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Start Doing The Minimum…And The Maximum

I’m a big fan of doing the minimum…and the maximum. The key is understanding at which point doing “the minimum” is better than doing “the maximum” and when doing “the maximum” is absolutely necessary.

Here are two examples:

Do the minimum when you write your lesson plans. I’m not saying don’t plan, and I am not saying to walk in without a plan whatsoever. What I mean is that doing “the minimum” when it comes to lesson planning opens your classroom up to more learning than when doing “the maximum”.  Sitting around and trying to script what is going to happen is a dumb way to teach, and anyone who tells you otherwise doesn’t care about student learning. Doing “the minimum” means that kids have the opportunity to ask questions, be curious, and investigate. Doing “the maximum” means that YOU ask questions.

Do “the maximum” when it comes to listening to your kids. Converse with them on a formal and informal basis, and be sure to work diligently to answer all of their questions while continually prodding them with new ones. Try and uncover their passions and make sure that you talk about them once and a while in class. Understand that all people are complex individuals and trying to break them down to likes and dislikes simply won’t happen.

If you sit long enough and just think, you can come up with all sorts of ways to understand when it is best to do the minimum or the maximum. Too often, people think that more, more, more is better than slow and steady with deeper understanding and thinking.

So let’s talk about this concept in the context of standardized testing. I’m going to be blatantly honest and say that I don’t believe any standardized test to be that difficult. I also don’t believe that any of them are basic skills tests either. I find fault with their purpose, method, and repercussions as all educators do, but I also think that the rationale behind them has merit. Pushing to ensure a high level of proficiency, despite their pathetic means of implementation, is something that all educators should be shooting for regardless of how they feel about standardized testing.

Let me be clear: it doesn’t matter if you hate standardized testing or not; everyone should be shooting for “the maximum” amount of learning in their class.

So I sit and ask a question: if we know that learning is organic and can only be meaningful and sustainable then does doing the maximum or the minimum make more sense? Does giving students benchmarks on a monthly or quarterly basis guarantee that all students will be “advanced proficient” on a test? Does using a scripted curriculum guarantee that every student will pass a test? Does doing practice exam after practice exam after practice exam from workbook after workbook after workbook with worksheet after worksheet after worksheet guarantee success?

Absolutely not.

In fact, I would argue that there are some kids who would not pass the test even if they had the greatest teacher in the world with unlimited resources. Why? Because not all people can demonstrate their knowledge by filling in circles, not all people can sit for four hours and read passages on “Jimbo The Whale,” and not all people can concentrate on the same oasis picture and write a narrative about it for forty-five minutes.

It baffles me that all politicians, educational administrators, and teachers stand up and scream to the heavens about the importance of acknowledging every child’s individual differences yet we still give every kid the same, damned test.

I subvert the curriculum every day. It’s a little easier in my subject since I don’t have to worry about some bogus test at the end of the year, but like everyone else, I have a curriculum I am paid to teach.

Note my language here: I have a curriculum I am paid to teach. This means that so long as I teach the curriculum (the minimum), I am in the clear to elaborate on the different topics, the teachable moments, and the engaging conversations as I see fit.

Take a look at your curriculum guide. I mean really take a look at it. Why are you spending a week on a topic if it only consists of two bullets? Why not spend a day on those two bullets and use those other four days to cover things that really matter? Why not allow kids to wander off into new fields of interest that spark their curiosity? Why not throw out your multiple-choice tests, and let kids make portfolios and then show YOU what they have learned?

Let’s go back to those benchmarks we talked about previously. If you give benchmarks that mirror the standardized tests at the end of the year, why are you bothering to give multiple-choice tests? To prepare for the benchmarks? Are you having kids practice for the practice? Do you see the problem with this ill-fated logic?

So here is my answer to the macro question: start assessing when you should be doing the minimum and the maximum. You will liberate yourself from unnecessary demands that exist only because everyone else is doing it. I laugh at teachers who say they are bogged down with an over-stuffed curriculum. Even a curriculum as arbitrary and meaningless as AP US History can be cut, sliced, and diced to a skeleton to buy you more time for meaningful learning (trust me, I’ve done it).

I care about my kids, and so do you. At some point, we will all realize how important it is to know when to do the minimum…and the maximum.

