“You know that the beginning is the most important part of any work, especially in the case of a young and tender thing.”

– PLATO, The Republic, Book II.

Where to begin? – an essential question in all story-telling and thus, also, in curriculum writing. Where, how should we begin a long intellectual journey? What must we accomplish in the beginning, so as to serve the learner and advance the learning best?
A curriculum etymologically is a ‘course to be run’. Thus, a course of study is very much a trek over many months, through varied terrain, with challenges, twists and turns, and eye-opening vistas en route. Surely, then, starting well matters greatly.
Our start should fill us with interest and initial resolve, at the very least, wouldn’t you say? As travelers led by a guide we naturally have all sorts of concerns and questions for which we need answers: where are we headed, by what means, for what purpose? Why should I undertake this arduous trip? What should I hope for? What can I expect? Am I prepared? How might I be better prepared? These are reasonable questions; they deserve answers, whether it is early September at the start of the Appalachian Trail on Mt. Katahdin or in the early days of Algebra I or US History.
Yet far too many textbook-based courses utterly fail this test. Many textbooks for guiding young trekkers just start abruptly – rudely – by taking no questions nor addressing our hopes and fears. We just start in the weeds, the technical muck of the subject. No map, no pep talk, no orientation to where we are headed and why it might be worth our while – just start walking (and trust us).
If you think I exaggerate, I offer the following two examples, one from a recent Algebra textbook, another from a text on US History Since 1865.
algebra 1 start
For contrast, watch the opening minutes of Ken Burns’ The Civil War and ask yourself: how is Burns enticing us to make the journey in a way far more effective than that of the textbooks?
Or, consider bassist extraordinaire Victor Wooten on starting to learn music.
Or consider the beginning of one of the most notable math courses ever taught, Harold Fawcett’s geometry course from the 1930’s, about which I have previously written as have others:

When the class met for the first time most of the pupils had their notebooks with them, some of the more thoughtful had brought their compasses and straightedges, and all of them expected to be given a text from which the work of the year would be taken.

There was thus considerable surprise when, after the usual routine of the opening day had been completed, the teacher said, “There is no great hurry about beginning our regular work in geometry and since the problem of awards is one which is soon to be considered by the entire school body I suggest that we give some preliminary consideration to the proposition that ‘awards should be granted for outstanding achievement in the school’.”

Why did Fawcett start his course in Geometry here? Because to start with the idea of necessary “givens” he thought it wise to “begin this work with a consideration of the importance of definition in matters which claimed the interest of the pupils.”
In the previous school year there had been a great debate about school awards and prizes, so Fawcett thought: “Here, then, was a problem of real significance to the pupils about which there had been some controversy and in the consideration of which definition was likely to be an important issue.  The teacher decided to give them an opportunity to discuss this problem, anticipating that in the argument which was almost certain to develop the necessity for clarity of definition would be recognized.”
In the early going of the course, students worked to define familiar ambiguous terms – e.g. if we give awards to teachers, is a librarian a teacher? – and to understand how the rules in games like baseball determine logical consequences, just as axioms lead to theorems in geometry. From this conceptual start, Fawcett asked students to propose similar what-should-be-accepted-as-givens in geometry. In other words, from the start, students were asked to think like mathematicians: argue for what the axioms should be.
Fawcett’s goal was transfer, not mere geometry understanding: to see if students could use such careful thinking to detect logical fallacies in commercials and political speech! He used both geometry and critical thinking tests to measure his results. (His book, The Nature of Proof, was an NCTM Yearbook over 70 years ago but has been reprinted recently by NCTM and is thus available both new and used widely – it is a must read for math teachers).
Such sensible and sensitive beginning is infrequent – indeed, it is still rare, 70 years later, especially in math, science, and history. Most teachers, relying on textbooks, end up unthinkingly commencing with confusing and perspective-less expertise, just as Dewey described (as further discussed in my previous post): “Technical concepts and their definitions are introduced at the outset. Laws are introduced at an early stage, with at best a few indications of the way in which they were arrived at. . . . The pupil learns symbols without the key to their meaning. He acquires a technical body of information without ability to trace its connections [to what] is familiar—often he acquires simply a vocabulary.” Our myopic educational sherpas seem blind to the idea that to start, as a novice explorer, immediately with the expert’s language, knowledge, and technical focus may be the worst way to begin – no matter how well-intentioned – if our aim is novice learner engagement, confidence, and understanding.
Let’s start thinking differently about starts. At Harvard University, students do not pre-register for courses. Instead Harvard has what is called “shopping week” (though it is really 2 weeks) in which students shop around, sitting in on courses before finally registering. It is a godsend for finding teachers and courses that one really wants: I steered away from 3 courses as a graduate student, based on the opening days (despite the fine catalogue descriptions).
So, here’s a little thought experiment for you as a teacher, for pondering this summer: suppose there were no required courses; suppose students could shop and vote with their feet. What would you do in your opening week to make students eager to persist with your course?
I’ll bet teaching technical vocabulary the first day is not high on the list.
So, how would you begin? How should you begin to maximize interest, hope, and clarity about goals?
(This post and the previous one on turning everything into little bits constitute the background writing for what I promised a few posts ago: proposing a completely different way to structure an Algebra course. That post will occur soon.)



