An Aha moment – curriculum flow

Rafting on the White Nile by Maciej CC BY SA

A few years ago when I was a little more adventurous and young enough not to know any better, I took a series of Whitewater rafting trips along different amazing rivers in Africa.  The thrill of being at the mercy of fast moving water and having to work collectively with a bunch of strangers who were all as terrified as I was had a lasting impact on me.  My biggest concerns about my own safety were that the team would not be as committed to my individual safety as I would like them to be; that there would be hidden rocks that might cause me physical harm and mostly that after we went over rapids, that we may become caught up in the hidden white water churning that occurs at the base of waterfalls.  This churning water is what drowns many people who swim and adventure in and around water falls as they are deceptively strong, like rips in the ocean, and difficult to get out of once you are going around and around them.  From above it can look like you are doing okay, and people may think you are getting out and moving on because you are moving up and down.  But the water churn means that your sense of direction is skewed, you swim down thinking it is up and become pulled on by forces you cannot predict.  The reality is that in the water you can be slowly drowning with the crowd looking on and not realising you are lost.

I have been swimming around waterfalls in my school for a year now.  The freefall of moving to a new school is rather like rafting off a large waterfall and this week I have realised that I have been stuck in a churning undercurrent for some time now.    The catalyst for my realisation was the fortuitous visit of an Assessment specialist and an opportunity to learn with her alongside my Middle School PE department.

Over the last year we have been accoladed as a Middle School department by our Curriculum and Office of Learning people because we have all our paperwork completed and we are in Year Three of a Five year journey to realign and implement a new Standards Based approach to PE.  However, underneath the spectator view of our progress, I worry that our department has been slowly drowning.  We may have lots of lovely paperwork but continue to question whether we are interpreting the standards correctly and using our very well-worded rubrics effectively.   We continue to question and wonder what we are doing and how to know if it is making a difference to the learning of our students.

This week’s meetings with Natalie Bolton and follow up conversations have been a catalyst for much-needed conversations for our department and I suspect will spearhead major changes and alignment between our teaching colleagues.  What I have particularly enjoyed is the opportunity to share issues or concerns that we are each having and to have Natalie be engaged in discussing and Noticing/Wondering and then allowing us to ask her questions, rather than the ‘expert’ approach of just telling us what to do and leaving us to get on with it.  The truth is that we have truly struggled to understand how to implement a Standards Based curriculum in our department and have not really known what we should do about this as everything seems to be very daunting and involve more paperwork.

Natalie’s first response was golden.  She wanted each of us to articulate a challenge we felt we had and something we would like to think about in our program.  This meant that we could decide to talk about anything that mattered and it was surprising to hear what people were challenged with and to articulate concerns – sometimes our concerns can be very convoluted or hard to define.  This gave a pause for us to really explain our thoughts and to listen to others.

Natalie listened, asked some clarifying questions, listened some more and then dived straight in.  She asked us to consider what was the Philosophy of PE.  This is a loaded question.  Sporticus put out a blog post and follow up survey a few years back asking what #physed people thought an ‘A’ student would look like in their program.  The responses were stunning for the range of different opinions and the way people vehemently defended their position on what expectations should look like in PE programs.  I will add here that I don’t think there is a ‘right’ answer as this is what the philosophy of your program is all about.  The important thing is that your department has a clear picture of what you are trying to achieve so that your assessments and experiences flow vertically and horizontally from that picture of success.  It was clear that although we have an overarching philosophy in MS PE, that individually we break that down into different foci.  And suddenly here was the crux of our churning.  We aren’t aligned with what Success looks like in MS PE.

Here is an example:

Ontario Curriculum for PE and Health

Standard: Movement Strategies

Strand: B2.3 apply a variety of tactical solutions to increase chances of success in game play

Student A: In Invasion Games setting can skillfully apply a variety of tactical solutions but cannot tell you why or how they work or reflect on how to use them more effectively

Student B: In Invasion Games setting can coach/ reflect and discuss a variety of tactical solutions but cannot actually skillfully apply them themselves

Student C: In Invasion Games setting can both skillfully do AND can define, discuss and reflect on a variety of tactical solutions

Does each student MEET this standard?  What makes you say that?  

Does this response reflect each member of your team?

This is the sort of conversations we have been starting to have this week within our department.  It is so important that we know what we are looking for and planning to teach and that our philosophy underpins both the way we set up our units but that we agree on what it looks like in practice.  Once you know what is driving you then you can set up the experiences for student learning that will shape the direction you are moving in for success.  But this setup and direction should flow along the same lines within the team.  It is not possible for one person to only accept Student A (above) as MEETING the standard but another person to allow for Student B to MEET as well.  The issue here is that now you are making the teacher the factor for success, it really shouldn’t matter which teacher teaches the unit – the opportunity for growth and assessment to MEET each standard should be the same.

If your department is driven by the Doing of Skills then clearly that will drive the way you interpret the breakdown of the strands and you will weigh heavily the application and Doing of skills.  However, if your department is driven by Knowledge and Reasoning, that the student can define, discuss and analyse but not do, then you will weigh more heavily here and not as heavy on the Doing of these skills.  But if you want to see balance across all three, you will have to decide that the Knowledge and Reasoning are important but they also need a level of Doing success to Meet the Strand.

What would your break down look like based on the philosophy of your school and department?  I wonder what this looks like as we look more closely at the four domains of learning and really decide what is important to our learners.