Sunday, April 3, 2011

Integrating Understanding by Design and Differentiated Instruction: focusing on the content

Last week was a fairly tough one for me with meetings about learning outcomes where some teachers were visibly upset.  I struggle with the idea of a locked-down Pre-School to Grade 12 approach with hundreds of different outcomes that need to be assessed each year - clearly teachers are feeling stressed by the "overload".  I have never been a fan of a one-size-fits-all approach.  I do not like pushing square pegs into round holes.  I have been reading further about UbD and DI and how this relates to content.  It seems the crucial question is this:  how can we address the required content standards while remaining responsive to individual students?  Carol Ann Tomlinson and Jay McTighe state:
Despite all the good intentions and many positive effects, the standards movement has not solved the "overload" problem.  In fact, instead of ameliorating the problem, the standards may have exacerbated it.
The backward planning process is one way of trying to ensure that the desired results are at the forefront of planning.  At our planning meetings we do always start out by asking what we want our students to know, understand and be able to do by the end of the unit of inquiry.  We cannot cover everything - we need to decide what our priorities are and to focus on those.  We have to decide what content is worthy of understanding.  I know some teachers have a hard time with this one - there are things they love to teach and many activities they know are fun, interesting and engaging - but we have to make choices.  After my Project Zero summer school I remember ditching about 70% of the "activities" I was doing.  It was scary and liberating at the same time.

Jay McTighe refers to the "twin sins" of activities and coverage.  He says that the first sin is most prevalent in elementary and middle schools where the focus is often on activities - many of which lack long-term substance.  The second sin of coverage is more prevalent at the secondary level - where often the text book is seen as the syllabus that needs to be worked through.  I've seen this second sin in primary schools too, however, where teachers feel they have to have all students work through a particular spelling book, reading scheme or maths book by the end of the year.

Reading through chapter 2 of Tomlinson & McTighe's book I came across an interesting section about how we identify the big ideas and how we develop essential questions while at the same time being true to the standards or learner outcomes.  The strategy involves unpacking the nouns and verbs:  the nouns are the big idea and lead to the essential questions, while the verbs suggest how these understanding can be assessed.  This seems like a good way forward so next week I am going to have another look at the some of the learner outcomes and see if the big ideas and suggested assessments mesh in any way with our current units.

Photo Credit:  Square Peg by Simon Greig

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