20 Responses

  1. Grant. . . . . Have you been reading Dan Meyer’s blog? (Dy/Dan)
    Sounds like you two have come together on the importance of the story. His three act tasks make each problem a (usually compelling) story. What can we do to get states to see the value in this? Do the common core and the ngss value this? My 9th grade students struggle to see the value in this. They just want to know what to memorize for their grade far too often.
    I teach and assess as much as I can via open ended assessments using tasks by or inspired by Dan. In a world of khan academy, I see my value coming from these stories.
    So. . . . How should my story of what causes motion start next year?
    Thoughts anyone?

    • Yes, I read Dan’s blog. But the idea is an old one: check out a 20 year old book by Kieran Egan called Curriculum as Story. Also, Roger Schank on narrative as key to meaning-making. We even propose it in the end of Understanding by Design years back as a way to build units…
      I would begin with mysterious motions – maybe go right back to Galileo’s pendulums. Or some counter-intuitive motion such as a wind-up car that goes forward but then backward.

  2. Mysterious motions, nice!
    I didn’t start quite that dramatically, but I did throw out the textbook start in my calculus class. The conventional calculus textbooks always have a chapter of review and then a chapter on limits, before they ever get to the good stuff. I began with a mention of Newton, Leibniz, and the scientific revolution begging for solutions to problems of motion. Then we looked at rate of change and how we could get closer and closer…

    • That sounds just right. As I mentioned in an early reply to a post, I had to give a mini-lecture on the history of the calculus after kids came into my class angry and frustrated about the seeming pointlessness of the calculus they were learning.”There’s a history???” one boy said incredulously. Once I explained it as a problem bugging people trying to figure out planetary motion and distance from earth, all was well. And as you know, velocity at a tangent and area under a curve are easy concepts to grasp. So, to me, it just makes sense to start the course as a pair of problems and make it a trek to see how the problems end up in the fundamental theorem.

  3. Again, bravo Mr. Wiggins! This is exactly what we need in education. If every class appealed to the “why” a bit in introduction, we’d have a different world.

    • Indeed. You’d think this would be an unneeded prompt…sigh. I didn’t mention our little mnemonic in UbD of WHERE in which the W stands for Where are we headed? and H for Hook the learner. But, jeez, Madeline Hunter argued for a hook 40 years ago. Ain’t rocket science….

