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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

In 2013, sandbox video games have changed gaming more than a little. Players can now define their own terms for success, and the evolution of certain gamification elements makes this more than a fantasy in the minds of the players. There really are multiple measures of success.

In fact, there are games today that have no endgame at all. There may be a finishing sequence to the narrative -- some final quest fulfilled or objective accomplished -- but even then there’s oodles more gameworld to explore: character journals to read, side-quests to complete, missions to replay so that you can refine your performance . . .

It's never really over, and rather than being maddening, this is indicative of a trend seemingly encouraged by the digital universe into which we all duck our heads each day.

The same difference between a magazine and a blog rests between old video games and new video games. A blog is never finished. By definition it surveys, explores and publishes in a constant churning motion. If it doesn't self-improve, it will age and fade away.

Even blog posts themselves can be constantly updated, endlessly fluid documents that are revised, linked to, dug up by dutiful Google bots, shared, and ultimately curated -- hung in some Pinterest hall of fame. And on the surface, this constant motion is also true in learning. But if we look a bit more closely, we can see this isn't always the case.

In planned learning experiences, there is a beginning and an end, and rather than an entirely logical reality dictated by the nature of school, it could be a problem.

Activity>Lesson>Unit

The structure of formal learning in most classrooms is a basic sequence of activity>lesson>unit, with a culminating assessment of some sort. Whether this assessment is a performance, a project or a traditional multiple-choice and short response exam, its function is the same: to evaluate understanding of a given set of standards.

These standards were often planned ahead of time -- probably in some form of curriculum map or scope and sequence that allows teachers to roughly sketch out what will be taught when. This both ensures coverage of standards and provides a path or "map" so that all teachers can be on the same page. In theory, curriculum maps are wonderful and among the best school improvement tools you can use. They are the proving grounds for all of the theory and rhetoric, the place where you hold yourself and students accountable by making a clear plan to accomplish all that you hope to by year's end.

But in practice, curriculum maps are almost always not the "living, breathing" documents that experts like Heidi Jacobs Hayes promote. They are instead very dead things -- lifeless prisons of content to be covered, and boxes to be highlighted in Data Team and Professional Learning Community meetings. For a curriculum map or any planned learning experience to be vital -- and vitally useful -- it must be adaptive and circular rather than rigid and linear. It must by design be able to respond to the performance of the students.

And more critically, this planned learning experience must encourage students to continue their pursuit of understanding and self-knowledge.

By design, curriculum maps must always offer students something more and room to roam, and give only hints of closure where it is necessary. Finishing a novel or a poem is a bit of an illusion, isn't it? By learning through iteration, by seeking the persistent motion of practice and revision, we can more honestly follow the pattern of the real world, where there is no stopping point, or even a reason to stop doing things that are worth doing.

Rather, we live and learn by the human process of daily mending.

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Andrea H.'s picture

Dear Mr. Heick, I very much enjoyed your blog entry on curriculum maps. Under the flag of full disclosure, I want to say upfront that I have been asked to choose a blog entry on assessment to respond to for an education class I am taking. Thus, you have introduced me to the idea of curriculum maps and in particular the work of HJHayes which I will have to learn more about.

Your blog caught my eye for its willingness to present a truth that I don't often seen owned up to in teaching. That students' learning interests are a profound part of the learning they will do in any setting, and especially in a classroom. I am struck the more I contemplate teaching in a classroom that teachers are asked to work within the tension of a paradox defined by students' interests and the idea that a teacher teaches communally agreed upon standards. Grant Wiggins (whose Educative Assessment we are reading) likes to use the image of teachers as architects having to comply with building codes. I am drawn to and also frustrated by his image. What if, as you write, your students want to create their own building codes? How do you wrestle the liveliness of that intent into the expectations of the standards (or maps) we have created for them? I like your image of going beyond the edge of the map as an allusion to the old Western maps where written on areas not yet know to voyagers appeared words to the effect that --'beyond here there be monsters...' I fear that teachers look at the interests that energize students as 'monsters', an unknown to be approached with trepidation. And yet, these map makers, by being map makers, were implying that they would one day map these unknown areas.

Like you, I would like to see more teachers take on the influence of the living beings standing before them to be as profound as the standards we are asked to represent in mapping the time teachers spend with students. I read many educators who will point to the importance of adapting curriculum to students' interests and do little more than that. Have you had any experience with practitioners who do include "something more and room to roam?" Have you found or heard of ways to make 'maps' "adaptive and circular" and "able to respond to the performance of the students?" Again, I appreciate your raising this very important shortcoming of so much thought about what an education is or does.

Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Community Manager at Edutopia
Staff

There's an old military adage that goes: "No battle plan survives contact with the enemy." And while I don't encourage anyone to think of their students as the enemy, I do think the point is still relevant.

There should always be room for adaption and evolution in response to what you find each day in the classroom. Too much rigidity makes for a fragile and inauthentic learning experience.

Gina's picture

I love the association you've made. I would take it one step further and say that we're all in this together, but a company of educators, not soldiers.

Whitney Hoffman's picture
Whitney Hoffman
Producer LD Podcast, Digital Media Consultant, Author

This is why I love backwards design- iif you start with a goal or an endpoint for the learning- thinking more in milestones and guardrails (so to speak) than hard and fast lesson plans, you can still meet the needs of kids, but also have room to deviate, improvise and explore a bit more- and everyone needs a bit more of this freedom- kids and teachers alike.

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