Everything Has A Story

I don’t know about you, but I sort of cringe when I hear the phrase “scope and sequence.” Now, I know that there is nothing inherently wrong with that phrase, and it’s actually quite a useful one. Indeed, disciplines in schools do well to have a scope and sequence, for it lets the curricular right hand know what the left hand is doing, so-to-speak.

At McDonogh, we’re about to embark on some new and challenging work to support our Academic Strategic Plan, LifeReady. It’s time to get our PK-12 departments together and look at what we do, why we do it, and how we know we’re doing it. Even a few years ago, we might have set out to write, or perhaps merely to tweak, the PK-12 scope and sequence for all of our disciplines.

But LifeReady changed all that.

So much has been written about the history of education from the Prussian model to the Committee of Ten to John Dewey to last week’s fad that we all sort of realize that education is being re-defined, from the inside and especially from the outside. The more we look at the world of education, from elementary school through college, all teachers and leaders are asking, “what is our job?”

I think it’s safe to say that the history of education in the last 170 years, give or take, coupled with general notions about “college readiness” have naturalized many assumptions teachers and schools have about what they have to cover and why. One of the symptoms of this history — this naturalization — is, among other things, the scope and sequence. The assembly-line ethos framed our current education model in many ways, and we tend to look to the product of a course, a grade level, a school career. Perhaps we might do better to think of ourselves as a critical link in a person’s ongoing growth. Too often, the education of students feels mass produced due to the number of students to teach, the standards to be reached, and the pressure to cover content. And while independent schools are lucky to have control over their curricula, they still must face the pressures of families, news hype, and the weight of this thing called college preparation (despite the fact that colleges, too, are asking fundamental questions about what they should be doing and why). In some important ways, there is very little difference between pubic and independent schools.

For a variety of reasons, then, we  take for granted the status of various disciplines like English, history, mathematics, and so on. Why do we teach these subjects? Now before you think I’ve gone off the deep end by asking this question, let me state that I think these subjects are important. My point has really to do with the way we might not feel the need to ask ourselves the question, “why math?” or “why world languages?” and so on. We simply default to lines like, “we need to teach this so kids are ready for college,” or “we teach this because that’s what schools are supposed to do.” For generations, students have accepted the template of school as most of us know it: twelve years, five “major” subjects (English, math, history, languages, science), and extracurriculars (arts and athletics). The Committee of Ten, a group of college presidents who essentially established the framework for K-12 schools to which we still adhere today, concluded their recommendations for K-12 education in in 1892 — over 120 years ago.

Like so many people working in education, I cannot predict what school will look like in five or ten or twenty years. And like those many people, I believe that we must be continuously poised to adapt to a rapidly-changing world, a situation beautifully-explored in Grant Lichtman’s recent book, #EdJourney: A Roadmap to the Future of Education (Jossey-Bass, 2014).

In support of LifeReady, we’ve jumped into robust PK-12 training in project-based and team-based learning. Teachers feel empowered to take risks in class, to experiment, to fail, to discover. Our lower school continues to explore the value of responsive classroom training, our middle school continually experiments with integrated learning as is witnessed by its humanities curriculum, and our upper school has implemented PBL and TBL strategies into classrooms in support of LifeReady. Soon, McDonogh hopes to partner with a research university to explore the value as well as the science behind failure (a blog post for another time!).

We are on the move.

But what about the traditional departments that still, in many ways, continue to be the bedrock of our day-to-day practice, at McDonogh and at many schools in our peer group? As we welcome the indisputable notion that high-order skills learning must have a place at the curricular table, and as we greet the possibilities of learning everywhere and no longer just in the four walls of brick and mortar settings, we — or at least, I — wonder about the place of traditional departments. And I do not think nor wish that science, math, English, history, arts, and world languages are going away; for millenia, the liberal arts, as Fareed Zakaria has succinctly argued in his recent book, In Defense of a Liberal Education (Simon & Schuster, 2015), have served humanity extraordinarily well. Still, I think it’s safe to say that how we teach these subjects and how they interact once they are “un-siloed” from each other remains to be seen. I think it’s exciting.

So, where does one begin in the process of preserving the best of what these disciplines have always offered human beings while allowing them at the same time to adapt to a changing “ecosystem” (to borrow a phrase from Lichtman) of learning? What is irreducible about the fields of, say, science and math? These are questions we must ask — not in preparation to eliminate them necessarily, but to celebrate their continued place. How do we do this?

I believe it’s the story.

In the business and not-for-profit world, new organizations, like a theatre company, with which I’m most familiar, enjoy the opportunity to tell its story to the world. The story gets people excited about what you will offer. The story engages stakeholders. The story earns the resources needed to survive. The story allows an organization to know what it is and how to make decisions in accord with that narrative.

We should do this with liberal arts disciplines, particularly as we head out to investigate them in the context of 21st-century learning.

So, I suggest, let’s not say that we teach math because kids need it for college. Let’s not say, when asked what kids will learn in English, “here’s our scope and sequence” in order to lay out what will be covered. Let’s tell the story of English. Let’s tell the story of science. I have to thank my colleague, Rick Thompson, who teaches middle school science and robotics for this insight. Several years ago, when we were preparing for our AIMS accreditation, Rick emphasized this notion of story when reviewing our curriculum. That has clearly had a huge impact on me.

But the story isn’t just there to offer an upbeat alternative to explaining units, lessons, and assessments. It goes well beyond this. When the story of a subject is told, it offers a way to think about the way such learning lives in us long after the classes are over. How, for instance, do we bring our science literacy to bear on how we live? Why is it that we are better citizens when we think mathematically? How can these stories break down the silos of departments for more integrated learning?

Having the story of a subject also empowers teachers and departments to choose how they will help this narrative live in their students. One needn’t trudge, chapter after chapter, through a text book, beholden to an external scope and sequence, if the story can be “told” — indeed, “taught” — another way, right?

In an email I’m drafting to McDonogh’s PK-12 science department leaders, I wrote

But the key thing here — for me at least — is to emphasize the story of a discipline, for this has a direct and consequential impact on how we design the curriculum for this discipline. While we can outline what will be covered and how, a perfunctory description of a scope and sequence doesn’t inspire (students, parents, and teachers alike) so well as the reason we think science learning makes students life ready. Moreover, a story can get us to a place to make good judgments about how we choose and how we articulate program outcomes. The story reminds us of the forest when we too often live only in the trees.


I don’t know if my hunch is right, of course, but, for now, I’m all about the story. I think it’s a place to begin, for it can welcome change at the same time that it honors the work that has brought us to a point where we can ask these next questions.

What do you think?


About kcosta380

Kevin J. Costa is the Director of The Curiosity Shop at McDonogh School (Owings Mills, Maryland), the school's Community for Teaching & Learning. He is the founding director of the school’s Institute for Shakespeare and Renaissance Studies, an interdisciplinary program that explores the plays and history of Early Modern England through a scholar/practitioner approach. Kevin is also education director for the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company in Baltimore, MD. He holds a PhD in English with a concentration in Shakespeare, Renaissance literature, and drama, and has taught at the secondary and postsecondary levels. Kevin has trained in classical theater at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, and he was the recipient of a National Endowment for the Humanities award to study the teaching of Shakespeare at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, where he now serves as a teaching artist for the Library’s National Teacher Corps. Active on stage and as a director with the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, he is also a proud member of the Shakespeare Theatre Association, an international organization of Shakespeare theater companies.
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