Calling Audibles . . .

Several members of the Teacher Leaders Network and I were engaged in a focused conversation over the past few days with a researcher who wanted to assess teacher perceptions towards scripted curricula. It proved to be a very interesting conversation about an issue that is playing an increasingly important role in education—especially in schools serving poor and minority students

One of the questions asked of our group was related to the role that teams of teachers should play in identifying and then amplifying instructional practices that work across classrooms within a building:

Is [collaborative lesson development and prescription of key curricula] essential? If so, what kinds of incentives, accountability and culture changes would encourage skeptics to want to engage with their peers to improve student learning. Should these teachers be required to adopt proven practices? If not, why not?

My answer is that all struggling teachers should be FORCED to adopt proven practices. One of education’s failures is that we’re too willing to turn a blind eye to those members of our profession who "can’t cut it." This willingness is unacceptable because it harms children.

I once heard a reporter describe the balance between prescription and classroom autonomy in a football analogy that I could easily wrap my thinking around. He said that quarterbacks new to the NFL are often held to a tight script of plays that are called by the coaching staff. Heck, they even wear wristbands with the plays inscribed on them so that they can call the right directions out in the huddle. There is very little freedom for the new quarterback until he can prove that he can make the right calls without the coach’s input.

As a quarterback develops, however, more freedom is afforded. While coaches may continue to call plays, quarterbacks can make suggestions and even call audibles on the field. Now, changes may be limited to a set of predetermined plays that the coach is okay with, but the quarterback has permission to explore—and therefore to grow and develop as a professional by testing his own knowledge and thinking about the game. Sometimes he’ll be right and other times he’ll be wrong—but always he’ll be growing in his role—and he’ll be motivated to continue to improve because it will mean more confidence and control of the offense.

The most accomplished quarterbacks rarely have any controls placed on them by the coaches. Instead, they call their own plays based on their intimate understanding of the game and their creative thinking about possible solutions to every situation. What’s interesting is that plays called by superstars often mirror what coaches would have called anyway. Rarely do stars drift very far from what the "script" would have been had the coach been in charge—because superstars have mastered the basics and understand their importance in the game. Why drift from something that works?

But when a superstar does drift from the script, the results are often amazing. Their ability to innovate based on a nuanced understanding of the game is more art than science. The beauty of sport comes in moments when the unexpected happens—and works!  These moments are even described in artistic terms—a game becomes a "masterpiece" and an athlete a "genius."

So the key—in my thinking—is that prescriptive curricula has a real place in education. It supports novices and struggling teachers who should be required to follow predetermined plans called by the coach. But accomplished educators need the freedom to "call audibles."  Otherwise, we’ll never see brilliance in action.

Does any of this make sense?

9 comments

  1. Bob

    Where, Bill, do increases in student learning rates fit into your equation for selecting instructional packages, scripted or not and whether forced or accepted voluntarily?

  2. Mike

    Dear Parry:
    Titles are indeed interesting. Considering what you’ve described, the need to apply a specific label to what you did would not have occurred to me. I would simply consider it to be using prepacked lessons as a supplement to the usual curriculum, something that is certainly not uncommon or particularly objectionable in American education.

  3. Parry

    Mike,
    I have seen the official version of DI in use and I, like you, am not a fan.
    I have also seen different versions of what might be called “scripted” curricuulum, which were much less prescriptive. In my district, we have a program called Project Achieve. The program was originally developed in a school in Texas, but our district has customized it to meet our own needs.
    With Project Achieve, 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade teachers have a daily “focus lesson” that they deliver in reading and math. Focus lessons are about 15-20 minutes in length, and while they do not have a verbatim script, they are pretty structured. The purpose of the focus lesson is to provide a common element to the curriculum, while still only “scripting” a small percentage of daily instruction. Outside of the 15-20 minute focus lesson, teachers have general control over daily curriculum and instruction.
    In addition, teachers are provided with a short (i.e., 6-10 question) standardized quiz that comes after every 5 to 8 focus lessons. The quizzes are aligned to the focus lessons, and teachers use results from the quizzes to identify struggling and/or soaring students and make pedagogical adjustments.
    The combination of focus lessons and standardized, formative assessments achieve a number of outcomes. They ensure that the curriculum in all Project Achieve classrooms is aligned to district and state expectations. They ensure that all Project Achieve students are receiving a similar education as they progress to the next grade. They provide regular student assessment data that is aggregated at the grade, building, and district levels. And they still provide considerable latitude to teachers in terms of what curriculum and instruction look like in their classrooms.
    So when I think of scripted curriculum, this is more what I have in mind, as opposed to the extreme of DI.

