• Sam Martineau

Teach Them Less

Because of the flexibility offered by homeschooling, parents and teachers in the community get to spend more time than usual crafting curriculum. It’s an exciting prospect to imagine all the great things that you will teach and that students will learn. It can be very freeing to consider that you have the opportunity to teach students anything and that you can be as imaginative as you want. But creating a curriculum that really delivers for students can also be very very difficult.


With that in mind, I would like to offer what I believe would be one of the highest impact pieces of advice in both writing and deploying curriculum Teach them less. That is, teach them less content.


One of the major reasons to exercise restraint in the amount of content you attempt to teach students has everything to do with effective learning. To understand this point, let us consider lecture as a teaching strategy. Here are two things that we know about lecture-

  1. Lecture is among the least effective methods of teaching. There is a great deal of research on the issue, but the linked article is a good sample of the research.

  2. Lecture produces a great deal of content for students to review in a very short amount of time. In other words, it is very efficient in pacing through content. Likely, this is one of the main reasons that, despite its poor outcomes, teachers continue to use lecture as a primary teaching tool.

I would suggest to you that these two facts about lecture are not random correlation, but rather point us to an important fact about education. When we are educating students, we are essentially attempting to get them to create new neural pathways. That is not something that we can do by wishing it to be so or exposing students to information in a single instance. This happens by students analyzing information, manipulating information, building new skill sets, integrating information with previously held knowledge, etc. All of those tasks take time. They are also student centric. The student, not the teacher, has to do the work. And each student is different, so you can expect learning to happen at different paces and levels. So really great teaching is time consuming and there probably isn’t much that you can do about that. For further evidence, consider some of the teaching strategies in the MetaX Education Dataset that have the best statistical outcomes. These include-

  • The Jigsaw Method- In this method, students join an initial group, read or otherwise learn about an assigned portion of the content to be taught, and then discuss with their groups. Having become “experts” on that issue, they are then assigned to new groups with one member from each of the initial “expert” groups. The students then teach each other the content to spread the expertise to all of the students.

  • Response to Intervention- In this teaching method, teachers work to identify struggling students early, and then give interventions in small groups, and then one on one, until students are able to keep pace with the material.

  • Feedback- In this method, teachers ensure that students have opportunities to present work to others who then review the work and give specific and clear feedback. Students learn specifically what needs to be improved and why.

  • Success Criteria- This implies that teachers take time to clearly lay out what would count as successful at the end of a project or assignment, and what would count as substandard work.

  • Classroom Discussion- Fairly self explanatory.

These are just a sample of well researched effective teaching methods. There are, of course, plenty of others as well. But what highly rated teaching methods tend to have in common is that they are all really time consuming. Lecture takes less time, it just isn’t student centric enough to really pay off.


The point of all of this is that if you want to write/deploy a really great curriculum, you can start by exercising restraint in how much content you are trying to teach students. This will give you the time you need to get students sufficiently involved in the content to promote meaningful student learning.


Moving on, I would like to put forward a second rationale for pulling back on the amount of content covered in a given course. This rationale has to do with the teacher perspective. Let’s take it for granted that the teacher of a given course generally has two advantages over students.

  1. The teacher has greater competency in the subject being taught than the student. It is unlikely that one would be teaching a class or writing a curriculum if this weren’t true at least a little bit.

  2. The teacher possesses greater context and background knowledge than the student. For example, if a teacher is teaching a government class, they likely have a stronger background in the fundamentals of government as well as basic history of government.

If these two are the case, great! It means that the teacher is all the better prepared to teach the subject. On the other hand, these facts also create a biased perspective in the teacher. This bias might be explained in terms of the psychological phenomenon called the Dunning Kruger Effect. The basic idea is that people who have high levels of competence in a given field tend to underestimate their capability because the information seems easier to understand than it really is (and the reverse is true for those with very low competency). In other words, you forget how hard it is to learn something for the first time, so it seems like learning it will be a cinch. Or perhaps, it is easy to forget that students don’t have all the same context that you have, so you may be making references that seem perfectly clear to you, but are mystifying to the student.


