“By Design”: Common Core, Curriculum, & Culture Change

Anthony Gabriele is a co-founder of Education Is My Life. He is currently working as a K-12 Instructional Staff Developer, with a focus on curriculum development, content area literacy and technology integration. Anthony also works as a an adjunct professor/facilitator for the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Literacy Network.


The idea for this post finally hit me while driving to work one crisp, cold November morning.  I was listening to ESPN’s Mike and Mike in the morning and they had Brian Billick, former Baltimore Ravens and Super Bowl winning head coach, on discussing different head coaches in the NFL and their successes and challenges as ‘leaders’.  At one point in the segment, Coach Billick said something to the effect of (and I am paraphrasing here):

“When you are charged with leading men or you are in a position of leadership, it’s not so much about what you say that matters to why your team will follow what you ask, it’s about why you say it, about the reasons behind why you are asking them to do what you want them to.”

What I find extremely powerful about this somewhat simple statement is the inherent belief that to successfully lead others to an end goal, there must be real substance behind the endeavor.  That ‘substance’ could be a philosophical thread that runs throughout, a ‘dogma’ of sorts that anchors the decisions leaders make and the ‘personality’ of the organization they are trying to build.  From my own limited experience, I have learned that this is easy to believe, yet more challenging to implement. Setting the course of where the coach of a team or the president of a company wants to go takes more than slapping a fancy slogan, motto or ‘tagline’ onto t-shirts, pencils and coffee mugs.  It takes work. A lot of behind the scenes roll the sleeves up and get dirty work. It takes a balance between two related yet very different concepts: ‘leadership’ and ‘management’.

Building the infrastructure and foundation for success means a leader taking systematic, deliberate steps to a planned and purposeful procedure for implementation, change, or the like.  When I look at successful CEOs in business, successful coaches or athletes at any level, successful school leaders in districts, and/or successful teachers in the classroom, my money is on the fact that this success was due to not only that ‘why’ behind what they do (the leadership piece), but to a detailed, specific structure being built and plan put into place (the management or administrative piece).  This concept of doing something in this manner means doing that thing ‘by design’; and this concept has me looking to connect two seemingly disparate concepts, athletics and curriculum & instruction, together…forgive me…’by design’:

Culture Change by Design

As the final whistle blew on the 2011 lacrosse season, one of our player’s fathers walked up to our coaching staff and with a bewildered, yet proud look in his eyes, simply stated, “They did it, they won the league. It was just like you said 3 years ago when Beau was a freshman.  The plan was within 3-5 years, change the culture of a 5 win-13 loss high school program and win the league.  Here we are 3 years later and it happened.  How come you all don’t look as surprised as the rest of us?”  I calmly looked at Beau’s dad and, in a very matter of fact tone, told him, “…because it was by design. “

Taking on the challenges associated with building a high quality winning Varsity high school lacrosse program had to be a decision that was well thought out and planned ahead of time, implemented systematically and efficiently, and monitored and adjusted appropriately.  Once I decided to give this a go, I went out and found assistant coaches to round out the coaching staff who could fill the gaps in knowledge and experience that I had, who were hard working, and who were not afraid to push our players, our staff, and themselves to continuously work to try to exceed their abilities. Knowing in theory where we wanted to take things, we used the following structure, the following framework to help determine how we would go about enacting this change:

  1. Assessment: as one of our first major steps, we took a good hard look at both the internal and external environments around the program, the school, the league, the district and the community at large.  We worked to determine if the current state of these entities were going to support the change we hoped to bring. We looked at all the possible supporters or detractors—at the local leadership, at the parents, at the players, etc—were we going to be supported by the athletic department? The school? If so to what extent? What types of funds were available for things like tournaments? Uniforms? Equipment? If it was not enough did we have the parent support to help raise funds? Do we have the athletes? The players that can take on a task as daunting as changing the culture of an organization? Was the league competitive? Would there be opportunities to make waves and push our players to go against top competition or would we be restrained by a league schedule?  As part of this assessment we made sure to check the recent and past history of the program—what were the traditions in place? Were they going to help forward our cause or be roadblocks? Where did our plans fit and what possible obstacles would we face?
  2. Defining the Gap: once the assessment data was collected and we made the decision to move forward, we then looked to communicate the current and past state of the program in comparison to our ‘future or desired state’. This is where the leadership piece comes into play.
  3. Leadership: we worked to clearly communicate the program’s new vision, goals, philosophy and expectations for both on and off the field…all the while sticking to bringing each decision and each change back to our ‘why’.  Our focus on Commitment-Character-Competition was plastered on our website, email, and documents…but was also tied to the guidelines in our student-athlete handbook, as well as our player expectations and evaluation criteria.  In trying to not be hypocritical, we strove to walk the walk…to be models of what we expected out of our players (albeit not always perfect!). In this endeavor we broke down the ‘why’ into a bulleted series of ‘whats’ and ‘hows’—what did Commitment actually look like in tangible, day-to-day activities? What about Character? Competition? What was the future state of the expected behaviors we wanted to see?   There had to be a clear and consistent line of understanding between and a model of the ‘why’ and the ‘what’ and the ‘how’.
  4. Measurement: while easy to set up, this had to be one of the most time consuming aspects to carry out.  As each year, both in-season and off-season, progressed, we had to collect a balance of both subjective and objective feedback, of both qualitative and quantitative data, of both individual and team statistics.  It was a mix of the more public information such as the win/loss record of the program, individual player stats, student athlete discipline records and academic achievements, and the list of college programs our players were beginning to attend each year, with the more private ‘for the team’s eyes only’ information we gathered through growth charts, goal sheets, and certain saber-metrics protocols we developed.
  5. Implementation: inherent in the ‘management’ of this step (or continuous series of steps) is remembering to keep an open mind, to stay patient and flexible, to use the measurement data to continue to make informed decisions to adapt and refine the process along the way, and, when challenged to problem solve and make the tough calls, to make sure to be consistent and to keep focused on the best interest of the players and to stay true to the ‘why’ that anchors and permeates the program.

