Brainpop and the Overloaded Curriculum. . .

I was poking through my feed reader today and came across a Larry Ferlazzo conversation on In Practice about the merits of Brainpop—a service that provides short, animated cartoons on a range of curricular topics that target middle grades students.

Responding to a Gary Stager post criticizing Brainpop as a “shallow easily pitched curriculum product,” centered around simplistic cartoons that result in understanding that is “unlikely or purely accidental,” Ferlazzo points out that Brainpop videos are nothing more than a tool for extending other learning experiences developed by teachers:

The key to teaching, and learning, in my view is what you do with students prior to and after their reading or watching the material. Sticking a student in front of an individual computer without combining that action with activities that access prior knowledge, without including small group collaborative learning, or without adding other engaging questions to provoke higher-order thinking skills is just taking the “easy way out.”

While I’d love to wrestle with what responsible instruction with a tool like Brainpop actually looks like, I thought that the most interesting nugget in this conversation came when Stager wrote:

My viewing of BrainPop cartoons suggests that too many topics are addressed in too little time, with complex issues, stories or concepts reduced to the most trivial level of education – vocabulary development.

Well, welcome to my world, Gary.

Brainpop cartoons aren’t the only place that too many topics are addressed in too little time.  You’re describing my curriculum—and it is a curriculum that I’m held accountable for teaching to twelve-year olds each year!

Take sixth grade science, for example.  My curriculum requires that students learn about folding, faulting, deposition, crustal plate movement, volcano patterns, and earthquake patterns.  They must also learn about the rock cycle, the carbon cycle, the water cycle and the nitrogen cycle.  We study the properties of soil, including

  • Color.
  • Horizon profile.
  • Infiltration.
  • Soil temperature.
  • Structure.
  • Consistency.
  • Texture.
  • Particle size.
  • pH.
  • Fertility.
  • Soil moisture

Then, we look at how humans can use vegetative cover, responsible agriculture and land use, nutrient balance and “soil as a vector” (whatever that is!) to control the impact that their activities have on the pedosphere.

And that covers the content in just one of SEVEN objectives!

Now, I know all about the lip-service that we pay to “identifying essential outcomes” and “eliminating non-essential outcomes” from the curriculum.  Heck, people like Bob Marzano and Rick Stiggins have been writing about the excessive number of benchmarks defined by state curriculum guides for years now

Few people working in today’s classrooms really believe that we can get through our entire standard course of study in one year.

But teachers often feel incredibly torn when they are forced to leave required outcomes out of their plans.  There is almost constant fear that we might be called on the carpet by our administrators for knowingly “skipping” content in our curriculum.  No one in a position of authority has ever given me stated permission to hack away at the instructional objectives defined in my standards.

What’s more, we rarely know which content will remain untested—and in today’s world, the pressure to perform makes leaving topics out a risky proposition at best.  We are, after all, a “data-driven” profession, aren’t we?  Numbers matter—and poor coverage can lead to poor numbers.

So—whether we’ll admit it or not—-most teachers do a lot of “teaching by mentioning it”—-and services like Brainpop look good to us because we can knock several benchmarks out in short periods of time without massive amounts of preparation and planning.

Am I proud of the fact that I’ll teach students about the Roman Empire this year in about 40 minutes by working through three or four Brainpop videos?

Nope.

But until decision-makers wake up and pare down the curriculum, working with an awareness of the amount of time that we have available for instruction and placing emphasis on more meaningful outcomes for teaching and learning, I haven’t got a lot of options.

I’ve just got 7,000 standards—and a heaping cheeseload of vocabulary—to teach!

14 thoughts on “Brainpop and the Overloaded Curriculum. . .

  1. beats headphones

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  2. LJ FLeming

    As I read your blog entry and the various posts that follow it, I frequently nodded in agreement. Why aren’t administrators (at every level) giving teachers permission to pare down the curriculum? Two reasons: They don’t want and/or can’t afford the “hit” of being responsible for the decision. There is a lack of trust that the teacher will make the “right” selections. The truth is that maybe we won’t. If the testing at any level is out of the teacher’s control, then there is a likelihood that some part of what the teacher doesn’t cover will be tested.
    So what do we do? We fly through the curriculum, hitting some subjects too quickly in order to maintain pace, not allowing ourselves to fully develop ideas that spark our student’s interest, and teach a mile wide and an inch deep far more than our teacher instincts tell us is best for our students.

