Schools Should Focus on the Essentials: Time to emphasize the basics of teaching and learning

Commentary, Education, Michael Zwaagstra

When everything is a priority, nothing is a priority. Nowhere does this expression hold true more than in our public schools.

Although the length of the school day has remained essentially unchanged for the last few decades, the same cannot be said about the expectations placed upon classroom teachers. In addition to providing academic instruction, a classroom teacher today is expected to fill the roles of social worker, nurse, police officer, and counselor, to name just a few. With all of these responsibilities, it’s a wonder teachers have time to do any teaching at all.

Provincial governments don’t make it any easier when they regularly expand the mandate of public schools into areas that go far beyond academic instruction. For example, the Manitoba government encourages schools to focus on social justice and environmental sustainability initiatives while the Ontario government micromanages schools down to the level of banning unhealthy food from canteens. None of this has much, if anything, to do with the instructional mandate of schools.

Fortunately some educators have begun pushing back against this trend. Mike Schmoker’s new book, Focus: Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning, shows how important it is for schools to focus on the essentials. As a former teacher and school administrator, Schmoker writes with the confidence of someone with firsthand experience in the field.

In Schmoker’s view, schools need to focus on three simple things: a reasonably coherent curriculum, sound lessons, and purposeful reading and writing in every discipline. Any school without each of these three things already in place should refuse to begin any new initiative until these essentials are firmly in place.

Schmoker argues that curriculum documents are unnecessarily complex and often swamped in meaningless verbiage. This is most apparent in English Language Arts (ELA) where thick curriculum guides contain almost nothing of substance. Trivial standards such as “find the main idea,” “identify the proper sequence of events,” and “distinguish between major and minor characters” do little to promote meaningful literacy.

In fact, these guides are so generic and useless that high school teachers can faithfully teach the entire ELA curriculum without requiring students to read a single complete book or write a single formal essay.

According to Schmoker, a simplified ELA curriculum that identifies specific books and articles all students should read and specifies the number and length of formal papers to be written at each grade level would go a long way to improve academic standards. Curriculum standards should be based on academic content rather than meaningless edu-babble.

As for classroom instruction, Schmoker argues that the last thing students need more of is flashy hands-on activities and “project-based learning.” Innovation is no guarantee of student learning. In fact, lessons can be quite effective with a minimal amount of technology so long as the teacher sets a specific learning objective, provides direct instruction focused on that objective, and regularly checks for student understanding.

Schmoker also notes that students are more likely to learn when teachers focus on providing effective, whole-class lessons rather than trying to cater to the individual learning style of every student. He provides several examples of schools in high-poverty neighbourhoods where their students are reading well above grade level. In these schools, early years teachers engage all students in learning through whole-class lessons with regular checks for understanding.

The incorporation of purposeful reading and writing in every discipline is also recommended by Schmoker. He argues that many teachers are too quick to avoid the use of textbooks in classroom instruction. Reading dense, complex prose found in textbooks is an excellent way for students to improve their reading skills and acquire valuable content knowledge simultaneously.

Students should also spend more time writing tightly focused essays in which they interact with books and articles. Schmoker asserts that essay writing is an excellent all-in-one assessment of a student’s reading and writing abilities and should therefore be done regularly.  

Schmoker is absolutely right when he notes that some things have a much bigger impact on student achievement than others. Ensuring that schools have a coherent curriculum, sound lessons, and purposeful reading and writing activities are essential to improving the amount of student learning that takes place.

Instead of adding new initiatives and dumping more responsibilities on teachers, provincial politicians and school division administrators should follow Schmoker’s advice and focus on what matters the most. Students and teachers alike would benefit greatly from this approach.