Our TCS Curriculum: Nurturing Both the Trees and the Forest
Below is a transcript of a speech given by our Director of Curriculum and instruction, The graphic above is an example of "Visual Notes" contributed by parent Rachel Swanson. We are sharing both by popular request!
Curriculum Night is an evening for parents and families to learn more about the curriculum at TCS both in a general sense, and through meeting with their child's teacher in the classroom to hear more about class activities and the teacher's own approach to guiding each child and group through curriculum goals.
It goes without saying that teachers are absolutely the most important part of any curriculum. Without teachers, curriculum is just a bunch of words. We are fortunate to have outstanding teachers at TCS—talented, creative, hard-working, committed to their students, to the community, and to their own growth as professionals. Our teachers are the reason that our curriculum lives and breathes in such beautiful ways at TCS.
On the most basic level, curriculum means what is being taught in our classrooms, the content of our instruction—things like the letters of the alphabet, how to do long division, composing a topic sentence. All those things and many more are part of The Children’s School curriculum.
"What underlies curriculum is a set of values about what is important for our children to know in order to have a good life."
But if we step back and take a broader view, what underlies curriculum is a set of values about what is important for our children to know in order to have a good life. Curriculum is about prioritizing among the many different types of activities and experiences and knowledge that exist in the world and choosing the ones that are most important for our children to be the kind of people we want them to be.
So really, when we talk about curriculum, the stakes are very high. And because the stakes are high, there can be a certain amount of anxiety surrounding discussions of curriculum. It can be easy to get lost in the minutiae of curriculum because we are so anxious to get all the details exactly right.
You know that saying, “can’t see the forest for the trees,” meaning that someone is so focused on the minor details of a situation that they can’t see the big picture? When we talk about curriculum at TCS, I want to make sure that we are able to clearly see both the trees and the forest.
Let’s take a minute to acknowledge that trees are important. You can’t have a forest without trees. At TCS, the grade level curricular goals—the skills and concepts that students learn at each grade level--those are the trees. They are important for sure.
"The forest of our curriculum is students' habits of mind,
their engagement with learning, their understanding of
themselves as learners and as people, their curiosity and
internal motivation, their ability to collaborate with
others to problem solve, innovate, and be flexible, creative,
empathetic, and justice-oriented thinkers."
But at the same time if you focus only on individual trees, you never appreciate the amazing organism that is the forest. You can miss a lot. The forest of our curriculum is students’ habits of mind, their engagement with learning, their understanding of themselves as learners and as people, their curiosity and internal motivation, their ability to collaborate with others and to problem solve, innovate, and be flexible, creative, empathetic and justice-oriented thinkers. And that—the forest--is the ultimate goal of the curriculum.
You may have noticed that the ultimate goal of our curriculum is a whole bunch of things that can’t be easily or tidily measured. They are things that can’t be checked off on a checklist at the end of each unit or each school year. They are things that can’t be “mastered” once and for all in second grade, but rather are qualities that people strive towards and work towards their entire lives.
Let's apply this forest/trees idea specifically to math. In math curriculum, the trees are specific skills and concepts that build on each other from grade to grade. At TCS, like at every other school, we break out math skills and concepts by grade level to match the developmental level at which students are typically ready to learn each piece—skip counting in Kindergarten, regrouping in third grade, identifying characteristics of quadrilaterals in fifth grade, solving for unknowns in a system of equations in eighth grade. At TCS we have worked hard to ensure that we have vertical alignment from grade to grade so that our K-8 math curriculum represents a coherent, connected progression through all areas of mathematical thinking.
But if we think of our math curriculum only in terms of that progression from skill level to skill level in a kind of rote way—we are missing the forest. And we are missing a lot.
The forest in mathematics is engagement and excitement around math. It’s working collaboratively to solve open-ended, real-world problems with flexibility and creativity. It’s realizing that numbers and data and mathematical reasoning provide one valuable kind of information about the world but may also at the same time miss nuances like whose voices are being heard and whose needs are being considered. These higher level understandings and competencies are the ultimate goal of our math curriculum.
So because we take a broad view of curriculum and focusing on the forest, let me tell you what math does NOT look like for your child. It does NOT look like a textbook or workbook that we follow page by page, week after week. It does NOT look like timed tests to see if students can do 60 multiplication problems in 60 seconds. It does NOT look like daily homework and quizzes to earn “points” towards your final grade. And it does NOT look like standardized testing to see how you stack up against national norms.