Because teachers generally come from this biased perspective, the result is that they overplan how quickly they are going to be able to pace through concepts, don’t envision basic gateway concepts that they will need to address, and overall end up stuffing a weeks worth of content into a single lesson. Solution? Teach them less! Give yourself time as a teacher to answer questions that will come up, cover material more slowly than you envision, frequently check for understanding, etc.


You really don’t want to get caught in a situation as a teacher where you feel pressured to use inferior methods or race ahead when students clearly aren’t understanding simply because you are committed to the idea that you will cover a certain amount of content. So then, as stated previously, the solution is simple: teach them less!


May I now offer three even more specific suggestions on how to make more room in your curriculum- cut, simplify, and adapt.


Cut


When you have a new curriculum, lesson plan, activity plan, etc. pretty frequently the best thing you can do with it is cut it in half. After you’ve laid out the things that you want to teach, ask yourself what is most important to teach in order for students to gain basic understanding and skills. Those are probably the ones you will just barely have time to cover. Then imagine that every activity that you want to use to help students develop that knowledge and skill base will take twice as long as you initially envisioned.


After fourteen years of teaching in the homeschooling community, I can definitely say that my curriculum is less than half the size it once was. There are so many interesting and inspiring concepts and skills that I don’t even come close to teaching students because they have relatively little relevance and even less applicability for the outcomes I want to see students achieve. And since there are concepts and skills that have more applicability and relevance, I just don’t have time for less important content. It doesn’t matter that I love those concepts and really want to teach them. It isn’t in the best interest of the student, so out it goes.


Simplify


Another way to ensure that students can really focus on assimilating knowledge and skills is to simplify and clarify the activities that students engage in. It is important to remember that students who are trying to grasp new concepts or learn new skills are going to have their brain power dedicated to that task. They don’t have a lot to spare to understand the intricacies of a complex activity. This means that you want to choose activities that eliminate as many aspects as possible that don’t directly relate to your goal. It is also important to eliminate steps that would introduce potential for confusion. Remember that the activity is always going to be a little more confusing for students than you anticipate it to be. So, you want your activities to be simple and your instructions to be very clear. For example, a teacher might have students discuss a question in small groups and then choose a representative to share what was discussed in the group. It’s a great activity- it allows for a lot of student engagement, has a clear objective, and isn’t very complicated. But if, instead, you have each group choose one out of three questions to discuss, and each of them plays a different role in the discussion, and those roles rotate every five minutes.... You get the idea. You’ll spend a lot of time and energy getting students to understand the activity instead of the concept. Keeping it simple leaves time for learning. Remember that lesson plans can be as complex as you want for the teacher. For the students, the learning objectives and methods should always be clear and easy to follow.


Adapt


Finally, once plans are laid it is important not to be dogmatic in following those plans. The ultimate goal of education is learning, not getting through lesson plans. So if you need to reconfigure, simplify, or otherwise reduce content because of the pace at which a class is proceeding, then that is what should be done. Years ago I was teaching a class in a hot classroom with students who were obviously not absorbing the material. They were tired, non responsive, and my method was clearly not engaging them. I decided on the spot to go out and play a game with them at a park that was conveniently nearby. Playing at the park for twenty minutes gave them the opportunity to wake up and it gave me the opportunity to rethink how I was going to approach my activities for the day. It also said to my students that I was more interested in whether they were getting something out of the lesson than I was in getting through the lesson. We ended up with less time in class, but it was much more effective. If things aren’t going well, you can be worried about how you look as a teacher if you have to reverse course or you can think about how the class is impacting the students and stop, reconsider, and try something new.


In the end, that is what this concept is about. Is the class about you as the teacher or them as the student? If it is about them, then the class shouldn’t be structured around your level of understanding, it should be structured around theirs. If it is about them, the activities shouldn’t be about whether you have a chance to present the knowledge and skills that you enjoy, it should be about whether or not they have meaningful opportunities to engage with the knowledge and skills that will most impact them moving forward. And if you want time to focus on the student, then there is a simple solution: teach them less, teach them less, and teach them less.