Let’s trick ‘em into learning!

© 2006 Gary S Stager

A friend called a few months back and asked me to tell him my most dangerous idea. What a great question! My answer, “Curriculum is bad.”

Allow me to make the case.

I can turn to almost any page in a textbook, article or website and find an outlandish, inaccurate or confusing idea some curriculum writer thought was brilliant. Even the most well intentioned efforts at relevance or context stretch credulity, often in a hilarious fashion.

recent article in Edutopia (July 2006) presented a new method for making connections between art and math, called Aesthetic Computing. The following example demonstrates how the method might be used to teach teens about slope intercept form.

Aesthetic computing attempts to reach those frustrated by traditional math instruction by presenting abstract mathematical concepts in a more creative and personal way… For example, a standard equation for graphing lines on a slope such as y = mx + b might become a hamburger, with y representing the whole burger, m referring to the meat, and x standing in for spices. Multiplication is indicated by the fact that the meat and spices are mixed together, and b is added to represent hamburger buns. Students then write a story about the burger or draw a picture of it.

What? How is drawing a burger related to slope? One abstraction (slope) is replaced by even greater abstractions. The concept of variable is muddled and equations are presented wrongly as recipes. Worst of all, this is referred to as a hands-on project when it’s just coloring. (Note: If you think this is just one out-of-context example, I encourage you to read the primary sources on aesthetic computing. There you will find profoundly confusing examples of pedagogical tricks masquerading as constructivism.)

Corporations often write curriculum tie-ins to their products. Some are shameless marketing ploys while others are more altruistic. The NFL recently announced a $1.5 million marketing campaign to get kids more active and fight obesity –  a noble public service gesture. It’s not their fault that curriculum is bad. They’re just playing along.

A language arts lesson has students create and perform a rap that demonstrates action verbs. A science lesson has kids play scooter tag, with one group of students representing cholesterol and another representing healthy hearts. (Associated Press, 10/19/06)

The NFL might solve two problems simultaneously. The Kansas City Chiefs can become the Cholesterols and the Redskins, the Healthy Hearts. Racist mascots could be replaced with scientific models while local school kids rap about vascular plaque. Multiple-choice comprehension questions appear on the Jumbotron.

Lola Falana Math
Textbook publishers use graphics and word problems to recycle old content. Units often begin with “real-life” content to help students make “connections.” One 7th grade math text has a photo of Walter Matthau dressed as Einstein. I know what the curriculum designers are thinking. Kids are just nuts for Walter Matthau!

The text below the photo reads something like, “In the classic motion picture, I.Q., Matthau plays Albert Einstein. Meg Ryan is his niece and Tim Robbins is a mechanic with a crush on her… Later in the film Tim Ryan’s character asks the niece, ‘How old is your uncle?’ Einstein overhears the question and yells from the other room, ’10 times 2 to the third.’”

Get it? They’re teaching exponents. What a hoot! All of the film stuff was unnecessary trivia that distracts from what should have been a simple arithmetic problem – not that anyone would ever express their age in exponential form.

The point of exponential notation is what? How does it work? Why?

Surely, the mere invocation of Einstein in the passage makes this a science lesson too.

I Know What You’re Thinking
Gary is against “bad” curriculum like the examples above. No, I oppose all of it. Curriculum is the arrogant folly of adults who don’t know the children who will play cholesterol scooter soccer, yet are self-ordained to prescribe what those students should know and when they should know it. Curriculum is the weapon of choice for ranking, sorting and labeling children. It is indifferent to individual needs, talents or desires. Worst of all, curriculum creates an impermeable barrier between teacher and student. Without curriculum, failure would be more difficult as would the assorted pathologies of discipline problems, drop-out rates and violence that plague far too many schools.

I am always looking for ways to help teachers be more intentional and create deeper learning experiences for their students. Today, through the haze of Bombay Belly, I had an epiphany that may help you in similar learning situations.

Authentic project-based learning is in my humble opinion incompatible with curricular tricks like, Understanding by Design, where an adult determines what a children should know or do and then gives the illusion of freedom while kids strive to match the curriculum author’s expectation.

I view curriculum as the buoy, not the boat and find that a good idea is worth 1,000 benchmarks and standards.

Whether you agree with me or not, please consider my new strategy for encouraging richer classroom learning. I call it, “…and then?”

It goes something like this. Whenever a teacher asks a kid or group of kids to participate in some activity or engage in a project, ask, “..and then?” Try asking yourself, “..and then?” while you teach.