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About Aaron Eyler

Aaron is a U.S. history teacher in a Central Jersey school district. In addition, to his Bachelor's degree in History and Education certification, he has a Master's degree in Educational Administration and Leadership.

Discussion

6 thoughts on “Start Doing The Minimum…And The Maximum

  1. “Jimbo the Whale:” ROFL. Call me Ishmael; I hunt whales with a sharpened No. 2 pencil.

    Aaron, I like your advice and its emphasis on minimizing the obstructions to student learning that we create: bad pacing, bad practice, and bad assessment. It is time to stop doing what teachers have been asked to do for years and to discover instead what our students can do without the ill-fitting constraints of industrial era education.

    Do you think compromise with arbitrary curricula and testing while slicing and dicing to fit in the meaningful learning keeps teachers from organizing against the curricula and testing? If we can make do, are we in danger of perpetuating standardized education ad nauseam? What would you do differently and what would you preserve in teaching a class with a state-measured end-of-course exam?

    Yours in going off-script,
    C

    Posted by Chad Sansing | April 19, 2010, 7:42 pm
  2. Chad,

    I kick around your question about “arbitrary curricula and testing while slicing and dicing to fit in the meaningful learning keeps teachers from organizing against the curricula and testing” a lot. It has led me to an interesting question of my own: why are we really organizing against the curricula and testing?

    I ask that a lot. I think we are rallying against it because teachers feel trapped and are concerned about the well-being of kids. I like to follow it up with another question: if there were no repercussions for standardized testing for kids, teachers, or the district and the only outcome of the testing was to have an understanding of areas that students were in “need of improvement”, would people still rebel or organize against? This leads me to ask: are we more afraid of what the numbers do, or don’t, tell us?

    I’m going to be honest here and say that I don’t think a lot would organize without the repercussions and that we’re more afraid of what the numbers DON’T tell us than what they do. I know if one of my students needs remedial help with reading comprehension without a standardized test, and I know it would fire me up if I had to administer a test to prove that point. What I don’t think is that a lot of teachers would be so opposed to standardized testing if the repercussions didn’t exist.

    That REALLY bothers me. I mean like drives me crazy bothers me. I’d like to be optimistic, but I really think the general populous is more upset over the “judgment” than the practice.

    So that leads me to another question: would it be better for organizing if the repercussions were greater, altered, or lessened? If we want more action on behalf of teachers to rebel then I say “turn up the heat in the kitchen”. That’s what starts a revolution. The proletariat will only rise up and take action when they have been driven to the cusp of insanity.

    As for your last question: what would you do differently and what would you preserve in teaching a class with a state-measured end-of-course exam?

    After reviewing my post, I was only partially forward. I do teach a course that has a test at the end of the year though it is participatory. I encourage every one of my students to take the AP exam. I don’t think it proves anything about my course or what they have learned, but they always do well. I still wouldn’t quantify this as a state-measured end-of-course exam, but I wanted to make sure I wasn’t misleading at all with my comments.

    If I did teach a course that had an EOC exam, I really like to think that I would maintain the structure that I currently have set up. I have my own contention about what the EOC for social studies will look like whenever they all sit down and “play nice”. Hopefully, I will never see the day. We discussed an EOC for our district in a previous year, and I was able to convince enough people to just ignore the idea.

    I do get a lot of great information out of the benchmarks that we give. Even though we don’t have an EOC, my district mandates benchmarks to be given once a quarter. I always ask the kids to leave questions about what more they would like to learn, how the prompt relates (or doesn’t) to their lives. The beauty is that, since there are no penalties, the writing is authentic and provides a thorough glimpse into their thoughts and emotions.

    Every day, I fear losing that.

    Cheers,
    Aaron

    Posted by Aaron Eyler | April 19, 2010, 8:18 pm
    • Aaron, you pose excellent questions and provoke deeply felt responses. Many thanks.

      I’m all for accountability – maybe what I’m looking for in place of the thousands of standards a student faces throughout a public education are simply fewer, more meaningful goals and authentic measurements thereof. In Virginia, for example, the first SOL for each middle school history course approaches the habits of mind a curious person would use to think about at the world. Let’s ask students to do work like this and value that work through the assessments we use to gauge learning. Those SOL are not the tested SOL.

      Why defend “a curriculum as arbitrary and meaningless as AP US History” and its testing agenda?

