39. Connecting Tangibility and Creativity to Make Learning a Change in Behavior (or to Think About It)

The language arts subject area committee described in this story is in many ways typical of those I have worked with.  This group is insightful and willing to grapple with more than the standard scope and sequence challenge.

Attention to scope and sequence is a standard approach to curriculum development and implementation. It is a traditional, but important aspect of the new learning infrastructure.

In ordinary language, scope is simply a way to label curricular size. How much should be taught and learned any given time.

Sequence is the order to be followed, and how it should spiral upward and gradually expand.

Coordinating that spiraling and expansion is maddeningly difficult and has typically been left to textbook authors to handle. Novice teachers have been taught to trust textbooks. So, education policy makers focus their attention on the adequacy and appropriateness of resource materials purchased for use by students.

That approach to managing scope and sequence has had the effect of minimizing the importance of teachers. And of making curriculum a game of Trivia Pursuit writ large.

In that atmosphere, curricular scope and sequence is more information or skills added to previously learned material. 

Many policy makers want to believe it is something they can control through their administrative actions. So, they concentrate on textbook selection, label professional teacher education as being worthless, initiate the development of academic standards, and promote the use of high stakes tests.

But those policies cause real student learning to be sacrificed on the altar of managerial control. And excessive managerial control in education or any other endeavor diminishes human potential.

That fact is well understood by language arts subject area committee members in this story. They also understand—some more than others—that human potential is tapped when students can attach tangible meaning to what they are taught.

When they realize deep down that what they are doing is more than a game of Trivial Pursuit, or meeting societal expectations based on how well they jump over hurdles. And eventually attain academic credentials that open doors to jobs and social acceptance.  

Meaningful learning to all students is associated with what is perceived as authentic, deserving of tangible action, and interesting enough to play around with intellectually. In other words, they appreciate the opportunities to manipulate it in real world terms, create new ways of thinking and acting, and sense a need to change the way they live day-to-day.

Barbara Guides Discussion Toward a New Level of Discernment – Part 14

I felt our discussion was gaining traction, that the language arts could be approached differently. That they can be thought of and used as means through which we manage our world tangibly, productively, and creatively.

We were even beginning to suggest that the language arts are tools through which other disciplines are made more relevant if approached in a real-world context. Through project teaching and learning.

Music teacher Don clearly had his doubts, suggesting that courses designed to stimulate appreciation did not fit that mold. On the other hand, he apparently believed music performance corresponded in many ways with our thinking about communication, creativity, tangibility, and project learning.

He said, “Performance is associated with skills like “reading” music, singing or playing an instrument articulately, creativity in the realm of musicianship, and tangibility in conveying reactions like emotion or pleasure. Performance is designed to communicate in the same way good stories do, so I can accept the comparison to language arts.”

Committee members seemed to understand Don’s logic and asked him why he expressed concern about his music appreciation course. “It isn’t just about music appreciation,” Don said. “It is about appreciation in general. I often struggle with what that word means and how it fits the mission of any educational program.”

Board member Bryon nodded in agreement. “Like other members of the board, I have children in your schools. During the COVID pandemic this district had to use a hybrid teaching/learning model, and we understand how difficult it was for you teachers to use that process.

“As laypeople, and elected representatives of district patrons, we wondered what effect the hybrid model had on our kids. To be frank, it seemed minimal. Especially in the category of appreciation.

“My kids did their assignments. But they were almost lifeless in terms of academic growth. And they were unable to tell me what, if anything, they were getting out of school.

“In other words, I don’t think they appreciated any of it. On any level.”

Superintendent Ken said, “That’s scary but probably true. The pandemic caught our society off guard, and we educators were no exception.

“Joan used a word educators throw around all the time. That word is retention, something the pandemic seriously affected. I suspect there was little retention of anything taught during that era.

“I realize Joan’s work with lower functioning special education children makes the goal of retention especially hard to reach. And many times, the goal is met through constant repetition, recognition of varied learning styles, and dynamic and continuous follow-up using varied venues.

“But I believe retention is a companion of appreciation. And both are a companion to relevance.  

“We remember what we appreciate. And appreciate what is relevant to our lives.

“Don, I do not know how you approach the teaching of music appreciation. Frankly, the one course I had in high school was almost torture for me.

“But there was one piece of it I do remember more than others. That had to do with the composers themselves. Their stories and what motivated them. Oddly, I remember two words about that, and they are genre and culture.  

“One interesting exercise the teacher had us do in teams is write a story about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, as having been born in 1856 or 1956 instead of 1756.  We were organized in groups of three to discuss the challenge, conduct the research, and prepare papers in which conclusions were presented. The question we were to answer is, ‘What kind of music would Mozart have written in the assigned time and place?’

“My assigned place was the United States in 1856, specifically the mountains of eastern Tennessee. I had to describe the culture there and prevailing genre of music when my ‘Mozart’ was about 20 in 1876.

“You can imagine how much I learned, especially about how our culture defines creativity, and how different kinds of genres produce particular ways of believing and acting. Of special interest to all of us were the findings of those assigned the Mozart born in 1956 in Los Angeles.

“That research and our findings made me appreciate the idea of music fitting into an era and lifestyle, and even how much they overlap. Probably the greatest impact it had on me was how music is an extension of who we are and what we believe.”

After Ken spoke, I suggested that maybe we had identified another way language arts and the broader definition of technology provide a foundation for attacking something as challenging as appreciation. While the type of music located in the research Ken did was critical, its description and storyline development had to be presented in words, sentences, paragraphs, essays, and evidentiary writing.  

Maybe it is time for the language arts SAC to stop theorizing and begin putting legs on these ideas. The way to do that is anything but clear.  However, with the help of Rebecca and others, we will start moving in that direction.

©2021 Stu Ervay – All Rights Reserved

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