More Learning in Less Time: Too Good To Be True?

I had the chance to preview a state-of-the-art, digital ELA curriculum for middle school last week. I have always been a skeptic of technology to solve our problems in education. I’m not on Facebook, either. But even I must admit, this digital curriculum was really impressive, maybe too impressive.

Most companies are scrambling to rename their textbooks as being “aligned to the Common Core.” What they are really doing is tinkering at the edges, rather than rethinking and redesigning. It’s hard to start from scratch when you’ve invested a billion or two in the development of your best-selling curriculum. What was impressive about the prototype I saw was that it was truly about “college-ready work,” which is the name of my team. It was always a strange name and I got it because the focus was on “the work that students and teachers do together.”  The genesis of the portfolio was always about improving teaching and learning for both students and teachers.

Sometimes people think digital means kids working on tablets alone by themselves. Even Sal Khan talks about how important it is for learning to be collaborative. The goal of ELA curriculum is to make kids focus and concentrate really hard and then gather them into a discussion. They want to triple the amount of reading and writing students do in class and on their own and triple the amount of feedback teachers give. And they want to do all of this in about 135 days of instruction “on the device” so they can make room for the field trips, favorite lessons and other things teachers try to fit into the average 180-day school year. The average textbook they say has about 1000 days of instruction!  This new curriculum is trying to make good on the “fewer” part of the “fewer, clearer, higher” mantra that has been used to describe the Common Core. There are also supplemental educational games (that look as addicting as Minecraft) and other features that help the teacher know where students are in their learning and how best to adjust the instruction. All this on a small little device.

I kept thinking: this might be too good, too ahead of its time.  Are teachers, schools, and districts ready for this? Is the Internet even reliable in your school? There are a lot of factors that will go into the success or failure of the launch of some of these digital curriculums, starting with the basic infrastructure in schools. But I have no doubt the kids will take to it quickly. In my mind, it’s all about supporting teachers better and getting school and district leaders to really understand what teachers need—do they have the collaboration time, access to “early adopter” teachers who have experimented in this space, and the professional support to make this transition from seeing tablets as textbooks and laptops as the new paper and pencil? What areas of accountability should we suspend while we ask teachers to take these risks? We just came out with a letter that described one of them.

– C.