This year Gary and I have been working with the history lesson planners for the Uncommon Schools network, a charter network that operates over fifty schools in New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. We’ve introduced them to the Four Question Method, and we’re helping them to revise courses, units, and lessons so that they are organized around clear stories and good questions. On our most recent visit to their home office in New Jersey we worked mostly with middle school teachers, reorganizing several different grade level courses to reflect new content mandates. As we were walking back to Newark’s Penn Station (which is a beautiful McKim, Mead & White art deco building, by the way) at the end of the day, we noticed something that may seem obvious, but is worth emphasizing: the teachers who collaborated with colleagues on their curriculum plans were much more effective and efficient than those who were working alone. Curriculum planning is a team sport.
4QM Thinking Is Hard!
This is true in large part because 4QM thinking is hard. This is not always immediately apparent, because the questions themselves are so straightforward. But if you take the questions seriously, answering any one of them is actually quite challenging. Consider the first step in 4QM curriculum planning: establishing your answer to Question One (“What Happened?”). What people, events, and ideas are you going to include in your course or in your unit? What are you going to leave out? What order do the story elements go in? Why? What story are you going to teach this year? These are hard questions to answer well.
One of the most powerful things we did with the Uncommon Schools crew was to work with fifth grade teachers to storyboard a new world history course. There were four of us talking through the story of the course. We started with the outcome box on the course storyboard: when would the course end? We considered several different options before settling on 1490 CE. The course had to begin with the neolithic revolution, so that became our setting box (box number one), but what would come next? We thought maybe China, but then bumped that to box number three, deciding to do the story of Egypt and Judaism before China. Hammurabi’s Code was in, then out, then in again. We talked a lot about where we wanted to put India. For about fifteen minutes it too was out (!), before we decided it should become part of an “India and China” section of the course.
Every one of these decisions was thoughtfully made, because the conversation made everyone articulate out loud why they wanted to include or exclude given content, and why they thought a particular sequence made sense or not. Ideas were floated, rejected, revived, considered, and reconsidered. In the end we all knew what the course would look like and why.
By contrast, there was one teacher working on her own on a seventh grade American history course. Without the feedback generated by talking through the course and its units with other teachers, this solo thinker had trouble sharpening her unit stories and unit questions. Of course Gary and I were happy to help, and during a ten minute conversation about the military history of the Revolutionary War the three of us were able to hone a Question One, create a clear Question Two, and decide to abandon a badly worded Question Three and an incorrectly placed Question Four. Collaboration made the unit better.
The Uncommon Schools folks have a name for this kind of conversation: they call it “sparring.” For those of you unfamiliar with pugilism, “sparring” is the training boxers do when they practice fighting in the ring. It’s like a real boxing match, only safer: the fighters wear padded headgear, and anyone can stop the fight any time. At Uncommon, sparring is when teachers argue about a plan for teaching and learning, or perhaps an individual assignment, pushing each other with honest feedback and serious questions. During our course planning conversation with the fifth grade teachers, for example, one of them suggested that the story of the course could be about the changing relationship between religion and culture. The group was enthusiastic and seemed about to move on when one member said, “I see why the idea is attractive, but I’m not sure it’s right.” We then discussed the relationship between religion and culture for a few minutes before deciding that the original suggestion did in fact make sense as an organizing theme. The conversation was lively and energetic: knowledgeable people who care about history were arguing about how best to teach it. Sparring makes boxers better because it’s practice for the real fight. Sparring makes curriculum planners better for the same reason: being pushed to think through, defend, and explain our curriculum decisions is practice for when we’re going to push our students to think through that same curriculum.
Make Planning A Team Sport
If you’re lucky enough to have a community of curriculum planning colleagues where you work, take advantage of them by sparring whenever you can. If you can create a professional culture in which people are open to feedback and willing to hear questions as critique and not criticism, everyone’s students will benefit. If you don’t have such a community in your real world, perhaps a virtual community can help — you only need one or two other people to hear your ideas and give honest feedback. You can always email Gary and me at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet at us @4qmteaching — we love talking about teaching history. Good boxers need sparring partners. So do good teachers.