Teachers’ decision making is constrained by a persistent paradox. Today, many administrators prioritize uniformity in teaching—for example, they want all teachers in a given grade to be “on the same page.” However, by demanding conformity they automatically eliminate creativity in teaching. Uniformity and creativity cannot coexist.
Eliminating teachers’ ability to make independent decisions about how to teach the prescribed content to their students—in other words, limiting their professional creativity— is the best way to minimize the possibility of achieving highly effective teaching. Of course, limiting teachers’ creativity also minimizes student learning.
What’s the relationship between uniformity and creativity? And how does the uncomfortable relationship between these two forces impact teachers, their decisions, and their young students?
How does this emphasis on uniformity play out in young children’s classrooms and why is it a problem?
In an educational environment that favors uniformity, all teachers at a given grade level would be expected to use the same instructional materials to teach the specified content to their students at roughly the same point in the academic year. This sounds logical, right?
But in every classroom at every grade level you would find students who had already mastered the specified content being taught to the class and students who had not yet developed the foundational academic skills necessary to engage with the specified content. The officially authorized instructional materials are not appropriate for students who are working above or below grade level. If our goal is for every student to learn every day, teachers must make adaptations and adjustments to the lessons to ensure individual students’ learning needs are met.
It’s fine for the instructional materials and lesson plans used by teachers at a given grade level to be identical. But this is where uniformity should end. Teachers should always be permitted to make professional decisions that change uniform lesson plans and instructional materials into meaningful learning experiences for the specific students in their classrooms.
Does the desire for uniformity impact teachers’ presentation of the Common Core?
Unfortunately, most of the existing instructional materials for Common Core mathematics are actually out of alignment with the mathematics Common Core (see http://bit.ly/1ZPJdOW). And in English Language Arts, Common Core-aligned instructional materials are still in development (see http://bit.ly/1VZYE2j).
The lack of high quality, Common Core-aligned instructional materials for teaching students the standards—both in Mathematics and in English Language Arts—creates a significant problem for administrators who strive for uniformity. When high quality instructional materials and resources are unavailable, the administrative imperative for uniformity becomes an impossible goal.
Luckily, classroom teachers have the knowledge, the creativity, and the desire to augment, re-work, and transform almost any lesson into a learning experience that will be effective and engaging for all their students. Here again, it’s teachers’ professional expertise—which includes the ability to identify the parts of a generic lesson plan that could be developed into something that’s both worthwhile and aligned to the Common Core, the decision making skills that guide the transformation of the generic lesson, and the ability to make adaptations to the lesson even while it’s being taught—is what enables students to learn.
If most of the instructional materials are inadequate, how will students learn the Common Core?
In order to ensure every student masters the Common Core to the highest degree possible for him or her, all desire for uniformity must be abandoned and an emphasis on creativity and great teaching must be embraced.
Mastery of the Common Core is a fixed end goal for every student at every grade level. But students vary widely in their academic capabilities and stamina. Therefore, in order to accommodate the naturally occurring variation among students at any given grade level, teaching the Common Core requires teachers to be MORE creative in planning learning experiences, MORE flexible in differentiating instruction, and MORE varied in their teaching strategies and activities to increase the likelihood that every student will engage with the lesson and move toward mastery of the prescribed content. Individual teachers’ creativity, quick thinking, and knowledge of their students as learners is what enables young kids to learn the content specified in the Common Core.
What would this type of creative teaching look like in a typical kindergarten classroom?
Observers may see teachers teach, reteach, and re-reteach the same concepts to their students using different manipulatives, different instructional strategies, and different materials. They may see teachers change up the timing or routines used in their main instructional blocks to better accommodate their students’ learning needs (such as presenting three short lessons with “brain breaks” in between them rather than one long lesson).
Lisa S and I know a first grade teacher whose students’ favorite brain break is “Kitty High Five” by GoNoodle. The video clocks in at about one minute and 3o seconds, has movements that don’t require lots of space, and is goofy and fun enough to leave the kids feeling refreshed. (GoNoodle has lots and lots of videos of this type and I haven’t seen a bad one yet. Please see https://www.gonoodle.com/ to sign up for free!)
Observers might notice the teacher adjusting the pacing of the lesson, the formative assessment strategy, or the instructions given to the parent volunteers. If all students are expected to master the content presented in the Common Core, teachers must be free to employ their professional judgment, to draw on their prior experiences and their expertise, and even to use trial and error when necessary.
The honest truth about teachers’ decision making
Teachers’ professional decisions are shaped by a deep, unfailing commitment to supporting their students’ growth and development in every way they can. Administrators’ directives matter, of course. But when administrators’ directives stand in the way of effective teaching, most experienced teachers will continue to make decisions that support their students’ learning and development.
For every student to master the Common Core, every teacher must have free rein to respond to the needs, strengths, and interests of the specific students in their classrooms, to devote extra time to certain topics for particular students when necessary, and to customize lessons and other instructional materials to address the specific learning needs of their individual students. To achieve student success in mastering the Common Core, districts and principals should encourage teachers to embrace creativity and abandon uniformity.
Teachers’ freedom to make independent decisions about curriculum and instructional practice is precisely what enables every student to learn every day. The Common Core State Standards present high levels of cognitive and linguistic demand and may pose significant challenges for many young students. To enable children to learn the content presented in the Common Core, teachers will have to be more resourceful, more inventive, and more open to experimentation, such as trying new approaches, new materials, and new procedures. More creativity, not more uniformity, is what’s called for when teaching and learning the Common Core.