Understanding by Design

I believe very strongly that the office of Curriculum & Instruction is one of the most influential and most important in any district.  Most of the articles and research out right now all agree that the classroom teacher has the greatest direct impact on student achievement.  It is the responsibility of the Curriculum & Instruction office is to set and maintain the instructional tone, the instructional philosophy for the district; this is the ‘why’ that Brian Billick talked about in his radio spot.  To avoid any confusion some districts even call this office the office of Teaching & Learning.  Logically, if a school’s most influential resource is its teachers, then the district should make sure that it provides its teachers not only with a varied, vast and rich supply of the ‘what’ (curriculum) and a consistent, differentiated and high quality training on the ‘how’ (instruction), but all the while continue to communicate the ‘why’ of the district’s instructional focus, which should tie directly to student learning.

With the push to integrate the use of technology and Web 2.0 tools into classrooms, it is imperative to Curriculum & Instruction, that Teaching & Learning remain the driving force and the anchor for these decisions.  Making decisions on technology separate from curriculum and instruction places the focus on the wrong area, on the technology. The focus should always be on teaching and learning, on what we want our students to know and be able to do; we then should look to technology that will best support these learning outcomes for both content and skills. Keeping these two offices in isolation is dangerous; it could lead to too much focus on the technology and not enough on the actual learning.  As we plan and make decisions, whether at the district level or the classroom level, how do we keep all of this in mind, then?

After a ‘baptism by fire’ and a ‘how are they allowing me to continue to teach’ first few years, fourteen years and a multitude of experiences to help me grow later, I have come to wholeheartedly embrace Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design concept as a conceptual framework for structuring and designing learning.  From curriculum to basic lesson planning to effectively incorporating technology into curriculum and teaching practice, designing learning experiences and instruction around long term transfer goals, clear student outcomes, and focused assessments has helped me to become more purposeful in my teaching, and therefore my students in their learning.

It has helped to provide the overall design, as well as the sometimes elusive ‘why’ of what we are teaching.  As an extension of this, I will say that while UbD has provided the framework for the content and student learning objectives, my implementation of the actual lessons has grown considerably ever since I embraced and started working with Mort Botel’s Frameworks for Learning as outlined in The Plainer Truths of Teaching/Learning.  The Four Lenses of Learning and Before-During-After learning frameworks help to anchor instruction in best practice and really ‘design’ the actual delivery of material in a student centered, co-constructivist manner. Understanding by Design has helped to set the ‘big picture’…the macro…while the Penn Literacy Network frameworks have helped to hammer out the ‘small picture’…the micro of the actual classroom teaching.

In either case, the important thread that is woven throughout is the idea that curriculum, instruction, teaching, learning…and by default then staff development…are all built upon a ‘why’ and framed in a deliberate structure. Very similar in a lot of ways to planning out the culture change of an athletic team, planning for meaningful, effective, sustainable and successful teaching and learning is possible.  While the decision to change the high school lacrosse program was more of a choice, the current emergence of the Common Core standards is leaving districts and teachers with less of a choice, yet more of a ‘oh boy, we need to make some big changes’.  Currently, our district is undergoing our ELA curriculum review, so the timing for us could not have been better.  For districts that are in this cycle or who are not, there are still steps that can help:

