“But I Don’t Have Time!” - Escaping Constraints That Thwart Teacher Innovation (Part 1)

“I don't have time.”

It's teachers most frequently cited reason for not trying a new pedagogical strategy. At least it’s the reason I hear most frequently from middle and high school teachers who say they have no time to innovate because they have too much content to cover, “too much to do.”

It's understandable why teachers would cite lack of time as their primary reason for not trying something new. Teachers face a dizzying array of content standards that they are expected to meet during the academic year as they prepare students for standardized assessments.

As a former Advanced Placement United States History teacher, I know what it’s like like to feel that you have way-too-much content to cover in way-too-little time. And as content increased over the years, my students ability to remember the content decreased. It was as if they had memorized information needed for tests and then it simply vanished from their minds.

Frustrated with teaching content “a mile wide and an inch deep,” my colleagues and I decided to cut roughly 30% of AP content and roughly 20% of in-class teaching time. We even gave students three weeks off with no classes so they could pursue an independent topic of their choosing. The result? Students scored slightly higher on the AP exam. One student who was out sick for two months scored a perfect 5 on the exam even though he missed the American Revolution unit, the topic of the documents-based essay question.

How could that be?

For starters, we decided to structure our approach to content in a way designed to engage students in inquiry. Our aim was to provide a framework for learning that helped students make sense of the seemingly disparate bits of information in the course. In other words, we wanted them to think critically and make connections. To do so, we decided to frame content around a core set of important and inter-related topical questions that presented students with relevant problems to solve:

  • What is an American?

  • How has capitalism shaped America?

  • What is the proper relationship between the American government and its citizens?

  • What is the role of race in America?

  • What is America’s place in the world?

We decided not to introduce content from the textbook that did not help students answer any of our topical questions. As a result, we reduced the amount of information in the course substantially. In the process, we also reduced the amount of our content we had to prepare to teach,  freeing up our time considerably.

You might anticipate that student scores would suffer as a result of less test content. However, we not only reduced the information, we also also changed our instruction. Half of the AP exam consisted of multiple-choice questions and the other half of essay questions and source documents the students had never seen before.  The source documents, in particular, presented a form of problem-solving, since they were both unfamiliar to students and often contradicted each other (at least on the surface).  In other words, students were faced with problems and needed to design creative, well-reasoned, and well communicated responses.

Throughout the year, we had been challenging students with primary and secondary source documents, often seemingly out of context, and asking kids to decipher their intent and make connections to both past and present events. We were teaching less, but students were learning more. Explaining how he got a 5 on the exam, the student who missed the American Revolution unit said:  “I was able to figure out the documents because that’s what we had been doing all year.” He understood the documents because he could analyze, evaluate, and synthesize the sources as well as make connections between them. In short, he could make meaning of them.

At the end of the AP exam my students told me that they did not recognize several multiple-choice topics. Yet, if students could solve problems that they had never seen before -- but not know who Millard Fillmore was -- well, that was a trade-off I could happily live with.


Challenge-Based Workshops: Moving Teachers From Discomfort to Empowerment

Building A Shared Vision: A Critical Step in Leading Teachers