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How to Beat "Teacher Proof" Programs

Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College
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The word "foolproof" means that even a fool can do it. So what do we make of programs that claim to be "teacher proof?" The growing trend to incorporate programs that are devoid of teachers deciding what to teach, when to teach it and how to teach it, is a disgrace not only to teachers but to all educators, and even to children. I first encountered a teacher proof program decades ago with the Assertive Discipline program. I railed against it, often being criticized for my intensity. I was once asked not to return to St. Joseph University in Philadelphia for the second session of a two-weekend course on discipline because of student complaints over my unwillingness to endorse the program. Fortunately Assertive Discipline has died from its own weight. But now the concept has spread to curriculum, teaching methodology and classroom management. I still rail against this demeaning and useless approach to education.

The Scripted Curriculum

I once visited a special education class in Milwaukee where they were using a new technique called Direct Instruction. The teacher read from a script as the students followed along in their books. No questions or deviations from the script were tolerated. There were even Direct Instruction supervisors who watched all the classes in the district to ensure these rules were enforced. A brave administrator (who prefers her name not be mentioned) did all she could to eliminate this program, and as far as I know, eventually succeeded. Direct Instruction cost the school district thousands of dollars.

In light of this experience, I'm both surprised and dismayed at the increasing use of programs like these. Curriculum scripting is now more common than shocking.

The schools that expect all teachers in any given subject to end on the same word each day unabashedly think that this helps test scores, and levels the playing field for all students who receive the same skills. In addition, scripting means there will be no consequences when transferring students within the district. They can easily pick up where they left off. I'm not arguing against structure or curriculum packages. Teachers, especially new ones, and students can and do benefit from not having to build programs from scratch every year. My opposition is to any program that does not provide latitude and decision making by teachers to meet individual student needs.

My view is that these programs have very little to do with leveling the playing field and everything to do with a false sense of accountability. As long as test scores determine student, teacher and school success, these one-size-fits-all programs will flourish, both academically and behaviorally. It's an old, long-discarded industrial model that considers students as products and teachers as replaceable parts, far more suitable for building cars than educating children.

Perhaps one of the most important principles for educators is that it doesn't matter what we teach; what matters is what students learn. If we cover something and students don’t learn it, then what have we accomplished? Even a child in kindergarten knows that children learn at different speeds and in different ways. Without some form of individualization, most students will not follow the script and will ultimately pay for it. Ironically, most students do worse on test scores under scripted curriculum.

Not only do students suffer from scripted programs, teachers suffer, too. Teachers lose their creativity, their enthusiasm and their love of teaching. They lose their desire to be teachers. Many quit. The teachers in Milwaukee that I interviewed hated using Direct Instruction because their natural inclination was to elicit and answer student questions.

What Can We Do?

1. Recognize that fair isn't equal

At the heart of my work in student motivation (as described in Discipline with Dignity) is the concept of fair isn't equal. Even when involved in scripted programs, there is room for treating students fairly. We can show patience, making sure that students understand a concept before moving on to the next. We can listen to what students are saying rather thinking about what’s next on the list. We can make time during the school day or during individual or group learning activities to help a child falling behind.

2) Differentiate instruction when possible

When it comes to systems, there are many ways to phrase and frame statements that show concern for individual students. Instead of saying, “If I do that for you, then I’ll have to do it for everybody else,” we can say, “Let me see how I can make this work for you.” If other students want the same, you can give it to them because it helps them learn and/or refuse to talk about other students with them, because it’s gossip. Which type of comment helps you the most and which makes you angry when at the customer service desk at a big store? Never stop sending the message to your students “I’ll never treat you all the same, and that’s the fairest thing I can do.”

3) Use creativity to teach respect

Instead of saying, “It’s against the policy, (rules or the system)” a far better response is, “Let's see if we can find a way within the policy, (rules or system) to help you get what you need.” For example, if a student complains about the dress code, try to find something within the code that meets the student’s need for more individuality.

4. Push for more individuality

Do what you can with other teachers and school administrators to push the boundaries of scripted instruction to allow for more individuality. In Milwaukee enough caring people, pushed hard enough to eliminate it. Every small change can and does help. Small changes eventually become bigger ones. I believe that teachers and school administrators are closest to the students and know best when free from pressure.

5. Be yourself

Finally, you have a personality -- use it. You can be funny, surprised and excited. You might need to follow some kind of script, but no one can stop you from being who you are. You have so much inside of you to give. Overcome your feelings of helplessness by allowing the real you to emerge as the focus of the lesson. Be a teacher, not a robot. Humanity always wins in this contest. Just ask John Henry.

Instead of using foolproof as the model, let's try "child proof," as in making things safe for children. This implies that the needs of the children come first. If anything should model foolproofing, then how about schools that are "bureaucracy proof?"

Photo credit: iStockphoto

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Dr. Richard Curwin

Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

Comments (13) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

snash571's picture
high school math

Just like Chris M, my school district is somewhat split on this topic. When I mean somewhat split we have a few schools that do this program, have the same calendar that they give to the students, on the calendar it says the topic covered for the day, warmup, notes, activity, homework. It states when quizzes and test will be. I can see where new teachers would love this so that they can concentrate on how they are going to teach and not what they are teacher. I can also see the student who needs to know every minute of the day what they are doing, but at the same time we are not preparing students for the real world with this system. We are not teaching students how do adapt to situations that might happen unexpectantly on a given day or how to adapt to different teachers learning styles, especially when they further their education. We are teaching children to be robots and not be people. This type of teaching is teaching students not to be individuals and at the same time eliminates differentiate instruction. With this type of class, it would be vary hard to adapt it to an inclusion class, which I teach, or collaborate with the colleagues about upcoming units.

