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Spiraling vs. Mastery?

I’ve been struggling lately with the pedagogies behind a spiraling curriculum and the need to assess mastery of standards at measured intervals. While I wholeheartedly believe that targeted instruction helps students to master learning targets, or standards, there also needs to be time set aside to explore concepts without the intent of mastery. I sometimes worry that with an increased push toward mastery of standards, teachers lose the forest for the trees.

Yes, we need to keep the trees healthy. In essence,  we need to assess student mastery of specific skills, identifying what might hurt the tree in the long run.  When there are areas of weakness detected, educators have a responsibility to address those holes in a timely and targeted fashion. There are a wide range of instructional resources to increase practice on specific skills for students, as well as many different grouping strategies to address student needs.  If we aren’t able to find these trees that need attention, the forest will not flourish.

On the other hand, professional teachers have a responsibility to take care of the entire forest, exposing their trees to sunlight, water, and nutrients, so that they may grow. We need to design larger units of instruction that expose students to higher level thinking skills, complex concepts, and worldly events that we DO NOT expect mastery from. Exposing students to these more challenging skillsets sets them up for success in the future. They will be able to master new concepts later down the road because they have been exposed to them in context and over large spans of time.

So, where do you stand? How can teachers balance the need for mastery of standards while also nurturing an entire forest of learners?

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