Now, being the radical I am (and also being completely unaccountable because I don't actually have to teach these courses or own up to the results), I often pushed back with my usual, "What's best in the long run for the students? What will help them learn and grow and understand history/mathematics/science/language/etc. at a more deeper level? Don't you think that if they truly develop a deep conceptual understanding that they'll do just fine on the AP exam and it will more than make up for any drop in their score from missing a few more multiple choice questions? Is our only goal to prepare them for one exam when they're 17 or 18, less than a quarter of the way through their lives? If so, we should stop the Super Bowl and hand out the Lombardi trophy just before the first quarter ends. Yada Yada Yada." (Yes, I'm pretty much always that obnoxious. But they love me anyway. I hope.)
I think I always acknowledged how difficult this was and conceded that realistically they might have to make some compromises due to the constraints the AP curriculum/exam placed on them. In any event, I think we always had some very good discussions and generated some great ideas, and the end result was better instruction and learning for the students in those classes (even if my radical self always hoped for more).
(As a side note, this discussion was also happening at the same time that my school was opening up our AP courses to many more students, meaning these teachers were not only being harassed by me but were also dealing with more sections of AP classes, and those sections had significantly more students with more varied levels of preparation. I actually think this was good, because it made all of us really question what we valued and what we wanted for students, but it also didn't make it any easier.)
So I read with great interest when one of our AP teachers sent me an email indicating that the College Board was in the process of redesigning the AP History and Science curricula and exams. And when I followed the links and did a little more reading, I was very interested in some of the changes they were proposing:
The review of the AP Exams in science and history has resulted in a recommendation to improve these exams, reducing the breadth of content covered and reducing the emphasis on memorization of facts, and instead requiring a greater depth of study among a smaller number of topics, emphasizing inquiry and scientific reasoning.Okay, so far so good, but I wanted a little more detail. That article then linked to a couple of PowerPoints, one for science and one for history, that were in support of a live presentation given at the AP Annual Conference. Those PowerPoints referenced two books: Learning and Understanding (full text at that link) by the National Research Council and Understanding by Design by Wiggins & McTighe. I found that fortuitous (always wanted to use "fortuitous" in a blog post), as one of the early influences on our staff development was How People Learn (full text at that link), an earlier work by the National Research Council; and UbD is one of the books informing our current staff development work. So it appeared as though the AP review underway was tracking right along with the themes in our staff development these last three plus years.
What else did those PowerPoints say? Well, they both included a slide with recommendations "applicable to all AP course subjects:"
- Courses should emphasize deep understanding rather than comprehensive coverage.
- Programs should reflect current understanding of learning in the discipline.
- Programs should reflect current research directions within the discipline.
- Courses should include a deep emphasis on inquiry and reasoning.
History Presentation, Slide 4, notes: A very specific consistency is supported by evidence; there is too much content in the "science" courses.Now it was getting just downright scary, as this could've been the summary of some of our staff development sessions (and a few of my Fischrants as well). There's much more in the PowerPoints, but I felt like I was probably still missing some pieces since I hadn't seen the live presentation. So I decided to read the executive summary (pdf) of Learning and Understanding (again, the full text is online, but I've only read the executive summary so far).
History Presentation, Slide 10, notes: Need to create flexibility for teachers to select topics of their choosing. In identifying essential historical knowledge, goal is to limit historical detail so teachers are not required to "cover" everything.
Science Presentation, Slide 18, notes: The Chemistry Commission recognized the need to replace the emphasis in the current exam on calculations and descriptions with an emphasis on the conceptual foundations of the discipline and on the ability of students to express the reasoning that underlies the calculations and descriptions.
Some lengthy excerpts in case you don't want to read the executive summary:
This book takes a fresh look at programs for advanced studies for high school students in the United States, with a particular focus on the Advanced Placement and the International Baccalaureate programs, and asks how advanced studies can be significantly improved in general. (introduction)Okay, I'm convinced. Our staff development efforts are pretty much directly aligned with the changes that are coming to the Advanced Placement program. While these won't occur any earlier than May 2011, they appear to be serious about these changes. Which implies that we need to be serious about implementing these changes in our Advanced Placement courses beginning right now.
