Calling audibles . . .

Several members of the Teacher Leaders Network and I were engaged in a focused conversation over the past few days with a researcher who wanted to assess teacher perceptions towards scripted curricula. It proved to be a very interesting conversation about an issue that is playing an increasingly important role in education—especially in schools serving poor and minority students.

One of the questions asked of our group was related to the role that teams of teachers should play in identifying and then amplifying instructional practices that work across classrooms within a building:

Is [collaborative lesson development and prescription of key curricula] essential? If so, what kinds of incentives, accountability and culture changes would encourage skeptics to want to engage with their peers to improve student learning. Should these teachers be required to adopt proven practices? If not, why not?

My answer is that all struggling teachers should be FORCED to adopt proven practices. One of education’s failures is that we’re too willing to turn a blind eye to those members of our profession who “can’t cut it.” This willingness is unacceptable because it harms children.

I once heard a reporter describe the balance between prescription and classroom autonomy in a football analogy that I could easily wrap my thinking around. He said that quarterbacks new to the NFL are often held to a tight script of plays that are called by the coaching staff. Heck, they even wear wristbands with the plays inscribed on them so that they can call the right directions out in the huddle. There is very little freedom for the new quarterback until he can prove that he can make the right calls without the coach’s input.

As a quarterback develops, however, more freedom is afforded. While coaches may continue to call plays, quarterbacks can make suggestions and even call audibles on the field. Now, changes may be limited to a set of predetermined plays that the coach is okay with, but the quarterback has permission to explore—and therefore to grow and develop as a professional by testing his own knowledge and thinking about the game. Sometimes he’ll be right and other times he’ll be wrong—but always he’ll be growing in his role—and he’ll be motivated to continue to improve because it will mean more confidence and control of the offense.

The most accomplished quarterbacks rarely have any controls placed on them by the coaches. Instead, they call their own plays based on their intimate understanding of the game and their creative thinking about possible solutions to every situation. What’s interesting is that plays called by superstars often mirror what coaches would have called anyway. Rarely do stars drift very far from what the “script” would have been had the coach been in charge—because superstars have mastered the basics and understand their importance in the game. Why drift from something that works?

But when a superstar does drift from the script, the results are often amazing. Their ability to innovate based on a nuanced understanding of the game is more art than science. The beauty of sport comes in moments when the unexpected happens—and works!  These moments are even described in artistic terms—a game becomes a “masterpiece” and an athlete a “genius.”

So the key—in my thinking—is that prescriptive curricula has a real place in education. It supports novices and struggling teachers who should be required to follow predetermined plans called by the coach. But accomplished educators need the freedom to “call audibles.”  Otherwise, we’ll never see brilliance in action.

Does any of this make sense?