Brainpop and the overloaded curriculum. . .

I was poking through my feed reader today and came across a Larry Ferlazzo conversation on In Practice about the merits of Brainpop—a service that provides short, animated cartoons on a range of curricular topics that target middle grades students.

Responding to a Gary Stager post criticizing Brainpop as a “shallow easily pitched curriculum product,” centered around simplistic cartoons that result in understanding that is “unlikely or purely accidental,” Ferlazzo points out that Brainpop videos are nothing more than a tool for extending other learning experiences developed by teachers:

The key to teaching, and learning, in my view is what you do with students prior to and after their reading or watching the material. Sticking a student in front of an individual computer without combining that action with activities that access prior knowledge, without including small group collaborative learning, or without adding other engaging questions to provoke higher-order thinking skills is just taking the “easy way out.”

While I’d love to wrestle with what responsible instruction with a tool like Brainpop actually looks like, I thought that the most interesting nugget in this conversation came when Stager wrote:

My viewing of BrainPop cartoons suggests that too many topics are addressed in too little time, with complex issues, stories or concepts reduced to the most trivial level of education – vocabulary development.

Well, welcome to my world, Gary.

Brainpop cartoons aren’t the only place that too many topics are addressed in too little time.  You’re describing my curriculum—and it is a curriculum that I’m held accountable for teaching to twelve-year olds each year!

Take sixth grade science, for example.  My curriculum requires that students learn about folding, faulting, deposition, crustal plate movement, volcano patterns, and earthquake patterns.  They must also learn about the rock cycle, the carbon cycle, the water cycle and the nitrogen cycle.  We study the properties of soil, including

  • Color.
  • Horizon profile.
  • Infiltration.
  • Soil temperature.
  • Structure.
  • Consistency.
  • Texture.
  • Particle size.
  • pH.
  • Fertility.
  • Soil moisture

Then, we look at how humans can use vegetative cover, responsible agriculture and land use, nutrient balance and “soil as a vector” (whatever that is!) to control the impact that their activities have on the pedosphere.

And that covers the content in just one of SEVEN objectives!

Now, I know all about the lip-service that we pay to “identifying essential outcomes” and “eliminating non-essential outcomes” from the curriculum.  Heck, people like Bob Marzano and Rick Stiggins have been writing about the excessive number of benchmarks defined by state curriculum guides for years now

Few people working in today’s classrooms really believe that we can get through our entire standard course of study in one year.

But teachers often feel incredibly torn when they are forced to leave required outcomes out of their plans.  There is almost constant fear that we might be called on the carpet by our administrators for knowingly “skipping” content in our curriculum.  No one in a position of authority has ever given me stated permission to hack away at the instructional objectives defined in my standards.

What’s more, we rarely know which content will remain untested—and in today’s world, the pressure to perform makes leaving topics out a risky proposition at best.  We are, after all, a “data-driven” profession, aren’t we?  Numbers matter—and poor coverage can lead to poor numbers.

So—whether we’ll admit it or not—-most teachers do a lot of “teaching by mentioning it”—-and services like Brainpop look good to us because we can knock several benchmarks out in short periods of time without massive amounts of preparation and planning.

Am I proud of the fact that I’ll teach students about the Roman Empire this year in about 40 minutes by working through three or four Brainpop videos?

Nope.

But until decision-makers wake up and pare down the curriculum, working with an awareness of the amount of time that we have available for instruction and placing emphasis on more meaningful outcomes for teaching and learning, I haven’t got a lot of options.

I’ve just got 7,000 standards—and a heaping cheeseload of vocabulary—to teach!