  4. Mike

    Dear Parry:
    “Scripted Curriculum” is, to my understanding, essentially the same thing as “Direct Instruction,” which has a number of different terms all outlining essentially the same concept: the curriculm works the magic, teachers are superfluous. True believers in this concept see teachers as not only not necessary for effective learning, but as an actual impediment, for the teachers, acting only out of ignorance or self interest, actively work to supress the amazingly results that only DI, SC, etc. can acheive.
    In fact, true believers feel that teachers should have little or no input into the curriculum, and that for it to be truly effective, it must be presented to students verbatim, precisely as scripted. Because the script is so perfect, students cannot help but to learn at unprecedented rates, and anyone who can read and speak aloud is capable of delivering the script.

  5. Parry

    Bill,
    Would you mind clarifying what you mean by a “scripted” curriculum? I was operating on the assumption that you meant a structured, sequenced set of curriculum guides, with maybe some model lessons. In other words, some guidelines on which concepts are the most important; general sequencing of concepts, especially K-6 (e.g., pacing guides); some model lessons; and potentially some common assessments, whether standardized or performance based.
    Mike brings up DI, which is at the extreme, paint-by-numbers end of the spectrum. So when you say “scripted”, what flavor of scripted do you mean?

  6. Ariel

    Bill, I’m not sure how this would work out for all new teachers. For one thing, there are huge disagreements among educators about what “proven practices” are. I come from a constructivist background. Were it not for the flexibility my school system allowed me to experiment in my first few years of teaching, I would not have been able to develop a working constructivist pedagogy, because I would have been forced, as a novice, to adhere to other, more traditional, “proven practices.” In fairness to your proposed model, I had the privilege of working with my Bank Street College mentor through the first two years–part of an induction program. If her methods would be considered proven practices, then I am fine. But if she had not been there for me, I might have been forced in another less-satisfying direction.
    Some novice teachers will welcome any kind of direction, especially when they have had little or no training. But it’s important to recognize that many novices come in with training and ideas and should be given some room to experiment. Teaching is as much an art as it is a science (or a sport). It’s “high-touch” as Daniel Pink would say. So any help for novice teachers needs to allow room for individuality, experimentation, and reflection. Otherwise, we might lose many creative young teachers (much as we lose creative students with scripted curricula).

  7. Mike

    Interesting post Bill. What you’re suggesting is nothing more than competent supervision. If a teacher, new or otherwise, isn’t doing what they should, it’s clearly the job of their supervisor–usually a principal–to discover that they aren’t doing well, determine what they need to do to correct the problem, clearly explain the situation to the teacher, tell them exactly what they need to do to correct the problem(s) and give them a time frame to accomplish it.
    In some cases. this might be a scripted curriculum of a sort. Perhaps a new 9th grade English teacher really doesn’t have a clue and is pretty much lost. It would be wise for a principal to assign a more experienced teacher or teachers who can provide handouts, materials and delivery advice that will help the new teacher get on track.
    You’ve also raised, in several recent posts, the issue of scripted curriculum, direct instruction, or whatever it’s being called this week. DI is a very, very dangerous and foolish thing for a variety of issues. Perhaps you might want to post on that one. I suspect there would be some interesting responses.

  8. Parry

    Fantastic analogy, but I have one question: Who’s the “coach” on the education side?
    In my opinion, the coach shouldn’t be one person, but instead should be a collective, such as a district-based committee, comprising master teachers and curriculum experts.
    In addition, I would argue that there should be at least one additional layer between coach and quarterback: the professional learning team. A PLT should also be informing the curricular, assessment, and instructional decisions that happen in individual classrooms. That way each individual quarterback benefits both from structured lessons, created by curricular and instructional experts, and from the collective intelligence of his/her teammates.

  9. ms_teacher

    This past year, I used a scripted curriculum for a block period of students identified as “far below basic” on our CAT-6 (California’s standardized test).
    I’ve been teaching for six years and at first had somewhat of a negative feeling about using a scripted curriculum. Many of the older teachers at my school site absolutely refused to use the scripted curriculum because they felt it would “stifle” their creativity.
    After the first few weeks of teaching this new curriculum, I started to reflect on my first couple of years of teaching and wishing that I had something like this back then! Your football analogy is perfect. I’m not so sure how good of a teacher I was in those first two years simply because all of it, teaching, classroom management, curriculum, and all the other miscellaneous duties we have as teachers, was so completely new.
    It would have made me a much more efficient and productive teacher if I had one less thing to worry about.