Checklist or Art Form?


As I was watching a video on “professional learning” this morning, the speaker was discussing the importance of our time to increase results, and something kind of dawned upon me.  There seems to be two “camps” on education “reform” that I have noticed on somewhat polar opposite sides of the spectrum.

  1. Group 1 that focuses on “improving test scores” (better equals improvement in traditional measures).
  2. Group 2 that thinks we should totally start over again and school should look nothing like it does now.

If you asked me, which way I lean, I would go to “Group 2”, but I also know it is not a reality.  Schools that are publicly funded will always demand some type of accountability, and I can change what I do, but not necessarily what politicians or districts dictate.  I hate to say this, but I am somewhere in the middle, which is why I am always big on the idea of “innovating inside of the box“. In education, we work in a box and we can either do what we can within it, or ignore it and be in jeopardy of losing our livelihood.  This is a reality.

Sometimes I think what is being taught in the curriculum is not going to be relevant to our students by the time they leave school (example…students are still tested on writing a “newspaper” article while the industry is dying in many areas of the world), but I can’t tell a group of teachers “ignore the curriculum” and teach what you think is best.  First of all, they could lose their jobs for not meeting the requirements of the job, but I also think, not all teachers think the same. What they believe kids will need in the future, can greatly depend on so many factors and biases.  I am not saying it is wrong, but I am saying it is more complicated than what we first perceive.

In a workshop recently in Manitoba, I asked educators what their “big question” was, and one question that came up several times in their results was the idea of being “innovative” and how it would be hard to do within the curriculum. So as the group was out for lunch, I googled the Manitoba curriculum standards, and the first link I saw was “Social Studies”. I clicked on it, and just randomly chose the Grade 5 standards.  After looking at it, I found a section based on the “Fur Trade”, which is something that I learned about when I was in school in the 80’s, but honestly, couldn’t tell you much about now.

One of the suggested activities to learn about the fur trade (for grade 5 students) was to, “listen to songs about the fur trade”.  I thought to myself, that listening to songs about the fur trade might not be the most “engaging” activity for grade 5 students, and when I shared this with the group, they agreed.  After this, I shared some ideas on ways to empower students through this process, and asking them ways that they could create and research this topic, and share music they created, a website, oral presentation, etc., or they could come up with ideas on how they share their own learning, that would be much more powerful and develop a deeper understanding of the “fur trade” while building on other skills such as communication, literacy (not just reading and writing, but how we communicate in today’s world), or even digital citizenship, if students were to think about posting their work online. Questions such as why did you share what you chose to share, and how could an audience interpret your work?

Why did I pick this topic and curriculum objective? Because it was the first one that I saw and I wanted to prove a point that teaching goes way beyond curriculum objectives.  What we teach is not really as important as how we teach. In my first years of education, those suggested activities were my lifeline. I needed them because I thought of teaching as more of a checklist, than an art form.  “If I do this, then I will be able to say that I taught this objective.”  But the other element of this is that here is where I see this middle ground.  The art form should still help kids do better on any “test” because if they feel engaged AND empowered in their learning, they will know the subject as well as develop skills that will last them long past my time with them as their teacher.

If we only try to “engage” students, will they become dependent upon us for their learning?  When we focus on empowering their learning, they will thrive after us as learners.  That’s what the best teachers do.  You will eventually not need them because you have learned to learn, not just what to learn.

Is my suggestion the best way to teach the fur trade?  Probably not.  But I know that I think of teaching more of an art form in how to really get students learning more than how I teach. I am not sure you can do this with every curriculum objective, but I do know that it is easy to say “we can’t” because of the system we are a part of, and in reality, is not changing any time soon. Instead, I want to figure out how to make something so much better out of our realities than simply treating education as a checklist on how to get better test scores.

We often wish change for others, but do not think of what we can change ourselves.  Just a reminder, how we teach is so much more important than what we teach.  That will make the impact that lasts much longer than any one curriculum objective.

How you teach is an art, not a checklist.


  1. John Pence said:

    This is supposed to be profound or something? Really? It just dawned on you that there are two camps in the education debate? Ever heard of Dewey?

    Seriously, what in here is at all new or enlightening?

    April 25, 2016
    • Peter Kuzma said:

      Not new, possibly not enlightening to those who already practice this mindset; it’s still an important thing to keep at the forefront when helping teachers prioritize their time and efforts in the classroom.

      Due to the prevalence and impact of “Group 1” thinking, many districts buy packaged programs, and enforce “fidelity” to the structure, format, process, timing, and even physical body position of the teachers as they “deliver” prescribed content, as if teaching were not even a checklist, but a clinical trial of a new drug series. The idea that mimicking a successful program will provide similar results everywhere is a popular idea, particularly in low-performing schools, where monied publishing companies seem to be making their biggest profit.

      As a building leader, building capacity in your staff to understand their students and strike at core concepts, rather than just plugging in what is listed, builds better teachers and stronger schools – students who feel connected and can better stay engaged.

      The post encourages giving yourself permission to do what you know is right for kids.

      April 26, 2016
      • John Pence said:

        WADR, did you just write that you need to give yourself permission to do what is right for kids? Say what?

        It’s worse than I thought.

        April 27, 2016

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