Sparks Surrounding the Script….

Holy Smokes, I never thought my Calling Audibles post would draw such a reaction from readers!  It’s neat, though, because it indicates exactly how passionate educators are about protecting their "craft" and exactly how willing my readers have become to push back my thinking and to engage with one another! If you look back to post one here on the Radical, you’ll find that was what I’d hoped for all along—so many thanks to Mike, Bob, Ariel and Parry for making it happen!

Now, on to "scripted curriculum."

Like many of you have noted, "scripted curricula" can mean many things to many different people—ranging from the "paint-by-numbers" lessons that Parry and Mike despise to the collaborative work that Ariel did with her Bank Street College mentor.  And in my thinking, there’s probably a place for every approach along that spectrum. 

Let’s start with Ariel’s viewpoint first because it’s the one we’re most likely to agree on—and it is the one that I’m most receptive to as an accomplished teacher:  Scripted curricula can mean a collection of lessons that are developed by colleagues working together on learning teams who have an intimate understanding of the students and content that they teach.  While the lessons delivered in different classrooms closely mirror one another, there is room for teachers to experiment with new variations or approaches.  When successes are discovered, they are shared with the group and become a part of the adopted ‘script’ for the next time.

In many ways, this approach takes autonomy away from teachers.  Collaboration replaces individual decision-making and the collective knowledge of the group supersedes the brilliance of any one educator.  But collective work ensures two things: 

  1. That all students are exposed to the same content regardless of classroom. 
  2. That all students are exposed to effective instructional practices—including those assigned to the least effective teachers in a building.

As an accomplished educator who is working on a professional learning team with colleagues that I’ve grown to trust and appreciate greatly, I’m jazzed each time that our team comes up with what we’ve started to call "required lessons" because it gives us a measure of standardization that we can use to make fair comparisons across classrooms.  I also have been exposed to new instructional practices that I would never have considered had it not been for our team’s commitment to identifying lessons that we would all teach. 

Had I retained complete autonomy over the instructional decisions in my classroom (read: isolated), I would have relied on the practices that I was most comfortable with, regardless of the impact that those practices had on my students.  This opportunity for exposure to new practices—and the conversations that colleagues must have to agree upon shared lessons—help to drive reflection and continuous improvement in even our most accomplished educators. 

That, alone, makes "scripting" valuable.

As for tightly scripted programs that go as far as to tell teachers exactly what to say and where to be on a particular day at a particular time, I think they have a place in education as well.  Now hear me out before you hit the comment button in a rage! 

What would you say if I told you that I would have LOVED a scripted curriculum last year?

You see, I was teaching science for only the second time in my fourteen-year career.  What’s more, I found out that I was teaching science about a week before the school year started.  I walked into that classroom with very little understanding of the content that I was supposed to teach and even less of an idea about how to make that content approachable to kids.  I didn’t know how to best sequence material and couldn’t foresee the common misperceptions that would bog my kids down as we studied. 

Essentially, I was "blind" in the classroom.  My work was horribly inefficient—I’d spend hours and hours planning for lessons that would flop miserably and then go home frustrated.  I’d commit full periods to topics that my kids would master in moments and breeze through thoughts that they’d wrestle with for months.  I did very little creative work in the classroom simply because it’s difficult to be creative until you’ve got a strong understanding of the basics.

Now, I survived—and so did my students—only because I’ve got a strong foundational understanding of what effective instruction looks like and I’m a determined son-of-a-gun who was willing to work 12 hours a day for months on end to improve over time.

What I’m left to wonder is how many teachers are willing to flail through a school year the way that I did.  How many give up—on both themselves and their students—because the work is just plain "too hard" to manage alone? 

While scripted curricula are limiting to masters of their content and their classrooms like Parry, Mike, Bob and Ariel, how many Parrys, Mikes, Bobs and Ariels are there in the world?  Can we really count on ALL teachers—including those working in the poorest communities in our country where recruiting excellent teachers for every classroom is proving to be nearly impossible—to make the kinds of decisions that come naturally to masters without structure?

The argument against rigid scripts for classroom teachers has been that they cheapen the quality of education that is available to children.  Scripts, we believe, limit a teacher’s ability to adjust and to make effective decisions based on a nuanced understanding of the needs of the children in their classroom.  What’s more, scripts teach to the lowest common denominator and threaten to eliminate opportunities for higher level thinking in our classrooms.