Russell V's picture

In some instances, my high school uses a computer program to lead students through a particular content area class. The classroom teacher does little more than monitor students behavior and progress and trouble shoot technology problems. All instruction comes in the form of video lectures, slide shows, and reading selections. Most students complain about how boring taking a class this way can be. They also often say that they would rather have a traditional classroom experience. These direct instruction methods lack the human element that makes great teachers so great. It is frustrating to see and certainly not what is best for our students.

James OLeary's picture

I find that this type of program comes and goes as the education pendulem swings. I find the whole idea terrifying. I would have to find a different place to work if this was mandated. Several of my co-workers have come from schools that used this method and they had horror stories to tell.

Patti Shult's picture

I have been a part of a direct instruction for reading for a short time. There is no room for leniency or deviation. Students tend to try to buck the system by either not complying or participating or misbehaving. Students want to be seen for who they are, and not just a number. Their brains need more stimulation, and students tend to shut down mentally when they are not challenged.
Teachers also tend to be more negative when there is only one right answer. Teachers are people too, and I like how Curwin suggested no matter what the teaching situation, teachers can still be themselves and make things fun.
The change in shift in the Math Standards where the focus is on higher level questions, communication, and how the problem is solved more than their answer; these reasons suggest going away from direct instruction. I hope to see more programs and approaches that are open-ended, and not as much based on tests. I believe open ended approaches and collaborative study for students will help them prepare for the real world.

Daniel's picture
A writer who is interested in the field of education

Thank you for the article, Dr. Curwin. Having just recently finished Diane Ravitch's book, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System," I can very much appreciate your concerns with this method of instruction. Along with the use of standardized testing for high stakes purposes, I think this is part of a much larger trend that tends to view the American classroom from a distance, thereby producing a homogenized view of students.

With this in mind, I am very glad you mentioned the importance of recognizing the individuality of each student, taking into account their unique needs and abilities. As a wise man recently told me, there is only one way in which all people should be treated exactly the same -- namely, with respect and as human beings with natural rights. Beyond that, all bets are off.

CarolinaRogue's picture
High School English teacher from South Carolina

I was unaware of the scripted curriculum method of "teaching". So, the concept is nonsense to me. If we are to use scripts when teaching our students, what is the point the Praxis/Praxis II exams that we educators have to pass in order to become a certified teacher? I mean all we really need to be tested on is our reading skills and ability to follow instructions. There is no need for teachers to fork out money to take exams that tell our respective state boards of education that we are competent enough for certification, especially if we do not need to think once we enter the classroom. I could not imagine being given a script to follow every school day. Thank you, Dr. Curwin, for this information and suggestions for those who are stuck in this alternate reality!

James OLeary's picture

Does it seem to anyone that each time the educational pendulum swings back toward these scripted programs that they get just a little more extreme. I remember my first glimpse of them 15 years ago and there was general suggested dialogue. The one I saw most recently was specific to the point of telling you the gestures you should make with your hands. I completely agree with the "be yourself," this is the part of education that makes it fun for teachers and students.

Dr. Richard Curwin's picture
Dr. Richard Curwin
Director, Graduate program in behavior disorder, David Yellin College

I really appreciate all of your comments. (I always do.) This issue seems more confounding than others I've written about. It seems that too many teachers, and students, are suffering from scripted curriculum. Can anyone share the way you have dealt with it to improve learning or found a way to eliminate it? I'm sure others would appreciate hearing your stories, especially, but not necessarily, if it helps them directly. We can win the battle if we all remember that school is for kids, all kids. Good luck to all.

Mark Phillips's picture
Mark Phillips
Teacher and Educational Journalist

Great column Rick.
I'm reminded of a classic story in education.
The great curriculum program out of Cambridge , Mass. years ago was "Man a Course of Study." Jerome Bruner had helped design it. It was being widely used throughout the country. It was supposed to be teacher proof, with lots of guides written by team members, many of whom had never taught.

Richard Jones, a colleague of Bruner's, did a study of classes using the program and put it in a book entitled "Fantasy and Feeling in Education." Tho he liked the program he found that teachers who were just handed the curriculum were ineffective in using it at times because they weren't prepared for the emotional elements that were integral parts of the curriculum. A film about a Netsilik Eskimo grandmother being left behind on an iceberg to die, an Eskimo ritual, resulted in some very upset kids. The curriculum provided no room to deal with that. So there are some kids crying. Others appear very concerned about whether that will happen to their grandmothers. Strictly following the curriculum, the teacher responded by ignoring the tears and going directly to the question in the unit "Now what does this tell us about the Eskimo culture as compared to ours." Many of the upset kids were paying no attention to her.

Of course there is no teacher proof curriculum, which is also one of the reasons online courses that don't include an effective real, non-virtual, teacher mentor/facilitator are a serious mistake.

Thanks for this important little gem Rick.

Gotbehavior's picture

Direct instruction isn't new and it isn't limited to special education populations. It's evidenced-based and meets the requirements of NCLB and IDEA. Scripts are used to ensure fidelity of implementation. Effective lessons are highly variable based on the teacher's delivery. Robotic, script-dependent,mono-toned teachers can kill even the best direct instruction lessons. But over-enthusiastic, spastic, ill-prepared teachers can also kill even the best project-based activities, too.
There are tons of teachers that use direct instruction with tremendous results. It's a shame that you haven't seen them in action. Scripts are just a small part.
Bottom line....whatever teaching style you use, do it well. Believe in what you're doing. Collect specific data to monitor progress. Change it up if it's not working. Ground your work in evidence...Pinterest, blogs, and Mailbox Magazine don't count when it comes to evidence. Our kids deserve better.

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