For example, when the kindergarten teacher has every child make a paper turkey or a cardboard clock, ask, “…and then?” This is like an improvisational game that encourages/requires teachers to extend the activity “that much” further.

You ask first graders to invent musical instrument. Rather than being content with the inventions, ask, “…and then?” You might then decide to:

  1. Ask each kid to compose a song to be played on their instrument
  2. Teach their song to a friend to play on their invented instrument
  3. The next day ask the kids to play the song they were taught yesterday from memory
  4. When they can’t remember how, you might ask each “composer” to write down the song so other players can remember it
  5. This leads to the invention of notational forms which can be compared and contrasted for efficacy or efficiency. This invention of notation leads to powerful ideas across multiple disciplines.

I think, “…and then?,” has application at any age and across any subject area.

Try it for yourself and let me know what you think!

Candidly, I have not been enthusiastic about teaching “computational thinking” to kids. In nearly every case, computational thinking seemed to be a dodge intended to avoid computing, specifically computer programming.

“There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labor of thinking.”

(Sir Joshua Reynolds)

Programming is an incredibly powerful context for learning mathematics while engaged in being a mathematician. If mathematics is a way of making sense of the world, computing is a great way to make mathematics.

Most of the examples of computational thinking I’ve come across seemed like a cross between “Computer Appreciation” and “Math Appreciation.” However, since smart people were taking “computational thinking” more seriously, I spent a great deal of time thinking about a legitimate case for it in the education of young people.

Here it is…

Computational thinking is useful when modeling a system or complex problem is possible, but the programming is too difficult.

Examples will be shared in other venues.

On October 12, 2012, MSNBC host and former West Wing writer, Lawrence O’Donnell, dedicated his “Rewrite” commentary to the sorts of changes he believes would make presidential debates more informative, thoughtful and effective.

Once you endure the first few minutes of a clip from the fictional West Wing, O’Donnell makes a quite compelling case that the current debate format favors superficiality over substance and is a poor predictor of a candidate’s success as President of the United States. O’Donnell is making the case that the President must be deliberate, collaborative and well-informed. The pop-quiz format of the debates reward memorization and superficiality.

In school terms, the debates measure the wrong things and focus on inauthentic tasks. This misdirects resources and distracts teachers from sound pedagogical practices.

I won’t tell you O’Donnell’s recommendations, but most if not all could be applied to matters of curriculum and assessment. You should watch for yourself!

You may be able to watch the video here or here if you’re using a dopey iPad.

Uber-edublogger Will Richardson recently published a blog post entitled, Valuing Change. In the article, he reiterated the frequent lament that teachers don’t “consider” or “value” change especially when the Web allows students to “connect outside of the classroom.” The who, what or why of connecting isn’t discussed.

Will’s article illustrates a teacher’s unwillingness to embrace change by showing how a topic like gerrymandering could be made more engaging through the use of information technologies. Will recognizes the challenges facing teachers and offers an olive branch by suggesting that we can “do both” – teach what will likely be on the test and do so more meaningly.

It should come as no surprise that I disagree, especially given the example used.

As I write this, there are two dozen comments in addition to the few I contributed. Either blog commenters don’t consider the ideas of other commenters or my argument was not clear enough.

Perhaps, as much as you would like it to be otherwise, the incrementalism of “doing both” is really the problem.

Why would you Skype someone involved “in the process?” What process? Who? State legislators? What are they likely to tell a student that can’t be found out in a book or article?

The connections you speak of, now matter how much you yearn for them may be as inauthentic as the task itself. Perhaps they just make a task nobody cares about even more arduous. The “you can use Google ____ or Skype with someone” suggestions have become as automatic and meaningless as when a politician says, “We need to pay teachers more, but hold them accountable.”

One of the lessons I learned from Seymour Papert (http://dailypapert.com) was that you cannot transform school just by changing teaching practices or even the technology used. You must rethink, challenge or reinforce the content of the curriculum. The “what” has a great deal of impact on the how and the why of learning something.

Papert once asked me, “What are you thinking about doing with the students next?” When I replied, “We were thinking of doing some geography…,” he shot back with, “And what can they DO with that?”

“Whatever you ‘teach’ kids should have a high liklihood of leading to the construction of a bigger question or a larger theory (NOW – not later), otherwise, why bother?”

Like so much of schooling, the topic of gerrymandering is really just a vocabulary exercise. Memorize the definition and move on. I’m not sure you can put lipstick on that pig.