  3. Bob Heiny

    Kudos, K. Borden! I think you see some educators in a realistic way. Others use ways to cover learning requirements more efficiently and thus students of those teachers score higher or highest against the minimum performance state standards. Uncomfortably, I find more anti-intellectualism in this thread than at top performing schools. I hope teachers don’t intend that sentiment, but wonder how such teacher self-talk influences student academic performance rates?

  4. LauraKoz

    I think that Brainpop is a neat idea (trying to engage students in a medium that is more interesting to them). However, I agree that the videos cover too much material in a too-superficial way. Plus, I worry that passively watching videos doesn’t help students really take ownership of their learning. I suggest having students create their own learning videos about a particular text or concept. Check out JumpCut, a really great (and FREE) online program that helps kids create stop-animation movies. Check out the JumpCut video I made (on my blog: http://www.laurakoz2008.blogspot.com) that I made about Romeo/Juliet’s death scene. While there are some technical problems with the end, it was fun to make and would be a great tool in the classroom.

  5. K. Borden

    Every year I review the information on the NCDPI website for the curriculum at the respective grade level. Often, going through it line by line, I look further and research how teachers seem to be addressing the items (gotta love the internet for looking how teachers elsewhere might be approaching it). As a parent, I spend a bit of time so that I can deem whether my child is covering the stated objectives as the year progresses. I also tend to look ahead a couple of years to ask where today’s goals are leading to tomorrows’. I also determine there are other goals not stated and try to address them.
    What I would look to something like Brainpop to do is to stimulate her desire to ask questions/stimulate her curiosity. I might even look to it to provide a summary in catchy way. I do not look to it to teach or meet curriculum objectives.
    I would argue that administrators do not need to tell you to be free to make selective use of the proposed curriculum. You will anyway for a variety of reasons, some good and some not so noble.
    You (the teacher) are the one with access to the student’s time and attention during the hours they are in your class (and perhaps more via homework and such). I have never had a teacher say…”This year we are expected to cover x, y, z but time is going to make it difficult to really do it all so please work with your child on y.”
    Come to think of it, in five years I have never had a teacher say they have erred or failed to meet a goal in any manner with my child or the class. Reading your posts is thus refreshing. I always suspected teachers might be human 🙂 and am relieved to know that you are.
    All of that said, my annual review of the curriculum gives me insight, but it does not ultimately guide what I seek for my child. If she does not learn what soil as a vector is at the grade level indicated, I want her to learn to see not knowing it as a challenge and have the skills to find out what it means. She might even miss that question on an EOG test, if enough else is covered she will do fine.
    What the EOG will tell me, along with watching throughout the year and compairing what is offered with what was established as the standard by DPI is generally how much of the goal was met.
    I guess I am saying that all this angst about lofty curriculum objectives or ones that are simply too numerous seems to ignore that at the end of the day teachers do prioritize from the curriculum (whether given expressed allowance to do so by administrators or not). Parents who want to assure every single nugget is covered better buck up and do their homework to cover what isn’t or can’t be covered. The EOG’s seem to reflect the combination of what was covered and whether the student took the bait. They are what they are.

  6. Scott McLeod

    No, they get the testing jitters.
    But it’s inane because they act as if superficial coverage will result in greater success than in-depth mastery. So they’re basically choosing the exact opposite strategy for accomplishing the goals that they say they want to achieve. When they fail to achieve those goals, instead of owning their own decision-making they place the blame and/or responsibility elsewhere (i.e., teachers, students, parents, the government).

  7. Bill Ferriter

    Scott wrote:
    SHAME ON ADMINISTRATORS for not giving teachers permission (collectively) to distinguish between what is important and what is not. I tell administrators all the time that they need to do this.
    You know, Scott—My first reaction is to feel great frustration with administrators who never make it clear that working through an entire curriculum is impossible, feeling like I’m left high and dry in a pressure-packed race to the end of grade exams.
    But then I wonder whether principals are afraid to give us the green light to focus because they’re held accountable—probably at a greater level than teachers—for standardized test score results!
    I don’t know enough about administrative evaluation practices—so I can’t say whether my hunch is correct—but if I were a principal that was being largely judged based on test scores, it would take a pretty great leap of faith to suggest leaving anything out of instructional plans that might be covered on a test.
    Now, you and I both know that with careful focusing, results would increase anyway. After all, the quality of teaching going on in classrooms where teachers are rushing through everything is poor on a good day!
    But I think the average (or below average) administrator would struggle to believe this—and struggle to “give permission” to skip over content in the curriculum.
    What have you seen in your work with school leaders? Does it take some serious convincing to get principals to buy into the message of focus that you send?
    Are they ready to jump at your advice, or do they “get the testing jitters” and back off of efforts to identify essential outcomes for fear of what might happen when the results come back in June?
    Interesting conversation…
    Bill