      There are metrics I’d rather use to measure a high school classroom or school’s effectiveness and usefulness to learners, including attendance rates, dual enrollment rates, employment rates, service-learning rates, student artistic performance and entrepreneurship rates, and college matriculation rates. At the elementary and middle school levels I’d rather see us use attendance and multiple, more authentic reading, writing, computing, and thinking measures supported by inquiry driven curricula.

      I am comfortable with repercussions that make learning more joyful and relevant for students. Our whole system needs alteration to make learning matter to kids. Considering teacher evaluation and its repercussions, I’d like to be evaluated by an administrator who knows me as well as I know my students and who uses as many measures to know my work as my school uses to know students’ work. I’d like to be helped to improve. I’d like to be supported in experimentation. I’d like to be called honestly on what I’m doing that hurts kids and be given a chance to improve myself before being asked to leave.

      If I don’t move students’ reading and writing forward at a rate that puts them on track for high school work, employment, professional certification, or higher education, come and talk to me about improving my practice, but don’t tell me I’m an ineffective teacher because on testing day none of my students remember who Guglielmo Marconi and David Sarnoff are with the Internet playing dead nearby on the computer cart.

      If standardized testing is okay, is it okay to evaluate teachers by using them or other standardized means?

      Best,
      C

      Posted by Chad Sansing | April 19, 2010, 9:06 pm
  3. I am going to try and shake things up a little and challenge you on two points:

    - I am unclear as to why you agree with the rationale behind standardized testing.

    -I think it is unwise to shrug at the bloated-curriculum issue. I know far too many very good teachers who are forced to undermine their own sound pedagogy because they are paid to teach their enormous curriculum. I have come to see over prescribed and bloated-curriculums to be at the 500 pound pink elephant in the room. We are all so scared to challenge our curriculums in fear of being fired – after all, we are paid to teach the curriculum and only *big-bad-lazy teachers who are in love witht their fat-cat unions* would ever be infavor of subverting curriculum. Sarcasm aside, shrugging at curriculum is unhelpful to those good teachers who have been barried by it.

    Posted by Joe Bower | April 19, 2010, 8:30 pm
    • Joe,

      I think there is merit to the cause; not the practice. I should have been more clear. I think that if the cause for finding a barometer is that we truly want every kid to learn and, specifically, in the U.S. that we wanted every kid to be “reading and doing math at grade level by 2014″ then that is a noble idea. I think it would be awful for us to say that we’re OK with 80% (or whatever number) of students being at grade level and forget the rest. The problem is that they (politicians) don’t realize that those tests don’t signify learning or even if a kid is at grade level or not. Even still, not everyone will be at grade level at the same time if ever so the standardized testing becomes a moot point anyway.

      Now, some would say I am capitulating by agreeing with the cause, but condemning the practice; however, I don’t think so. I think it’s noble to shoot for a lofty goal and emphasize the desire for ALL kids to learn. They just downright suck at understanding any of the words in that sentence or how to best understand what learning is. If they did, they would realize no test proves it.

      I think your point about the “big-bad-lazy teachers…” is starting to see a shift in the pendulum. If the best teachers aren’t willing to subvert the curriculum then why would any of the administrative powers ever consider changing the practice? If the best teachers continue to hide behind worrying about covering every piece of minutiae then what does that say about the “best teachers”? I would even argue that those individuals aren’t even the best teachers if that’s the form of mindless compliance that they are willing to participate in.

      I think that the time for the best teachers being known as the “good little soldiers” is over, and what we need is more dissent in the ranks coming from the right people. If the best teachers have the respect of those in charge for being the best teachers then when they talk, people listen.

      Insightful as always Joe! Thanks for switching it up.

      Posted by Aaron Eyler | April 19, 2010, 9:01 pm
  4. Aaron,
    I love this blog. I love the idea of doing the minimum and the maximum and the importance of knowing when to do each and the difference between each of them. This is a balancing act that is difficult to manage, but you seem to have done so. You give some great examples of how this can work as well. I may have more questions as I let this simmer on my mind, but I just wanted to say how much I appreciate this idea. I have been speaking about the simplification of education on my posts and I like where you have taken your ideas, a step further.

    Thanks for the thoughts,
    Casey

    Posted by educationalrevolutionist | April 23, 2010, 1:23 pm

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