I do not believe that it is possible to make schools more productive contexts for learning (the how we teach) without calling the curriculum into question (the what we teach).

When Will requested “The Stager Plan,” I replied…

If I wasn’t clear enough above, a substantial aspect of “The Stager Plan” includes expending some serious effort at every school to determine what is worth being taught.

Pedagogical strategies should reflect the content and the learning styles of students.

The ideas proposed for making gerrymandering more engaging only add false complexity to what is a vocabulary term, likely taught in isolation as the curriculum whizzes by.

My other concern is how we tend to reduce education to information access (or trading information) and how the emphasis on using computers as information appliances reinforces the status quo while depriving learners of authentic experiences.

In addition to commenters reminding us of the wonders of Web 2.0 technology, the author repeates the familiar cliché, “We need to use technology to get kids engaged in the curriculum, not just in the technology.”

Why is this so? Should teachers be so compliant and teach anything they’re told to, regardless of context or value?

Also, why is engaging with the “technology” so quickly dismissed as being inferior to the curriculum?

Here’s a thought experiment…

What if we DID do everything in our power to engage kids in the technology? (I don’t think you can engage someone else, but I’ll leave that aside)

This might be the first real engagement kids experience.

Learning computer programming might actually lead to different thinking, different thinking about thinking, student agency and provide a window for teachers into the intellectual capabilities of kids.

I wish there was a way for me to run a hands-on workshop for every teacher in the world during which they could experience the intellectual rigor and creative joy experienced while computing. Not only is this workshop necessary for teachers who don’t use “technology” in the ways Will’s post urges, but educators excited by Web 2.0 would do well to expand their computing fluency as well.

Educators interested in spending four days on creative computing projects with a world-class faculty and amazing guest speakers this summer should check out Constructing Modern Knowledge. Act quickly, this very special event may sell-out!

coloringHas anyone else noticed that there’s a whole lot of coloring going on in schools? I’m not talking about primary grades. I see an alarming number of high school classrooms decorated with colored reproducible maps, hastily drawn crayon posters substituting for literary analysis and that old kindergarten favorite-the magazine photo collage. This “work” doesn’t represent the efforts of slacker students. It actually satisfies teacher (and curricular) requirements.

I have a hypothesis or two to explain the explosion of primitive expression in our secondary classrooms. It is unreasonable to expect teachers with 150 to 200 students to read, edit and provide feedback for that many written pieces. As a result, student work does not endure a rigorous editing process and its quality suffers. The last thing an overworked teacher wants to do at night is read poor writing. Dumbed-down alternative assignments result.

Anxiety Transmittal

Writing is a skill developed through modeling, apprenticeship and practice. It also needs an audience. It is no secret that teachers are reluctant writers. National contest prizes requiring teachers to submit a simple essay or lesson plan often go unclaimed due to teacher insecurity. Teachers uncomfortable with their own writing skills transmit that anxiety to their students. Since the product and process of writing is learned by observing and reading the efforts of others, too many students are deprived of this vital experience.

Here’s a rule. If you can’t remember when to use commas, your sentence is too damn long.

I experienced an epiphany while trying to teach a sixth grader to write a poem. The rapid give-and-take led me to realize that you can only really teach one child at a time. The quality and quantity of feedback necessary to help the student express herself to her potential required all of my attention.

The insatiable demands for accountability (testing) forces teachers to emphasize rules and isolated vocabulary memorization at the expense of creative expression and voluminous writing practice. Even when schools focus on low-level mechanics, they are hopelessly out of-step. My twelfth grader is still required to indent paragraphs and insert two spaces after each period years after the real world and APA have abandoned these protocols.

The problems associated with writing instruction are not limited to class-size, teacher ability or testing. Curricular notions of writing need to be revised in the digital age. While kids should certainly learn to express themselves in all forms and genres, we may need to replace a few sine qua non assignments with procedural description; acrostics with proposals; and sacrifice a haiku or two in order to learn how to write a manual. An occasional letter to the editor would be great, too.

Below is a list of teaching felonies for which you may be sentenced to a lifetime of lunch duty.

  • Requiring students to conjugate words unworthy of such effort. I evaporate. They evaporate. We used to evaporate. He evaporated at four o’clock. She will evaporate tomorrow at 3 p.m. You get the idea.
  • Counting words. One of the great lies of writing instruction is that more writing is better writing. Most professional writing is concerned with the process of communicating your ideas in fewer words.
  • Requiring students to write their autobiography year after year. When I mentioned to a teacher that my daughter had written an autobiography as her major writing assignment for six consecutive years, she replied, “Did they write a 10-chapter autobiography last year? I do not think so!”
  • Teaching comma rules. Here’s a new rule. If you can’t remember when to use commas, your sentence is too damn long.
  • Not completing the writing process. Equal emphasis needs to be placed on each stage of the writing process. Some teachers seem to stop at invented spelling or lose focus after brainstorming.

