Content, A Fairy Tale

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Once upon a time, in a far away gradebook, oh about fifteen to twenty odd years ago, there was a keen and eager teacher who wanted to create an assessment for an English 9 short fiction unit. She laboured over the assessment and decided that a test would be the finest of fits for her students. Because she was a creative teacher, she included many forms within the assessment.  There was matching and multiple choice, short answer and fill in the blanks.  At the end, she aptly placed one paragraph question that would be the cherry on top of the unit ice cream sundae.  Now this test, this labour of love, was a fine fit for 20th century learning.  It tested vocabulary, the plots of stories read in class, terminology and knowledge.  She had keenly taught to the test and her students did well!

Years later, there was a new view of learning. Behold BC’s New Curriculum.  The teacher was, at first, confused, bewildered, and shook her head in dismay.  What will I do with this new curriculum?  she asked herself. It was foreign to the teacher, indeed, but she soon realized that it must be so so important (and being one to never shy away from a challenge), she set off to understand it.  She dove right in and the let the curriculum swallow her up. She toiled and she perspired. She read and she scrawled. She collaborated and tweeted. She did what she needed to do to get a handle on this new curriculum.

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Her favourite part were the curricular competencies. Never before had she seen skills as a part of learning.  The content was so familiar to her, but the competencies were not.  After thinking long and hard, watching webinars and reading books, the teacher realized that the content that she and her colleagues seemed so devoted to, was really the means, not the end, of learning.  Oh no! She nervously tapped her pencil on her grade book. Now she would have to find ways to teach skills, and assess skills, and use the content to refine those skills. What a challenge this will be! she told herself. And an immense challenge it was for the teacher.

But what about those tests she had made that the teacher held so dear? What would become of them? Well, this teacher felt confident that they would fit into her new perspective. She opened up the short story test file with eagerness and beheld its beauty. It was so divine!  As she flipped through the pages, her eyes became wide with surprise. She crinkled her forehead and clenched her jaw. Oh dear, she exclaimed. This test does not fit at all! This test…this test is content knowledge! Oh dear! Oh dear! Filled with woe, she grasped hold of her Bloom’s Taxonomy.  Her fingers fawned the columns. Suddenly, she placed her hands on her head and gasped. The content is low level thinking skills, not high-level thinking skills that I’ve wanted to impress upon my students.  Whatever would she do? 

She slept very restlessly that night, but awoke with a fervor.  She knew what she had to do! With a slight pang of regret and a twinge in her heart, the teacher did what any good teacher would do.  She hovered the mouse from her computer over that file she loved, right clicked, and deleted it.  As she watched it become incinerated into cyberspace, she did not weep for the loss of the test. In fact, the teacher felt a surge of rejuvenation.  This is, she said, the finest thing to happen!  I’ve got it! I will use the content like the foundation for a house. I will make it the first steps of learning!  I will make sure they understand this wonderful content by other means: four corners activities, thumbs up and thumbs down, and exit slips.  Maybe I’ll slip in a quiz or two.  Oh yes. It will be divine!  I won’t need to count these tasks. They will be formative.  I won’t nearly have the marking at all. I’ll wait until it’s summative. I’ll give feedback in class when my students need it most!  What a blessing assessing skills would be for the teacher!

She got to work, unpacking those curricular competencies.  And once my young learners have a strong foundation of knowledge, she muttered to herself, I will take them up the taxonomy ladder and guide them through all the skills they need to battle any 21st century fiend that comes their way. She clapped her hands with delight.  They will communicate…oh yes.  They will think…oh my.  They will take responsibility…hallelujah!  

As her fingers floated over each competency, it became clear to her how sophisticated these competencies were: synthesizing and evaluating, analyzing and explaining, choosing and defending.  What fun we will have developing these skills, she thought to herself.  What novel ways I can approach. Maybe, there are several ways to develop these skills. Voice and choice would be the key for each student’s success.  How inclusive it would be for all.

When the teacher settled into bed one night, after many weeks of personal growth, she was extraordinarily exhausted, but she felt confident and clever. For she had not abandoned her love for content, but she had embraced a new focus. She closed her eyes and envisioned what the wonderful future would hold for her learners. And she smiled.

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