introduction and less support. There's a lot of schools which are definitely not post-pandemic, which are definitely still profoundly different in their operations from where they were in 2019, where the scars, the trauma of the pandemic are just really affecting the way that school happens in those places where there's a lot of challenge, assuredly, they're still doing a lot of, at least this ad hoc subtraction because you can't teach the full curriculum that you would expect to teach in a healthy community than you can in a community that's really been devastated by multiple years of loss, sickness, job loss, inflation, all of these kinds of things.

                                    So even describing what's going on in schools now, it's always an exercise of talking about a fractal landscape. And it's even more so right now. A challenge that we had during the pandemic is that we didn't really know what was happening in America's 130,000 schools, in those millions of classrooms. And a challenge that we have today is that we still don't know that. Education, policymakers, pundits are obsessed with standardized test scores or test scores that come out of test prep systems or monitoring systems and things like that. And I'm happy to concede that there's some value in those kinds of systems, but they don't tell you really important things that we need to know about what's actually happening in classrooms right now. What does teaching and learning in this not quite yet post-pandemic, some people would say definitely post-pandemic, some people would say absolutely not post-pandemic, but in the phase where we're not really actively managing the pandemic, but still living with its effects, what's happening right now in schools?

                                    We need to keep asking that question. We need to keep investigating. We're going to talk soon with Larry Ferlazzo. He's a special education teacher out in California. He is a prolific writer. His generosity about his practice has been an enormous gift to many, many educators. We're excited to have him on TeachLab for the first time to find out in his classroom and his school, what does this look like? What kind of subtraction is going on, and what can we learn from the actual experiences of educators that. Can help us think about how we move this whole system forward.

                                    I'm Justin Reich, and this is TeachLab. Thanks to all the wonderful educators who shared their stories for this episode. And thanks to you for listening to our fifth episode on Subtraction in Action. Be sure to go back and listen to the other episodes in our series and subscribe to Teach Lab wherever you get your podcasts so you don't miss the rest of the series.

                                    If you want to read the article that kicked off some of these ideas, you can look up The Power of Doing Less in Schools, that's The Power of Doing Less in Schools that I published a few weeks ago in Educational Leadership from ASCD. You can check out our new film We Have to Do something Different at somethingdifferentfilm.com. You can attend a local screening or sign up to host your own. Learn more about screening opportunities and check out the guide at somethingdifferentfilm.com. If you like what you hear on TeachLab be sure to leave us a rating or a review, and we're always grateful that you spend your precious time listening to us. This episode was produced by Aimee Corrigan and Garrett Beazley. The sound is mixed by Garrett Beazley. Stay safe. Until next time.