But all of those arguments operate from one flawed assumption:  That every teacher in every classroom is—or has the potential to be—a master.  When we look at scripted curricula through the lens of accomplishment, we cringe. 

What I’m arguing is that the quality of teaching in many of America’s classrooms where under-prepared and unsupported teachers are toiling alone should make us cringe too—-and heavily scripted programs may just make the difference between an average educational experience and a complete waste of time for some of our students.The key to anything, I guess, is differentiating our approach based on the skill set of our teachers and the amount of support that we’re willing to provide to our colleagues. 

In an ideal world, no teacher would ever be "in over their heads."  Instead, they would have gone through a comprehensive preparation program that included preservice experiences in challenging classrooms.  They would have the support of a mentor for several hours a day—perhaps working in a co-teaching situation.  They would never be assigned to subjects that they weren’t trained for and they’d have a complete complement of instructional resources at their disposal.  What’s more, they’d be working with a team of caring and brilliant colleagues like mine.

Does this sound like the world where you live?  Because if it does, I’m moving tomorrow!

Alright…now you can fire off a comment or twelve!  I’m looking forward to the sparks….

5 thoughts on “Sparks Surrounding the Script….

  1. Mr. C

    Bill,
    Thank you for identifying this issue and helping to keep it at the forefront. As an aspiring master teacher, I would rather consider scripted curricula as tools in my toolbox. When skilled tradespeople, such as electricians and plumbers, are trained, they are taught about tools and techniques, but they are not required to use a specific tool in a specific way to solve a problem. In the same manner, teachers should be free to utilize our tools as needed and in the way that we realize will be most effective for our students (with whom we have more familiarity than anyone else does).
    Give me more tools, and teach me how to use them, but don’t tell me exactly which one to use on which day and time. Allow novice educators to observe and learn technique and tools from veterans. Allow mentors to share best practices and pass along the keys to choosing the right tool for the job.
    But, when I achieve independence, take the training wheels off.

  2. Bob

    Thanks, Bill, for keeping the discussion about scripted instruction going. These thoughts come to mind reading your post and follow-up comments.
    When teaching as well as when preparing and observing teachers, I look for the pattern each uses to offer each student something to learn.
    Patterns, sometimes called scripts, provide a way to provide rational ongoing, measurable and informal evaluations of the efficiency of teaching a lesson. They are one part of the teach-test-reteach-retest-… paradigm of knowledge and skill transmission expected of all teachers.
    Most good teachers, however you choose to define them, use repeatable patterns or scripts, sometimes called protocols, checklists, procedures, methods, and other reminders about how to sequence parts of a lesson. Lesson plans are crude scripts, even when drafted in defiance of a teachers preference. Some scripts allow more ad libbing than some other patterns.
    Scripts provide ways for teachers to offer more efficient learning than without them, which in turn means students can learn more in the same block of time and with the same effort. I think that is a strong, humane positive reason for using scripts. They allow teachers to use what others have done to yield X learning without having to reinvent ways to the result.
    DI is only one of many kinds of scripts, some identified by label, some by inference from procedures people use. DI uses a formal, repeatable pattern of human interaction, drawn from non-school life. These patterns existed before Engelmann and Bereiter brought them into schools, and continue in use outside of schools. You’ll likely encounter it when you take a course in real estate sales, for example.
    DI has existed as a copywrited procedure in several versions since the mid 1960s, and likely is at least found in all teacher prep introductory methods classes. It has spawned numerous refinements of more instructional procedures than documents indicate.
    At the very least, teachers use it as a reference for “what I’m not doing.” That’s reasonable.
    I know few zealots of DI, and many distractors, although I know the originators, have used DI and seen unusually rapid learning results, as with other protocols such as Try Another Way and S-R programs.
    A more recent than DI entrant to schools may also draw cautious reviews. That’s Direct Learning software, such as MathPractice for use on mobile PCs and Vista operating systems. It’s use does not require a teacher as mediator. It presents, tests, etc. More such software and PCs are on the way to classrooms, partly because teachers have, probably unintentionally, opened a market for more efficient learning than through use of less efficient lessons. A geometric rate of growth in school electronic and human infrastructure appears likely to continue at least for a few decades.
    As teachers, we will probably have to figure out how to work with these scripts also.
    Thanks, again, Bill and others for sharing your ideas. It’s good to see so much agreement.