Why not build a math program around those things? Many schools do. They do provide some tidy measurement of students’ skills, some quantitative data related to student learning.
"A steady diet of rote tasks, low-level procedures,
worksheets, quizzes, tests, and grades, fails to tap into students' curiosity and intrinsic motivation to learn math. It fails to make math learning relevant to children's lives.
It goes hand-in-hand with a deficit model that sorts children into those who are 'good' at math and those who are not."
But the problem with these things is that they are all trees and no forest. A steady diet of rote tasks, low-level procedures, worksheets, quizzes, tests, and grades fails to tap into students’ curiosity and intrinsic motivation to learn math. It fails to make math learning relevant to children’s lives. It goes hand-in-hand with a deficit model that sorts children into those who are “good” at math and those who are not. It encourages students to cram knowledge into their short term memory for a test or a grade, even though research tells us that when students cram knowledge into short term memory, that knowledge doesn’t tend to stick.
So how do we at TCS make sure our curriculum focuses on the forest? What does math look like for your child? It looks like students playing games, solving problems, and engaging in tasks, often collaboratively, often hands on with materials like toothpicks or unifix cubes or tape measures--and then sharing their reasoning and their strategies with each other. Our approach looks like the way a group of adults—perhaps in the workplace, perhaps somewhere else-- might work together to solve a problem or to create something new.
There is another set of practices that we don’t do at TCS even though they are quite common in other places. We don’t track students into high and low groups. We don’t label them. We don’t have an “advanced” math class and “regular” or “remedial” classes. We don’t –and this is super important—we don’t insist that students demonstrate mastery over lower order procedures and rote memory tasks before getting the chance to engage with more interesting, complex problems and ideas.
"We don't use access to higher order mathematical thinking as a gated entry that only some people are allowed to enter. And - no surprise - historically the majority of those people who have been allowed in, have been white males... At TCS we foster a growth mindset that says all students can do high-level mathematics, and a mindset that says faster is not always better."
We don’t use access to higher order mathematical thinking as a gated entry that only some people are allowed to enter. And—no surprise—historically the majority of those people who have been allowed in, have been white males. There is no chance that this historic inequity is about a difference in potential or talent. It is just about a difference in opportunity and access.
At TCS we foster a growth mindset that says all students can do high-level mathematics, and a mindset that says faster is not always better (in fact speed is relatively unimportant in higher level mathematics—what is more important is the ability to think deeply about a problem, to see creative solutions, to incorporate ideas from other people and other disciplines). We foster a mindset that says making mistakes and experiencing failure are a normal and valuable part of the process of learning.
And, good news! We know that our approach to teaching math works. We know that it positions your children for future success and academic achievement. We know this because our alumni do really well in math. We have years of data now to support this. We have a range of graduates, of course, from students who might be labeled “gifted” in math to students who struggle in math. And overwhelmingly, our graduates tell us that when they reach high school, they are prepared for their math classes. They know what they need to know to do well on the placement tests and they go on to do well in their math classes.
Even beyond high school, our approach prepares students to use mathematics in their daily lives, professionally or not, to see mathematics as a tool and a way of looking at the world, and as something beautiful and creative—like actual mathematicians do. We’re preparing students for the world they’ll be adults in. We’re preparing students to succeed in high school. And in the meantime, we’re creating a beautiful and equitable world for them to be children in.
So in closing-- I would like to ask you, the parents/guardians, to yes, pay attention to the trees in your child’s life, not only the individual pieces of curriculum your child is working on this year but all the many experiences, activities, relationships, and other things going on in your child’s day-to-day life.
But I would also ask you to step back periodically and consider the forest. Whether your child learns long division in 3rd grade or 4th grade or even 5th grade, whether your second grader is a good speller, whether your middle schooler still likes to read exclusively graphic novels—these are the trees.
More important is the forest. Ask yourself: are your child’s experiences at school aligned with your values and your beliefs about what is important in life?
I hope that you feel confident, as I do, that learning at TCS takes place in a caring, nurturing, unpressured environment where everyone’s voice is heard and valued, where each student’s individual needs are taken into account even as we do the hard work of living together in community. This approach provides a foundation for democratic, equitable decision-making, it provides a foundation for lifelong learning, it provides a foundation for healthy self esteem and esteem for others. It sets your children up for success in high school, in college, and in the workplace.
But we don’t do it just to prepare children for their future lives. We do it to make sure that their present lives are rich, meaningful, inspiring, and empowering. Thank you so much for entrusting your children to us and for joining us in that work.