. . . its primary motivator was the improved, research-based understanding of teaching and learning that has emerged recently, and its application to advanced study. (p. 1)
The committee found that existing programs for advanced study are frequently inconsistent with the results of the research on cognition and learning . . . Students learn best from teachers with strong content knowledge and pedagogical skills . . . High school teachers . . . have little opportunity to work with colleagues to improve curriculum or instruction . . .Research indicates that constrained curricula are more effective and equitable in helping students pursue advanced studies. (p. 2)
The goal of advanced study is to promote development of deep conceptual understanding and the ability to apply knowledge appropriately . . . Effective instruction is focused on enabling learning to uncover and formulate the deep organizing patterns of a domain, and then to actively access and create meaning around these organizing principles. (p. 6)
Seven research-based principles of learning can provide a framework . . . (p. 6-7)
Successful implementation of advanced study that promotes learning with understanding also depends upon creating opportunities for teachers' continual learning . . . It treats teachers as active learners, builds on their existing knowledge and beliefs, and occurs in professional communities where there are opportunities to discuss ideas and practices as colleagues. (p. 8)
- Learning with understanding is facilitated when knowledge is related to and structured around major concepts and principles of a discipline.
- A learner's prior knowledge is the starting point for effective learning.
- Metacognitive learning (self-monitoring) is important for acquiring proficiency.
- Recognizing differences among learning is important for effective teaching and learning.
- Learners' beliefs about their ability to learn affect learning success.
- Practices and activities in which people engage during learning shape what is learned.
- Socially supported interactions strengthen one's ability to learn with understanding.
The committee's analysis . . . yielded the following findings: (p. 8-9)
Students can study topics in depth and develop conceptual understanding only if curricula do not present excessive numbers of topics. Currently, AP and IB programs are inconsistent with this precept . . . Additionally, the College Board models AP courses on typical college introductory courses, rather than on the best college courses or educational practices based on research on learning and pedagogy. (p. 9-10)
- Excessive breadth of coverage (especially in 1-year science programs) and insufficient emphasis on key concepts in final assessments contribute significantly to the problem in all science fields . . . . [assessments] frequently focus on procedural knowledge at the expense of conceptual understanding.
- Except for mathematics, these programs do not specify clearly what prior knowledge is needed for success.
- Many programs and courses do not help students develop [metacognitive] skills.
- The single end-of-year examinations and summary scores, as found in AP, do not adequately capture student learning.
- Teamwork and collaborative investigation are especially important in advanced study . . . Better use of the Internet and technologies for collaborative learning is needed.
- Students need opportunities to learn concepts in a variety of contexts. The AP and IB programs currently do not emphasize interdisciplinary connections sufficiently.
A striking inadequacy of the AP and IB programs is the lack of detailed research about what their examinations actually measure, including the kinds of thinking that the examinations elicit. (p. 10)
At present, neither the College Board nor the IBO supports systemic and continuing professional development for teachers. (p. 10)
Recommendations (p. 12-13)
Changes in the AP and IB Programs
- The primary goal of advanced study in any discipline should be for students to achieve a deep conceptual understanding of the discipline's content and unifying concepts. Well-designed programs helps students develop skills of inquiry, analysis, and problem solving so that they become superior learners. Accelerating students' exposure to college-level material, while appropriate as a component of some advanced study programs, it not by itself a sufficient goal.
- Course options in grades 6-10 for which there are reduced academic expectations . . . should be eliminated from the curriculum.
- Programs of advanced study in science and mathematics must be made consistent with findings from recent research on how people learn. These findings include the role of students' prior knowledge and misconceptions in building a conceptual structure, the importance of student motivation and self-monitoring of learning (metacognition), and the substantial differences among learners.
- Curricula for advanced study should emphasise depth of understanding over exhaustive coverage of content . . . Because science and technology progress rapidly, frequent review of course content is essential.
- Instruction in advanced courses should engage students in inquiry.
- Teachers of advanced study courses should employ frequent formative assessment.
- Schools and districts offering advanced study must provide frequent opportunities for continuing professional development.
The following substantial changes in the AP and IB programs are recommended: (p. 14)
- The College Board should abandon its practice of designing AP courses in most disciplines primarily to replicate typical introductory college courses.
- The College Board and IPO should evaluate their assessments to ensure that they measure the conceptual understanding and complex reasoning that should be the primary goal of advanced study.
- Both the College Board and IBO should take more responsibility for ensuring the use of appropriate instructional approaches.
I also firmly believe that what's good for students in AP courses is good for students in all courses. I'm not suggesting that all courses be AP courses, different students have different needs. But the essential idea of what constitutes understanding in any given field is applicable to all students, and the basic design elements of a course/learning environment should apply to all our students, not just the ones deemed "advanced."
So, Advanced Placement is changing. Are you?