  3. Mike

    Dear Ms. Teacher:
    Considering the kids you taught and the subject matter, and also your flexibility with the program, I’d have no difficulty with it either. You used a prepared, effective, remedial curriculum for a specific purpose and for the needs of a specific group of kids. Using proven materials and methods to acheive academic goals is certainly what we should be doing, and is not the sort of philosophy about which I spoke in my initial post.
    My objection is to those–and they are out there–who believe that teachers are the problem, a problem which is solved literally by reading a script and by adhering to the script without deviation, for all classes, for all grades, as virtually the entire K-12 curriculum.
    Certainly we expect actors to use a script, but we also expect them to interpret it. For that reason we attend remakes of familiar movies or plays to see what creative people have done with good material. But Direct Instruction (or whatever it’s being called this week) is designed to remove, virtually entirely, creativity, because the curriculum is believed to be so effective that any teacher intervention or deviance from the script would diminish the learning experience. And remember that a primary reason the curriculum exists is that those who wrote it believe teachers to be impediments to the learning process.
    It’s rather like Baroque music. The composers expected musicians to improvise and add ornamentation while still working within the framework of the piece. Because the music was so good, the musicians were happy to add only those ornamentations they thought displayed their skill without fundamentally changing the nature of the music. So it is with good teachers and good materials. However, we all know that a great deal of what is out there is not good, or that it might meet the needs of our first period class, but certainly not our third or sixth period classes. Under those circumstances, teacher creativity must come to the fore.
    If there truly is something that is so effective, so brilliant, so mindblowing in the field of education that teachers are superfluous, I’ll bow to the inevitable and seek other employment. However, I don’t believe that’s been invented as yet, and I’m sure DI is not it.

  4. ms_teacher

    I used a Direct Instruction program last year. I went into it with an open mind. I never felt that any of those involved in the training of DI were anti-teacher or anti-public education. I had many colleagues who looked down their noses at those of us who chose to take on those students who were 3 to 4 years below in reading to teach them how to read.
    That being said, recently someone made the analogy of an actor using a script. One of the things we often hear from those opposed to scripted curriculum is that it takes away the “teacher’s creativity.” Actors use scripts all the time . . . that is part of their job. Can you imagine if an actor walked on the set and told the director he/she didn’t need the script?
    In the beginning of the school year, I stuck rigidly with the DI script because I had never taught with it before. By the 3rd quarter, I was able to allow some of my own ways of teaching to come into the program. for instance, as my students read a story, I might talk about some of the literary elements. Or, we would have discussions about why a character might do something different than what we expected.
    I felt proud of the progress my students made through the school year. I had one student in particular, a second language learner, who was reading at the 2nd grade level when he came in. Halfway through the school year, we determined that his schedule should be modified to allow him into my history class. Of course, my history textbook is written for students who are reading at the 6th grade level. Not only was he one of my best readers, but he also managed to outperform other students on his tests and quizzes and daily assignments. When he goes into 7th grade, I have every confidence that he will continue to perform very well. He learned to read and understand grade-level informational textbooks. More importantly, he wanted to read, something he hadn’t wanted to do at the beginning of the school year.
    I won’t be teaching DI in the upcoming school year. However, there are tools that I will be using in my classroom that comes from the DI methodology. After all, as a teacher I think it is incumbent upon me to use what I know works.