  8. Bill Ferriter

    Matt asked:
    Which brings me to the larger point that you implicity bring up that I like to call “curriculum creep.”
    If the curriculum is getting too big and the teaching too esoteric on too many topics, how do you suggest we pare it down? Take you soil example from above, what do you suggest be eliminated from the items you mentioned?
    Great questions, Matt—and more importantly, great overview of the challenges that political curricula are causing for schools. I’ve spoken often about the pull that special interest groups place on schools—and my frustration of trying to meet everyone’s individual interests.
    Honestly, if I were in charge of the curriculum, there would be very few references to specific bits of content—because it is the specific bits that become ridiculously overwhelming. I end up trying to teach full lessons about every bit—not an easy task.
    If I were editing the soil example in my post, it would read:
    “I can explain how human activity impacts soil and how soil quality impacts human activity.
    This means I can discuss the actions that humans take to evaluate, improve, and damage their soil–and the consequences that these actions have on quality of life.”
    That’s the bigger point in the objective, don’t you think? Responsible care of a natural resource—what that care looks like and how humans inadvertantly (or purposefully) damage their land?
    Better yet, it’s written in plain freaking English!
    Objectives and curricula are often written by the highest performers in a particular content area—Christensen, in his book Disrupting Class, calls them “intellectual cliques.”
    These groups are the keepers of knowledge, and they have trouble discriminating between what is necessary and what is not. They also have trouble believing that anyone could possibly struggle with concepts like “soil vectors!”
    We need curricula that highlights broad themes and that are written in terms that everyone—from teachers to students and parents—can understand.
    Does this make sense?
    Bill

  9. Scott McLeod

    Bill, thanks for this post. You highlight an extremely important issue when you say “No one in a position of authority has ever given me stated permission to hack away at the instructional objectives defined in my standards.”
    SHAME ON ADMINISTRATORS for not giving teachers permission (collectively) to distinguish between what is important and what is not. I tell administrators all the time that they need to do this.
    SUCCESSFUL SCHOOLS FOCUS. If you don’t understand this, you have no business being a school leader. There’s not enough time to do it all when it comes to our mandated curricula. We know this. And yet we persist on trying. It’s inane.
    We have lots of evidence from schools across the country that FOCUSING doesn’t seem to hurt them one bit because mastery of essentials is more important than shallow understanding of non-essentials. Again, leaders should know and be acting upon this too.
    Tell your administrators to call me. I’ll set ’em straight. 😉
    Oh, and in response to Matt’s question above about what should be eliminated, how about if we look to some of those textbooks from other countries? You know, the ones that are a lot thinner than ours, emphasize conceptual understanding rather than rote practice, and – surprise! – lead to better results and transferability of skills to new contexts?

  10. MH

    I found this in my email box one morning and usually just delete them…however I found this one rather disturbing. School Boards and the Military meeting to reform schools. Wow! Am I alone in thinking this is disturbing?
    For Immediate Release Contact: David Griffith
    September 16, 2008 703/684-4000
    State Education Leaders Join with US Army to ‘Build Strong Futures Together’
    Columbia, South Carolina—State Board of Education members from around the country are meeting with high-ranking Army officers this week in Fort Jackson, South Carolina to explore opportunities to bolster public schools and the military. The conference, entitled Building Strong Futures Together, is being held from September 16-19, 2008.
    “America’s public schools and the United States Army are the two most egalitarian institutions in the country—founded on the shared ideals of access, high standards, merit, and knowledge. A partnership is a natural development given our common interests in promoting student achievement, a well-educated citizenry, and a strong national defense. Together we can learn about each other’s successes and needs and begin to address these education and training issues for the benefit of students and the country,” said Brenda Welburn, NASBE Executive Director.
    State board of education members will discuss K-12 education policies and pending reforms to increase academic performance, accountability, and life-long learning. Army officers, including the Commanding Generals of Recruiting Command, Accessions Command, and Cadet Command, will review their recruiting efforts, personnel needs, and training programs. Leaders will identify synergistic opportunities and begin planning follow up activities to implement them across organizations.
    NASBE is a leader in national high school reform efforts to ensure that graduates are best prepared to meet the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. “NASBE and state boards of education are committed to providing students with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed,” said Welburn. “The input of educational experts, parents, business executives and military leaders is invaluable as we continue to implement comprehensive strategies that allow students to consider and pursue every post-high school option available to them, whether it be college, work, or enlistment in the armed forces.”

