Following up on an earlier post, I’m going to dedicate some more time to take advantage of the fact that I can freely talk about my mistakes as an educator, and talk about another time where things just went wrong. This one is a bit larger of a thing gone wrong, so it will require some background.
In the fall of 2015, I joined a wonderful group of people as a member of a TEALS teaching team. Our team was to help teach an intro to CS course for a class of high school students. The curriculum was largely provided by TEALS, and it been used fairly widely for years, with numerous tweaks along the way.
We were given a semester long curriculum, and one written by bunch of pros at that. Naturally, we then spent the semester teaching the course as written.
At the end of the semester, I took on the responsibility of being the primary grader for the final project. Students had to build the game “hangman”, and it was a great capstone, covering just about every concept and programming structure taught across the semester. We gave plenty of time to work on the project, and checked in with students frequently, so we were generally optimistic about how the grades would come out. Even though some of the smaller assignments had recently been a little rough, we had made sure to cover the common issues and solutions, so we weren’t concerned.
You all probably see where this is headed. Grading the assignment was terribly difficult. Nearly every student struggled with some portion of it. There were some items on the rubric that just about nobody got. Concepts that we thought we had reviewed well were totally and completely misapplied. Lacking understanding, many students found ways to follow the letter of the law of the rubric, even when it meant going out of their way to do something wrong.
How did so many of our students get to the end of the semester with such a misunderstanding of what we had been teaching? What the heck went wrong?
It didn’t take us too long to agree on the first one – in teaching the course as written, we erred on the side of following the curriculum, not of following our students. While we adjusted little bits and pieces of the material, and would slow down or speed up instruction slightly, our main focus was on making sure we covered the entire semester’s worth of material in our semesters worth of time. That caused us to miss the fact that the course as written was really more than one semester’s worth of learning for our class.
Figuring out how to correct that mistake is what led us to understanding the more fundamental one we had made: following other people’s definitions for what success looks like in our own classroom. We had the incredible gift of teaching an introductory course that didn’t end with a standardized test. The only thing that mattered is that our students learned some computer science while taking our course. We could extend, pivot, re-write, or totally trash any of our lesson plans at any point to achieve that goal. When planning and teaching the next semester, we fully embraced that freedom.
The end result? A class full of students that had fun every day, and who connected far more deeply with the material than the first time around. And some truly fantastic final projects.
“every classroom is different” isn’t just a true statement, it’s a fundamental truth about education. It does more than suggest that even the best curriculum be adapted different each time, it requires that adaptation.
More importantly, when striving to succeed, the first step is to be deliberate in defining success.