Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Scripts and Actors

Yesterday, I wrote a post on Separating Curriculum and Instruction. I meant to include a wrap up at the end of the post, but I forgot. Then, I thought about updating the post today to include a wrap up, but now I think that the wrap up works better as its own separate post. Phew! So, here we are.

Think of learning as a play where the curriculum is the script and the instruction are the actors. I am arguing that, in general, we have better actors than scripts. Sure, there are still good actors and bad actors, but the average actor is better than the best script, and the best scripts are pretty terrible.

If the best scripts are pretty terrible, then the best plays are also going to be pretty terrible, and hiring better actors isn't going to help. In fact, there is little incentive to go out and hire the best actors since a slightly above average actor will be almost as good in the role.

Now, a better actor is going to get more out of a bad script than a bad actor will. Even if the scriptwriter didn't do it, the better actor will infuse the character with nuance, motivation, and maybe some kind of backstory. But imagine that the script is so bad that the character is constantly saying and doing things that the audience finds ridiculous and out-of-character. There is only so much that the actor can do without re-writing the script from scratch. In the same way, the best teachers will massage the curriculum, but there is only so much they can do without re-writing the curriculum from scratch.

Once all plays are terrible and hiring better actors doesn't help, the craft of acting starts to devolve. Why push the state of the art if mediocre is good enough to land any role and the audience can't easily distinguish between mediocre and best? What's worse, how do you push the state of the art? Imagine that there are two schools of acting. Given a terrible script, the actors who subscribe to school X give performances just as good as the actors who subscribe to school Y. Which school is better? You can't tell. School Y may be better, but you'll never know it until the actors from school Y have a chance to strut their stuff with better scripts.

I had lunch with my coach Sarah today, and we talked a little bit about the progressive education movement. So many people are rushing to place their ideas and methods under the progressive education umbrella that the term has lost some of its rigor. This is natural, but at some point you need to prune things back. Unfortunately, that is hard to do when you can't measure instructional methods or acting techniques against performance because the curriculum or the script is holding back that performance. When that happens, everything becomes personal preference and nothing gets resolved. This is why educational researchers are constantly rebadging old ideas with new names in order to escape all of the baggage.

I'm going to make one last point about curriculum, instruction, and new normals. It doesn't really belong in this post, but I'm going to make it anyways. In Separating Curriculum and Instruction, I pointed out that we accept uninspired teaching as normal, and that I wanted to wake up in a future where uninspired teaching is unfathomable. I'm guessing that most people would nod when reading that. However, I then pointed out that we accept a low standard of performance as normal, and that I wanted to wake up in a future where our lowest-performing students outperform what we consider high performing today. I'm guessing that most people would feel kind of awkward reading that because they don't truly believe it. This highlights our beliefs about instruction (embodied in teachers) and curriculum (embodied in standards). We need a Fosbury Flop on the curriculum side because no one believes it is possible. It's not a communication issue. I have to prove it in a way that the truth is undeniable. The instruction to support the curriculum will then follow, and a lot of the instructional crap we have now will get pruned away.

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