In an age when people communicate via e-mail, teachers are forced to write grant proposals for basic classroom materials and coherent manuals are in abundant demand, adults in every profession are writing more than they ever anticipated. Schools need to prepare students for that world.

Originally published in the May 2003 issue of District Administration

2012 Note: The New Hampshire legislature overrode a gubernatorial veto and passed a law this week allowing the parental veto of curriculum. The following is a reference to this sort of power grab from 2009 and the text of a March 2007 article I wrote on the subject for District Administration magazine. I suggested the inevitability of such action five years ago.

Be sure to subscribe to this blog to receive regular access to my crystal ball and predictions about the rapid decline of public education and common sense!

2009 Note: The insanely paranoid right-wing fears about the president of the United States urging American children to be good students scares me. I believe that it is another hysterical attempt to usurp the legitimacy of a democratically elected African-American President. Denying children access to the President of the United States is unpatriotic and miseducative. The teachable moment should be seized to discuss and debate the President’s words in a civil democratic fashion. Surely, that is consistent with the ideals of public education in a free society.

I wrote about what might be in the Obama speech for the Huffington Post – A Sneak Peak at Obama’s Speech to Schoolchildren

I also dug up this article I wrote for the March issue of District Administration Magazine back in 2007.

The Parental Veto of Curriculum
Fanaticism must not overrule district leadership!

An Inconvenient Truth, a documentary addressing environmental policy, hosted by Al Gore, continues to generate educational controversy. A number of parents have objected to the film’s classroom use, accusing it of being inaccurate, in spite of numerous scientists who testify to its veracity. Other critics challenge the messenger, accusing the film of partisanship. This seems peculiar. Is truth Democratic or Republican?

The Federal Way School District in Washington recently banned the film unless specific criteria were met. Teachers who want to show the movie must get the approval of the principal and the superintendent, and must ensure that a “credible, legitimate opposing view will be presented.” And teachers who have already shown the film must now present an “opposing view.”

This policy raises more questions than it answers. What is credible? Does every issue have an equally valid opposing view? Is there only one opposing view? Should the views of the Aryan Nations be included in discussions of the Holocaust or civil rights? Are there worksheets on the upside of slavery?

“Condoms don’t belong in school, and neither does Al Gore.” -Federal Way parent

Must all materials used by a teacher pass muster from the superintendent? How long will that take? Is the superintendent competent to make every judgment? What happened to academic freedom? May teachers discuss current events or share breaking news stories with students?

You’re probably asking, “How did the Federal Way School Board get to this point?” The answer is that one parent, yes one, sent an e-mail message objecting to the showing of the film. Evidently some parents are emboldened to legislate for all students, rather than opting to keep their child out of an activity they find personally offensive.

What sort of educational leadership reverses policy based on a single complaint? How about telling such parents that we trust the judgment of our teachers? Why capitulate so easily?

In fact, Frosty Hardison, the objecting parent, isn’t really concerned about the science of global warming. Like many zealots, Hardison has not seen the film in question, but did say: “Condoms don’t belong in school, and neither does Al Gore. He’s not a schoolteacher…The information that’s being presented is a very cockeyed view of what the truth is …. The Bible says that in the end times everything will burn up, but that perspective isn’t in the DVD.” It’s obvious that Hardison’s motives are concerned with imposing his religious beliefs on the school system. He found an ally in the school board president, who dismissed evolution as “only a theory,” that timeless canard that mangles the definition of theory for ideological gain.

I don’t understand the vitriol directed toward Vice President Gore. Why do so many assume he doesn’t know what he is talking about? When did decades of public service and two terms as vice president become something to be condemned rather than respected? What are the implications for our democracy when elected officials are dismissed out of hand as partisan hacks?

Should any parent be able to change classroom practice with a single e-mail? If parents can opt children out of a health class because it violates their family’s values, can I opt my child out of a course because I think it is a dopey waste of time? Why can’t I select my child’s teachers and demand a personal curriculum? Should I be able to bend the district to my wishes? Is the parental veto a sound idea?


The common school is at the center of our democracy. Educational leadership requires the assertion of expertise and a willingness to say “No!”