  11. MH

    I found this in my email box one morning and usually just delete them…however I found this one rather disturbing. School Boards and the Military meeting to reform schools. Wow! Am I alone in thinking this is disturbing?
    For Immediate Release Contact: David Griffith
    September 16, 2008 703/684-4000
    State Education Leaders Join with US Army to ‘Build Strong Futures Together’
    Columbia, South Carolina—State Board of Education members from around the country are meeting with high-ranking Army officers this week in Fort Jackson, South Carolina to explore opportunities to bolster public schools and the military. The conference, entitled Building Strong Futures Together, is being held from September 16-19, 2008.
    “America’s public schools and the United States Army are the two most egalitarian institutions in the country—founded on the shared ideals of access, high standards, merit, and knowledge. A partnership is a natural development given our common interests in promoting student achievement, a well-educated citizenry, and a strong national defense. Together we can learn about each other’s successes and needs and begin to address these education and training issues for the benefit of students and the country,” said Brenda Welburn, NASBE Executive Director.
    State board of education members will discuss K-12 education policies and pending reforms to increase academic performance, accountability, and life-long learning. Army officers, including the Commanding Generals of Recruiting Command, Accessions Command, and Cadet Command, will review their recruiting efforts, personnel needs, and training programs. Leaders will identify synergistic opportunities and begin planning follow up activities to implement them across organizations.
    NASBE is a leader in national high school reform efforts to ensure that graduates are best prepared to meet the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. “NASBE and state boards of education are committed to providing students with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed,” said Welburn. “The input of educational experts, parents, business executives and military leaders is invaluable as we continue to implement comprehensive strategies that allow students to consider and pursue every post-high school option available to them, whether it be college, work, or enlistment in the armed forces.”

  12. Matt Johnston

    Bill,
    This is yet another of your repeated points about curricula being too expansive (this is not a criticism, just an observation) and having spent some time looking at the curriculum for my first grade daughter, I too am concerned that we are asking too much of our teachers to cram in all these “standards” and not giving adequate service to any of the standards.
    Which brings me to the larger point that you implicity bring up that I like to call “curriculum creep.”
    If the curriculum is getting too big and the teaching too esoteric on too many topics, how do you suggest we pare it down? Take you soil example from above, what do you suggest be eliminated from the items you mentioned?
    There are three competing interests at stake here (at least that I can see easily).
    1. A curriculum, like or not is a political document as much as it is a educational document. Curricula are compiled not based solely on what is developmentally appropriate for kids and what they need to learn, but also reflect what policy makers and interest groups deem important. Sure, we all know that reading and math are important and must be learned, but curricula are also created to appease not just the what should be taught, but also how it should be taught. Given that these political decisions are win/lose scenarios for various interest groups (including education companies) it should be no surprise that policymakers will grow a curriculum more or less unchecked in order to appease as many interest groups as possible rather than adding and subtracting.
    2. Funding is critical as you might guess. One apparently simply solution to curriculum creep is to extend teh school day/year to allow for more instructional time. However, if you add ten percent more time (that is 18 more days to a school calendar and one more hour to the school day) you are looking at lots and lots of money in terms of salary and expenses for the school district. Thus in order to keep costs down, we as a society do not actively consider changing from what is largely an agrarian era school calendar. Teachers, unions and other school workers would be justified in seeking additional pay for the additional work and that is no budgetary small potatoes. Thus, the answer is to cram as big a curriculum in to the current school year as possible.
    3. The data look good for schools and for teachers to a certain extent. It seems patently clear to me that it is well near impossible to cover the entire curriculum in a given year. While you might complain about the number of standards you have to teach in a given curriculum, if you cover even 75% of the cirriculum compared to your peers 65%, you look better on paper. You as a teacher may not be satisfied, but the school and school district is satisfied and the school can point to the community and say, we cover more of the curriculum than other schools, and get a pat on the bak for it. See the number driving the measurement is what is covered not how much is learned or even what is learned.
    I am not sure if you have the answer, I certainly don’t but I think the first thing we need to do is address interest number 1. We must first stop kidding ourselves about the political nature of a curriculum and begin to address that matter. I think once we recognize that problem, we can begin to address the necessities of paring the cirriculum down to a level that is a) teachable and b) in depth enough to be useful and c) broad enough to expose students to the necessities.

  13. Bill Ferriter

    Hey Larry,
    Thanks for starting the conversation! In Practice is one of my favorite reads online. All y’all are thoughtful, articulate and spot on.
    Glad to have found your writing…
    Bill

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