      • Here’s the problem…. the profession of teaching is still considered a “helping” job. It’s not even considered a professional vocation by our government. It’s considered a job. It’s expected that each teacher has a true “calling” to teach. We depend on having enough people truly called to teaching to fill our schools. And then we reward them by paying them less than others in similar level of skill as those in private industry. We give them decent benefits and while this makes it more tolerable to take the lower pay, you can’t eat your benefits. Then, we tell teachers we are going to “hold them accountable” by evaluating them based on the test scores of kids they did not even teach. Measures from student tests rule the school. Thus, many who did have a true passion for teaching grow frustrated. We’ve created a system where mind-numbing instruction is the norm I’m afraid. What should we do?
        1. We can’t hope to have enough teachers with a “calling” to teach. We need to make the job so that teachers who have less passion can still do a good job of teaching. Supports to classrooms (counselors, behavior interventionists, and classroom assistants) are necessary to support our teachers. We have too little of that.
        2. We ought to evaluate teachers based on their actual job. Results of a test given on one day is not a true picture of a teacher’s efforts. Teaching is a process- not a score. We do not dump knowledge into heads. We lead horses to water.
        3. We need a balance between teaching holistically and teaching by item breakdown. As you note in another blog- item analysis is extremely limited. You can really lost in the weeds. But how does this tie together? Why are we doing this? How does this connect to the world around us? How is this part of my daily life? And even how does this tie to the last thing we did? This is currently missing in a lot of classrooms.
        4. We need to recognize that kids go through developmental milestones at different ages. Demanding that kids hit certain levels of achievement at certain ages does not work. If we are moving them through the process and they are engaged, they will learn. Put the food on their plate. Let them choose not to eat the broccoli. Keep doing it- they will most likely eventually eat it on their own.
        So thank you for encouraging this type of teaching. But please, don’t lose sight of the fact that the job description of teaching moves teachers away from the motivation to do this type of teaching. That must change.

        • I agree with much of what you say but I see many of the same non-professional people and behaviors in private schools and colleges, so it is not just a dumb-policy issue. (That’s partly why I have pushed back on some of your complaints about the particulars of Florida education). The problems go much deeper: the same things I fuss about are described in Hegel, Kant, Locke, Augustine, Plato. Some of the most clunk-headed teaching I have ever seen is in ‘good’ private schools where there is zero external influence. There is apparently a deep-seated drive to remain egocentric as a teacher, and it takes a strong effort to overcome the habits and attitudes that stand in the way.

          • Fair enough that the problem is deeper and more complex than just a “dumb policy issue”. Part of the reason we turned to a “dumb policy” is because of intrinsic teaching problems. But let me ask you- where do private school teachers come from? I’m going to leave colleges out of this because they are not teachers. They have not taken any education courses – it’s a different animal.
            Private school teachers come from the same programs. They are expected to have a “calling” to teach. They are paid less than public school teachers often- with fewer benefits and definitely no job protections (unions). And often, they could not get a public teaching job right out of college and so took a private school job to get experience. Many leave and go to public schools when they have a few years under their belt.
            We educate our teachers with the idea that they have all they need already- they just need some ideas and structure and then they can teach. I saw this with my masters degree in education. It’s not rocket science. And it doesn’t really prepare you for teaching, imho. The teaching internships do prep. But the coursework is just not sufficient. And, many who go into the dept of education are not the top students anyway. Some are of course. Many are not. Why? The top students are motivated to do something with more prestige and more money. We need to draw in more of these students to the dept of ed. And even though that did not start with this testing crazed madness, it has made it worse.
            There are absolutely extrinsic factors that come in to play for private school teachers. If kids do not do well on their tests and get good grades, parents remove kids from the school. Charters are also more subjected to this problem. Parents will remove a child from private school or charter school based on test scores and grades. Parents are often not good at reviewing a quality education. Part of that is from hearing people like Bill Gates and Arne Duncan talk about accountability and testing. We have politicans and celebrities deciding how to teach kids. We ignore educators and say they have a conflict of interest so are not worthy of our attention.
            So, it is more complex. However, the testing “reform” movement has made this much worse. It used to be more tolerable. Now it is horrific.

