Ask Dr. Blank: Different children with different needs: can a common strategy be created?

In answering this question, it may seem off topic, but I am going to start my comments not in the field of education but rather in the field of entertainment.  As viewers of newscasts know well, it’s common on weekend reports to hear a listing of the millions of dollars in sales garnered by new film releases. The money spent at the box office means that people in droves, totally of their own volition, have gone to view the latest films. And they have done so not because filmmakers have tailored the films to adjust to the individual differences of the viewers. Instead, they come to see material that has been designed to effectively reach huge numbers. That’s what makes it mass entertainment. The success in this realm is remarkable.

Education has done nothing like this—even though they too have to reach a mass audience. The bulk of traditional curricula is boring in content and poorly designed in presentation. Its limitations have long been recognized, but attempts to correct the situation have been far from adequate. For example, in recent years, the concept of gamification has become very popular. The idea has been to engage and motivate students by using the principles behind games (e.g., receiving prizes for completing assignments). But, in general the game-like aspects do not alter the curricula in significant ways so that the core content being taught continues to show a paucity of good design, interest and information.  So it is not unexpected to find that gamification has not achieved the improvement in student outcomes that was hoped for.

By contrast, consider a study conducted a few years back by a political scientist Michelle Pautz which was designed to assess the power of film to change college students’ perceptions of government. One of the films she used was Argo which tells the mostly-true story of a fake production company that used its cover to successfully get six Americans out of Iran during the hostage crisis.  Prior to watching one of the films, about half of participants thought the nation was headed in the wrong direction; after watching, there were noticeable differences with participants more favorably viewing the direction of the country.  The results become even more significant when one recognizes that history is one of the most disliked subjects in school. Yet, a single film telling a compelling message brought about significant effects.

The takeaway from this example is that there are powerful techniques at our disposal for creating vibrant, exciting curricula that can educate and enhance the learning of our students. This can be achieved in a range of subjects such as history, science and math but only if we are willing to construct curricula that are dramatically different from the ones currently being offered. Minimal effort is going into this vital area. When educational reform is discussed, topics are raised about a host of factors—class size, teacher training, increased assessment, gamification—to name a few. But the core of learning rests on the curriculum. Only when we are willing to put time, money and effort in creating well-designed and informative curricula will we be able to offer effective education that reaches all children.  

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