Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand; instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumb nail. – Henry D. Thoreau
Henry Thoreau, the nineteenth century American author, philosopher, and naturalist, was responding to the “speed of modern day” when he argued for simplicity. That speed has certainly gotten faster in the last one hundred and fifty years, and Thoreau’s argument for simplicity is still a good one! In fact, bestselling author Mike Schmoker makes the case in his book Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning. Schmoker says it is quite simple to get exactly what we want and what students need. We just need to go back to the essentials:
“If we choose to take just a few well-known, straightforward actions in every subject area, we can make swift, dramatic improvements in schools. Some believe we could virtually eliminate the achievement gap within a few years…”
But the price for such swift improvement is steep: Most schools would have to stop doing almost everything they now do in the name of school improvement. Instead, they would have to focus only on implementing “what is essential.” Hardest of all, they would have to “ignore the rest”… the fads, programs, and innovations that now prevent us from ensuring that every student in every school receives a quality education.
Schmoker goes on to explain what is essential for schools. He identifies three simple things:
Reasonably coherent curriculum (what we teach)
Sound lessons (how we teach)
More purposeful reading and writing in every discipline, or authentic literacy (integral to both what and how we teach).
While these three categories of educational reform are arguably simple, it is also important that everyone understands exactly what they mean in order to begin the improvement process together:
What we Teach. There are many curricula focused on different skills and content. Schmoker explains that what we teach needs to be tied to authentic literacy. In other words, we need to have students reading, writing, and talking about the essential information in each subject. He says that too many students leave school without the skills they will need for the twenty-first century. They need to be able to “read, write, cipher… think and solve problems… draw upon a rich vocabulary based on a deep understanding of language and the human condition.” This means that students should engage in the material in sufficient intellectual depth, and should not be excessively tied to the “standards.” In fact, Schmoker claims that the standards detract from real learning. Working with curricula that truly allow students to read, write, and talk about the essential content will prepare students for college, careers, and productive citizenship.
How we Teach. In 2007, a study reported that teachers are the most important school factor in how much children learn. Effectively teaching is not a mysterious process. In fact, it consists of just a few teaching practices that are not at all new. They are:
Clear objectives (or goals). These goals are established by the teacher and stated to the students
Teaching, modeling, and demonstrating. Students can get a sense of how to do the skills through the teachers’ words and actions.
Guided practice. Students have an opportunity to try their own hand at the activity.
Checks for understanding. Before moving onto the next skills, teachers ensure that all students understand the lesson at hand.
Authentic Literacy. When Schmoker talks about “authentic literacy,” he is not talking about “reading skills.” Instead, he is describing purposeful (and usually argumentative) reading, writing, and talking about a subject. That means that in math, students will read, write, and talk about square roots. The same for science and history. Often, English is the only subject that deals with “reading comprehension;” however, Schmoker points out that this is the single most important skill in the twenty-first century. And, unfortunately, it is under-taught and under-valued. Reading, writing, and talking about the subject can help with content and with thinking skills.