The War Against Thinking, Part 2 – Textbooks, Programs, Curriculum Maps and the Spirit of Ditto Man (from 6-29-14)

My first post about The War on Thinking focused on standards. I’m leaving standards behind now, but not completely. Because standards become the fuel that runs the weapons of mass instruction that keep The War on Thinking going. Those weapons against thinking? Textbooks, instructional programs, and curriculum maps.

The companies that create textbooks and instructional programs have an obvious and vested interest in keeping schools reliant on, well, textbooks and programs. The Common Core itself was promoted in 2011 as a boon to companies who wanted to sell products designed to make implementation of the Common Core easier. Joanne Weiss, the Chief of Staff to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and leader of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top program, wrote in the Harvard Business Review that the development of the common standards and the shared assessments would “radically” alter “the market for instructional materials,” and that entrepreneurs would “enjoy national markets where the best products can be taken to scale.” If you can think for yourself and create your own instructional materials, you are a tough sell, even when things are taken to to scale. Bill Gates has even said, “When they are aligned and the curriculum lines up… for the first time there’ll be a large, uniform base of customers looking at using products.”

If school is a place for thought, for teachers and for students, you wouldn’t know it by looking at textbooks and workbook programs. I just came through the process of textbook adoption for my district, and overwhelmingly, my impression of all five of the products we looked at, including the textbook we eventually adopted, was that the publishers were falling over themselves to make sure the teacher had as little thinking to do as possible. I have even heard of one program being touted by someone saying, “You just do it, page by page, day by day! You don’t even need to think about it!”

In his book Making Comics, Scott McCloud breaks making comics into a series of choices. As I read his list, I transferred the concept over to teaching. Teaching is really a series of choices as well. But while in comics the choices are concerned with things like choice of moment, choice of character, choice of frame, or choice of dialogue, in teaching there are other kinds of choices.

The Choices of Teachers:

There are probably a lot more choices than that, actually, but this is a place to start. When I began teaching, I had no standards, so my choice of material was up to me. I had a textbook, but I also had classes that destroyed textbooks, so I didn’t use it much. In any case, I pretty much had a free reign of choices up and down that list. To make all of those choices meant putting a lot of thought into my planning. I had to think about my students, about my own strengths and weaknesses as a teacher, about what might engage my students, about where I wanted them to be by the end of the year and how to get them there.

Now take a look at a typical textbook or program. Once you’ve chosen your subject, as I chose English/Language Arts years ago, the rest is done for you by the textbook. They supply you with the material, the structure, the themes, the reading selections, the structure of a lesson, and assessment methods. The order is flexible with some programs; in others, you must do things in their order, or you get continuity problems. You generally have some choice of pacing and daily structure for each day’s lessons, but just in case you don’t want to think about those things either, they supply you with pacing guides and daily lesson plans. In other words, if a teacher doesn’t really want to think, he or she doesn’t have to think– at least not much. The textbook companies nearly fall over themselves bragging about this fact. “We’ve done everything for you!” As if most teachers got into teaching to avoid thinking…

But what if you decide you’re going to use the textbook your own way, that you’re not going to use it the way they say? That’s what I have always done. I did what they say to do in Alanon and Alateen: “Take what you like and leave the rest.” There had to be a way to stop teachers like me from thinking instead of following a textbook corporation’s prescriptions! One was created: the Curriculum Map.

A textbook would take care of nearly everything for you, and even if you used lots of material from the textbook, you could still make some choices of your own, depending on the book or program. You could still choose your own themes, order topics or themes the way you wanted, or pace things the way you saw fit.

But then came The Curriculum Map. It mandated that textbook or program themes be followed, and set a pace that would ideally be followed by every teacher in the district. The result looked like this:

The Choices of Teachers (with Curriculum Maps in Place):

Then add in, as many (if not most) districts have, District Assessments designed to see how well students are being prepared for standardized testing. You now have pretty much every choice a teacher might have to think about made into a no-brainer. Where there is no choice, there is no thought. If there is no choice involved in teaching, then there is no thought involved in teaching. We are reduced to the role of Curriculum Dispensers. To quote my own poem, “We pop lessons out like a big Pez dispenser.” Our autonomy, creativity, and enthusiasm for thinking, for working with ideas, are all squelched.

The message is: “We. Don’t. Want. You. To. Think. Don’t think about what you teach, not about what you teach with, not about how you teach, or the speed with which you teach, or the order in which you teach things, and not about how you assess whether learning took place. Leave that to the professional thinkers who have never met your students, lived in your community, and may or may not have even taught a day their lives. Hand out these ready-made materials to your students, grade them according to our rubrics, or slip them into the automatic grade-O-tron, and everything will be good for you. We want to make your life as a teacher easier. We don’t want you to trouble yourself with all those difficult choices and the attendant thought that goes with them. Just trust us. We’ve done all the thinking for you.”

The textbook people give me the material, I hand it out to the students, they perform the task, I assess it, and we move on to the next bit of material. The spirit of Ditto Man (from the movie Teachers) is alive and well today.

The only choice they want to leave to teachers is the choice of subject matter. Well, and the choice to be a teacher in the first place. But these days, choosing to be a teacher may be the last choice you ever make. The rest will be made for you.