  1. Assessment & Defining the Gap:I am putting these together in this case because the Common Core standards pretty much set the ‘future’ or ‘desired state’ of what our schools, big picture, will look like.  It still is up to the districts to work out the specifics, but at some level the ‘where we need to be’ is set.  Even with this, the assessment of all the different factors is still very relevant. Are our students, teachers, administrators, board and community aware of and ready for the changes in expectations? How do they handle change? Has the district changed much over the years? What types of curricular changes need to be made in terms of resources, in terms of our scope and sequence of content and skills being taught? What about our students and what kind of skills or knowledge base do they currently have versus what is expected based on the common core? How will their performance on test scores change? What about the teachers and/or building level administrators and their knowledge of and training on the increased rigor and different expectations of the common core? Are our building level administrators instructional leaders?  Do teachers currently employ standards and data based decision making? What about balancing this out with brain research and other authentic teaching methods that are meant to engage and challenge students? These questions, along with many more, are causing districts to take a long, hard, honest look at all its systems and processes to figure out, where we are versus where we need to be…and of course what we need to do to get there
  2. Leadership: here we are back to the importance of using this assessment data to help set the ‘new way of doing business’ in a district.  It is the charge of school leaders, particularly those in the Curriculum & Instruction office, to consistently and clearly communicate the instructional philosophy and expectations to the staff. Again, it’s not just about a slogan or tag line to inspire (this is important to tying it all together in the bigger picture), but then breaking out in practical application what that looks like as a principal observing a class, as a teacher facilitating a lesson, as a student working in class. It is encouraging and supporting the people implementing the change to take risks, and celebrating their successes and helping them reflect on their challenges. It should be the administration taking on the role of instructional leaders themselves, being sure to ‘walk the walk’ when they can, whether it be facilitating a session at a district in-service or modeling/co-teaching a lesson in a classroom after a walkthrough or observation.
  3. Measurement: in the case of curriculum and instruction, developing high quality assessments that will deliver both qualitative and quantitative data tied to standards, expectations, etc…is not always the easiest.  From the administrative level on down to the classroom, districts will have to work to train all parties involved on crafting these types of standards based assessments, as well as how we combine those with more authentic learning assessments (such as project based assessments) that are still assessing what our learning outcomes are for our students.  It is not only the summative pieces that are important, but the formative ones as well.  Working with teachers to really understand what we mean, in classroom terms, by ‘data driven instruction’.  It could be sitting with a teacher to help him/her navigate the results of a Classroom Diagnostic tool which is tied the state anchors and eligible content, then using this to lesson plan and develop differentiated learning experiences for his/her students.
  4. Implementation: as we look, once again, to the management piece, being organized and consistent, being open minded and flexible, using data and logic (rather than emotion) to help guide the process are all extremely important.  Crucial to this phase as well is to invite and empower others to get involved in the process (this can start in the leadership phase as well). Administrators and teachers need to buy in; as adults, our experience and expertise must be validated and supported, and our growth must be cultivated.  The more a district can keep the ‘why’ in the forefront of people’s minds, the more smoothly tackling challenges will be and the more efficiently the implementation of the changes will go.  Many of the critiques of the Common Core state that the new standards are just raising the bar without really changing the how we are going to help students. To go back to the athletics example, it would be like taking the teams in our league and all of the sudden giving us a schedule equal to that of a nationally ranked #1 or #2 powerhouse program.  From the get go we’d be overmatched and the expectations would rise drastically.  The key to a team’s success would like not only in the leadership but in the implementation of how they are going to adapt.  Will the practical steps be taken to actually implement the changes necessary to become successful in this new environment? Will staff development be done differently—will it be differentiated, embedded, consistent? Will structures like Professional Learning Communities or Ed Camp or virtual, online modules become more the norm? Again, we are now talking staff development to improve teaching and learning, which are all part of the office of Curriculum & Instruction…of Teaching & Learning.

So what is the point of all of this? Success rarely just ‘happens’ by dumb luck.  This is no secret.  There have been sayings from the likes of Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Goldwyn, who have been quoted with various derivations of the idea that the harder one works the ‘luckier’ one gets.  What I did later talk with Mr. Gomez about was exactly that concept.

We discussed his own son’s success in, by the beginning of his junior, being recruited to study and play lacrosse at the United States Naval Academy.  Ever since Beau was in 7th grade he began taking steps to position himself to play lacrosse in college.  Each year he hit the weight room, went to summer tournaments, and continued to get better and learn.  Even when he did sign that acceptance letter, along with the sense of accomplishment and the congratulations, there was a little of the ‘wow’ factor (probably similar to Mr. Gomez’s comments to our staff at that banquet).

This is because nothing is 100%, not even when the ‘design’ seems air-tight…the New England Patriots are a great example of this; consistently built to win championships and have been very successful, just not 100% of the time.  There are too many outside variables outside of our control…injury, a student’s ‘home life’, general life events, etc…that can change the course originally set out. However, the more we can build consistent structures around the factors that we can control, the better chance we have of finding Success…by Design of course.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *