Leaders are full of power. They share powerful ideas, make powerful decisions, and create powerful results. Initially, the power of leadership is inspiring, but after looking deeper, maybe not so much. We overlook how the exertion of power sometimes leaves others feeling powerless.
Let me explain. I recently watched the classic film 12 Angry Men, and the dialogue between characters shows how power often yields powerlessness. In the movie, a juror is asked to explore his thoughts and join the conversation. In response, the juror says, “I’m not used to supposing. I’m just a working man. My boss does the supposing.”
I share this quote because while teachers are thought leaders, like bosses, we hold a lot of power. As classroom leaders, we carefully design assignments. We tell students what assignments are due, when we will assess, and ultimately how to jump through the district-demanded curriculum hoops. As a result, students may come to view their role in curriculum decisions as unimportant—or worse, nonexistent. Sadly, students don’t have the luxury of “supposing” and kicking around curriculum ideas. Remember, only the “boss does the supposing.”
To be fair, there has been some progress with this dilemma. First, we see the launch of student-centered curriculum research. Second, there are numerous books, blogs, and articles showing how to implement specific student-centered strategies. Lastly, there’s the push to empower students throughout the learning process.
Our students deserve more. One way to help them own their role (power) in the curriculum-making process is for teachers to include them in the conversation. Here are seven conversational dos and don’ts to consider when involving students in curriculum decisions:
1. Do ask students if they know the difference between standards and curriculum. Spend time examining how standards provide learning goals while a curriculum establishes and identifies the steps to reach a learning goal. You can help students understand by using the Common Core as an example of grade-level standards, pulling out details to highlight common myths about the two concepts.
Don’t simply begin the conversation by asking, “Who wants to help create our curriculum?” Provide a little context to help prevent misunderstanding right from the beginning.
2. Do identify non-negotiable elements of the curriculum conversation. For instance, remind students that while learning goals are not debatable, their feedback is critical in designing how to reach these goals.
Don’t mislead students as to the extent of their influence on curriculum development.
3. Do ask students to brainstorm potential sources of (and solutions for) resistance to their increased role in making curriculum decisions. Talk openly about the doubts and fears that parents may voice. Address the possible pushback from school leaders like counselors and principals.
Don’t begin the student brainstorming session blindly. Consider ways to address common brainstorming pitfalls like students conforming to the ideas of their peers or even mimicking one another.
4. Do provide examples of how curriculum needs are different from curriculum wants. Emphasize that the goal is not to shrink the quantity of assignments but to negotiate which assignments are most useful.
Don’t lead students to believe that contributing to curriculum decisions means that they will have sole power over every assignment, test, and project. Stress how their contribution will realistically impact the curriculum.
5. Do encourage students to reflect on how time affects curriculum decisions. For instance, ask for feedback on:
- Would working independently or with partners be best for the assignment? Why?
- How will granting time for project work subtract time from other assignments?
- How can we determine the appropriate time to dedicate to assignments?
- What happens when too much or too little time is estimated for assignments?
Don’t wait until after the students have designed a cool assignment to saddle them with the bad news that there's just not enough time to complete it.
6. Do explore ways of building upon current curricular assignments to introduce new learning opportunities. For instance, as suggested on the Learning Scientists blog, upgrade how flashcards are used as a review tool. Maybe devise a plan to never assign the dreaded five-paragraph essay again, like the educator John Warner. Try a new take on vocabulary practice with Dana Johansen’s quick word gradient activity. Challenge students to develop their own revisions of traditional assignments.
Don’t neglect to model examples of ways that students may modify current assignments.
7. Do acknowledge that students may react differently to the responsibility of participating in curriculum decisions. To build confidence in their choice making, communicate that it is safe for them to jump in quickly or ask for more information. Also, allow students to opt out of the process if they ask.
Don’t force choices upon students when they are uncomfortable with participating in curriculum conversation. This may result in a power struggle, and the student will resist contributing useful ideas.