          • Your dialogue with Jupiter Mom raises some strong points and I and my parents (both teachers) have lamented the place of teaching in our society. I definitely agree that issues with teaching transcend the public/private divide. I chose private (not right out of college) because I did not have certification and wanted to teach a subject not in my post-high-school educational experience. And I know that the freedom I have in the private world is by far more liberating than that of public school accountability. I would not trade my “large” classes of fifteen for anything.
            I want to insert into your dialogue another level of stumbling we face. As Jupiter Mom stated, “Parents will remove a child from private school or charter school based on test scores and grades. Parents are often not good at reviewing a quality education.” For teachers trying to “reform” or move back to Dewey/Horton/Freire or teach “21st-century learning”, there is resistance from parents precisely because they do not recognize what goes on as “education.” When a teacher moves away from tests, begins to incorporate student-input into the grades, reshapes a math class to be more discursive where homework becomes preparation for discussion and not rote practice, many parents wonder what the “wild (wo)man” is doing. Typical deliverables are reduced, thus the teacher must not be teaching. How do we educate parents that what worked for them really didn’t? That learning requires play and failure and experimentation and trust (in children and in teachers)?

  4. So now I’m thinking of locking away all textbooks for the first week of school next year. Too much? 🙂

    • Not too much if the textbook just starts like the 2 I show do. Not needed, though if the textbook has some decent overview stuff (e.g. some social studies books start nicely with the themes of geography).
      Another way to start, of course, is with a survey of both attitudes and prior understandings that bear on the content.

      • Regarding starting with a survey of both attitudes and prior understandings: this is a critical point at my school. As a dropout prevention program, making an exploration of any subject relevant is our #1 battle (something a textbook offers very little to impact). However, I have found it is hard–for reasons I don’t fully understand yet–for some teachers to trust an approach that isn’t anchored heavily in textbooks and coverage.

        • This is the 64,000 dollar question: why are HS teachers so prone to the comfort of the textbook? After 35 years of work in reform I still lack an answer to it.
          1 thing I DO know, however: until and unless there is a course mission statement and syllabus in support of it, there is nothing left but the textbook.

          • Thank you for saying that. I have made it my life’s mission to reform my school’s mission and curriculum in support of teaching for understanding. I have relied very heavily on both the Schooling by Design book and the Action Tool binder (along with some others). It is a challenging path to take but I believe the absolutely right path.

          • I love this notion of a course mission statement. I figure I have them; I just haven’t explicitly categorized my ideas as mission-statement worthy. As far as textbooks go, after my initial “trial-by-fire” phase (where I stuck to the textbook and was probably only a couple of weeks ahead of my students), I have had little difficulty moving away from them. For the majority of my teaching career, textbooks have felt so lacking, but then I have had co-workers of more seniority than me who figure the writers were adept at their discipline so why try to improve the learning experience. Moving away from a textbook requires more effort and more trust in oneself. So much easier to place blame on textbook writers than on oneself.

          • Indeed. I find it a bit ironic that many of the people who rail against standards and tests are utterly tied to textbooks without a moment’s complaint.

  5. Excellent Post! I can’t wait to share with many teachers and challenge them to engage in your “thought experiment” throughout this summer. As we all know, engagement is a precondition to learning. Therefore, how are we going to grab student’s attention in the beginning?
    In college, I dreaded the course, Intro to Psychology. I entered the classroom with very little interest and found a seat in the very back. The instructor walked in and immediately asked everyone to close their eyes. Next, she stated, “I want you to remember what you are thinking about right now.” She then looked about the room for someone to call upon. I was praying she didn’t call on me simply because I did not want to share my thought. She called on a student and the student replied, “I thought of a pink elephant. My jaw dropped. She asked the class to raise their hand if they thought of a pink elephant. 46 of the 51 students raised their hands including myself.
    All of a sudden, I was introduced to Psychology in a new way. She knew “psychologically” most people would think of a pink elephant. I moved to the front row next class period! This connection was no where found in Chapter 1 of the textbook. Thanks for sharing, Shawn

  6. Reblogged this on Diary of a Temporary Full Time Foreign EFL Instructor and commented:
    Beginnings do matter and do set the tone for a course.I’m confounded when I recall a text we had to use that had Getting Acquainted or Making Friends as Unit 5. Granted there are other portals to a foreign language course, but the better ones were down the road in that text. Luckily, we’re free to sequence as we see fit. Too many teachers though start with Unit One, skip what they don’t like, but proceed from page one to the last page.

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