The Anti-Content Mindset Behind Block Scheduling

by Bill Quirk (E-Mail: wgquirk@wgquirk.com)

March 8, 2006   The Shoreline Times   Guilford CT

GHS Principal, Bruce Hall, wants to implement a block schedule (BS) with 90-minute classes, meeting every other day.   But studies have shown that less content will be covered, so implementing BS will lead to a decline in academic achievement. 

At the BOE meeting on February 13th, BOE member, Naomi Migliacci, spoke about the content coverage issue.  After school administrators conceded that “coverage may be compromised” by BS, Ms. Migliacci said, “one of the things I hear, and I heard it here, is this idea of covering content . . . the hair just goes up on the back of my neck, when I hear something like that . . . the assumption often is that teaching is about the delivery of knowledge, and that is really done through lecture and reading . . . and that’s not what we’re talking about at all."

So what we are talking about?  On February 13th GHS Assistant Principal, Ian Neviaser said the BS  “extended learning time” was important for the expansion of a “student-centered approach” and the implementation of a “concept-based curriculum” which promotes “higher order thinking,”  and this allows for more “authentic assessment” and an expansion of “best practices.”

According to Webster, “teach is the basic, inclusive word for the imparting of knowledge or skills.”  This definition fits traditional teacher-centered knowledge-transmission, but not the “student-centered approach.”  Rather than listening to teachers or reading textbooks, student-centered advocates say students should work with peers (“the collaboration piece”) and carry out real world investigations to explore what they find personally interesting.  These discovery learning activities frequently involve time-consuming busywork.  That’s why student-centered promoters so fervently desire the 90-minute extended learning time provided by BS.

Ms.Migliacci expressed surprise about coverage of content concerns at GHS, because she knows that Guilford’s elementary and middle schools have already converted to the discovery learning approach.  Consider the methods for Everyday Mathematics (EM), the elementary math program used in Guilford.  According to the EM Grades 4-6 Teacher’s Reference Manual, “Everyday Mathematics employs cooperative learning activities, explorations, and projects.  The classroom needs to be set up to accommodate group work, and students must be able to work together without direct supervision.”  Also, “games are an integral part of the Everyday Mathematics program, not an optional extra.”

What about the "concept-based curriculum” mentioned by Mr. Neviaser?  With the traditional content-based curriculum, students learn the specific facts and skills of knowledge domains, such as math and biology.  But student-centered advocates object to such detailed learning, because mastery of content can be difficult and their primary goal is a stress-free life for students.  They say students can understand concepts, without necessarily knowing the facts and skills associated with the concepts.Everyday Mathematics offers concept-based arithmetic. Students are expected to appreciate the concept of a computational algorithm, but they are not expected to master the skills of carrying, borrowing, or adding fractions, and they never learn about long division.  It’s OK to use a calculator for most computations.

 Parents need to know that their children will not be prepared for algebra, if they haven’t first mastered the facts and skills of standard pencil-and-paper arithmetic.  Their children may be prepared for concept-based algebra, but not for generalization of content-based arithmetic that occurs in content-based algebra.

Since remembering specific content is not considered necessary, student-centered advocates don’t see the need for memorization and practice.  How nice for them, because this helps to achieve their primary objective of an easy, stress-free life for students.  But without specific remembered knowledge, students must regularly revisit shallow content.  More sadly, they never get to experience the power of the learning curve.  Learning becomes increasingly easier and faster as more and more content knowledge is stored in the brain.

Mr. Neviaser mentioned “authentic assessment.”  This is another logical consequence of the concept-based curriculum.  Since students haven’t mastered standard content, traditional standardized tests must be avoided.  Authentic assessment is the student-centered alternative.

 The phrase “best practices” is frequently used in BOE meetings, but the public has never been given an example of a best practice.  That’s because this high-sounding phrase doesn’t refer to methods that are well known to be effective in improving academic achievement.   It refers to the methods of the student-centered theory, the key to the desired “culture of the school.”

By “the factory model,” Dr. Forcella wants you to picture teacher as dictator, with students sitting passively in rows.  This is how student-centered proponents like to portray the teacher-centered model.

Young children don’t have the background knowledge needed to recognize what’s important for them to learn.  Although parents want their children to explore personal interests, they also know that advanced education depends on a solid grounding in academic knowledge. 

Many parents are experts in one or more knowledge domains, such as electrical engineering, pediatric medicine, carpentry, piano tuning, and running a hardware store.  These parents know that experts must necessarily remember countless facts and skills that are narrowly relevant to their specialty.  Finally, parents who hope their children will attend college can’t accept the disparaging depiction of lecturing and textbooks, because they know that this is precisely what their children will find in college.

Dr. Forcella wants to delay BS implementation for a year, primarily to allow for “the professional development piece.”   Another delaying problem was raised by Mr. Hall when he noted, “facilities has raised its ugly head.”   BS apparently requires larger spaces than currently found at GHS.   This reminds us of the claimed need for classroom pods at the middle school level.  By a 3 to 1 margin, voters rejected pods in 2003.  Will voters now approve funds for extensive GHS renovations for BS?   Or is it possible that Mr. Hall’s dream of a new high school facility will now be justified by the need to properly support the student-centered culture of BS?

Without significant, visible opposition, the BOE will likely approve BS at their March 13th meeting.  It follows that they will also be approving the anti-content mindset as the right choice for the “culture of the school” for GHS.  Years from now, most GHS graduates will not realize they were victims of a shallow education, because they won’t know what was possible, if minimizing stress wasn’t the top priority at GHS in 2006.

William G. Quirk is a graduate of Dartmouth College and holds a Ph.D. in Mathematics from the New Mexico State University.  He recently co-authored The State of State Math Standards 2005, a report published by the Fordham Foundation.   Dr. Quirk lives in Guilford,  CT.