July 17, 2023
As a young, new teacher I was naïve. I thought school reform was simple: Understand how learning happens, and design schools based on that understanding. It’s not rocket science. And yet . . .
For decades as researchers have provided educators with increasing insights into how people learn, thousands of teachers have worked to integrate these new understandings into their classrooms. Still, the same old problems persist: too many disengaged students graduating with poor skills and knowledge, a tenacious achievement gap, growing teen depression and suicide, and teachers burning out. Although the causes are many, one of the most significant is that changing what goes on in the classroom isn’t enough. It’s way past time to stop expecting teachers to carry the burden of inventing new practices for a system that resists fundamental change and that, therefore, will undermine their efforts. Classrooms themselves are one antiquated part of a larger structure—a factory model based on discredited assumptions about learning and the brain. New insights require new structures. A group of us learned this lesson several years ago when we redesigned our ninth-grade curriculum.
We had two overriding goals. The first was to emphasize interdisciplinary skills development (reading, writing, reasoning, speaking/listening, and studying) over memorizing discrete departmentalized facts. We focused on integrating science, English, arts, and history because the five skills, in various appropriate forms, enhance success in those four disciplines—and those disciplines overlap. Creativity is no less essential to scientists than it is to artists; writing is a powerful tool to deepen learning in any sphere. Literature and scientific advances can deepen our understanding of history, just as art can enhance our powers of scientific observation. We defined specifically the many components of each of the five skills and established progressions for developing them and criteria for assessing them.
The second goal was to give the students more control over what they studied. Teachers would focus on skills development, and students could focus more on areas of knowledge that interested them—albeit within a range established by the four subject areas. We especially wanted to encourage them to delve into ideas, genuine questions, and facts that mattered to them. So we pared down the topics that typically comprise ninth-grade curricula in these disciplines, creating more and more freedom for students as the year unfolded. The spring trimester focused on individual projects of their design, through which they…