  5. Mike

    Very well. Consider the gauntlet taken up. Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of instruction (I know; Shakespeare is spinning like a lathe)!
    Without question there is room in a given curriculum for at least some scripted curricula as you described it in the first part of your post. I would tend to think of the sort of teaching you’ve described as nothing more than sharing a good lesson/process with colleagues rather than assigning a more formal title to what goes on more or less constantly in schools across the nation. An English department, for example, might have a single handout based on the MLA conventions for all teachers in all grades, but this still allows for differences in teaching style and differences in classes.
    It may be worthwhile, however, to remember that not every discipline is amenable to this sort of instruction, to say nothing of Direct Instruction, which essentially eliminates the middleman–the teacher–and relies entirely on a rigid script. It might be possible, for example for a math department to be doing essentially the same things at the same time, while trying to do that in English would be a disaster. Few schools have the resources to allow every student taking an English class to work on a research paper at the same time (how do you fit them all into the library or the computer labs?), or to read the same novel at the same time (who has a budget big enough to buy 500 copies of any novel?) At the same time, it might work better in math as many math courses progress in a linear, logical fashion, mastery of one concept leading to the next logical concept.
    We must be very careful with discussions of anti-teacher, anti-public school concepts such as Direct Instruction because they are anti-teacher and anti-public education. They deny the worth of highly competent, dedicated teachers, and grossly underestimate the abilities, intelligence and needs of students. They fail to recognize and adapt for the incredible variety of ability and personality that we see in our classes, and they not only allow, but encourage administrators to abdicate their responsibility for providing the best possible educational opportunity.
    What do I mean by this? Glad you asked. Let’s say you’re the principal at Average High School. You’ve bought into the Direct Instruction fad after a concentrated political campaign by those who sincerely believe that it will dramatically increase student learning and accomplishment. Huge increases in student learning and accomplishment? What’s not to like? But wait! There’s more!
    You quickly realize that teacher quality and dedication no longer matter. The curriculum, not those delivering it, will make the transformation you seek, will give you those high test score headlines that look so good above the fold. And the beauty of it is, the most experienced, dedicated, creative teachers, who coincidentally make the most money, will probably leave without you having to say a word to them! Because the largest portion of any education budget is salary and benefits, you’ll make your superintendent very happy with huge costs savings that will allow him and the school board to build more buildings and put their names in stone over and over again. And because the curriculum is completely scripted, you can cram more kids into a given classroom and reduce the overall number of teachers! This is really getting good!
    You sit back in your chair and close your eyes, and it hits you! If enough schools can adopt the curriculum across the state, you might even convince the legislature to eliminate education and certification requirements for teachers. After all, if all they need do is read and exercise minimal supervision, do they need an undergraduate degree for that? Good grief! If you play your cards right, you might reduce salary and benefit costs by 60% or more! And your job just got a great deal easier, because how hard is it going to be to stop by a classroom on a given day and time and make sure that Mr. Smith is reading word 5, line 24, paragraph 3 of page 256 of the text? Either he is or he isnt; what else matters?
    And assessment is going to be a breeze. The same people who produce the curriculum produce the tests for the curriculum, which is designed to ensure success on the tests! No more mediocre test scores, no more struggling to bring failing students up to standards, no more listening to whining teachers, man! This is going to be principal paradise! Just like Lake Webegon, everybody is going to be above average!
    Bill, you’re right that not everyone can be a master teacher. That’s just not possible, nor will it ever be possible. While some demand that schools operate on business models, they won’t adopt one fundamental part of the business model: you get what you pay for. What school would dramatically raise the pay of all teachers to ensure that each and every teacher in that building was a master teacher? And where do those who aren’t master teachers go to teach? No, we’re always going to have a mix of abilities on any faculty, if for no reason other than that we have to hire exclusively from the human race.
    So how do we help those who aren’t up to speed? Competent principals should identify teachers who need help and assign master teachers to provide that help though sharing good lessons, practices, and above all, sharing the hundred small insights into every facet of teaching that make it easier and more effective. What do I mean? For example, never write comments or grades on the front of a student’s paper or they’ll just look at that and ignore everything else you’ve written. Never take student misbehavior personally.
    DI will not help a weak teacher to develop the knowledge and skill required to be a better teacher. It is the equivalent of practicing basketball only by shooting a jump shot from 10 feet in front of the net over and over again. Sure, we can say that our student has been practicing basketball for weeks and has shot hundreds, even thousands of baskets, and they have great skill in a very narrow endeavor, but are they a better basketball player? If all you did was read from a script, would that make you a better teacher?
    Doing it the old fashioned way is harder, more time consuming, and not everyone will reach the same level of skill, but absent unimaginable breakthroughs in breeding and genetic manipulation, it’s still the best thing going for human beings, flaws and all.
    Don’t fall into the fad mindset whereby the new fad, unlike all the old fads, will solve every education problem. Supervision and staff development problems won’t be solved by curriculur changes, but though good supervision and staff development.

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