Traditionally in my district (as in many), when new curriculum is adopted a committee is formed to select new materials to support that curriculum. (Although, interestingly, I recently found out that in my district there is no dedicated budget for that, they just "find" the money each time they need to do this.) Once the committee researches, previews, and reviews the various materials available, they make a recommendation to the Board of Education. After a period of time for public comment, the Board then decides whether to adopt the materials.
In many areas, particularly Math, this has traditionally been a textbook-selection process. I was not part of this committee, but the process this year was a little different for a couple of reasons. First, because the Common Core State Standards are still fairly new (at least in terms of textbook publishing cycles), there are not a lot of good choices out there. Second, we are clearly in a transition period between the traditional print-based textbook and online "techbooks".
The committee ended up deciding on Agile Mind. (Well, sort of. Apparently some folks on the committee weren't entirely thrilled with the choice, and others felt like they really didn't have much choice so didn't say anything. But, in any case, that's the recommendation that's going forward.) The math teachers at my school were then asked to review the materials briefly before a webinar from the company and to share our thoughts and concerns. Here are some of my thoughts.
To summarize those thoughts, my feeling is that this isn't a good choice. While I like some of what Agile Mind is doing (I've used some ideas from the Dana Center in my Algebra class), overall I wasn't really impressed with their online techbook (with the caveat that I haven't spent enough time with it to do a fair and thorough review). It just doesn't seem to leverage much of the affordances of digital over print (see the thoughts for more on that).
I found it both interesting and convenient that for the webinar Agile Mind chose "Topic 18: Modeling with Quadratic Functions" to demo their product. I had recently taught an abbreviated version of this topic (abbreviated because we are transitioning to the new curriculum this year, so we have some of the old and some of the new), so I could compare what they clearly felt was their "good stuff" with what I had just come up with on my own.
Conveniently (again), Agile Mind starts their unit with a modeling activity built around shooting a basketball. They have an animation of two players shooting a basketball, one overhand and one underhand. You really have to see the animation to get the, umm, full effect, but I'll share a screen shot here that should give you an idea.
|Source: Agile Mind, Algebra 1 CCSS Edition, Topic 18, Student Activity Sheet 1
I could go on about things I don't particularly like about Agile Mind (as well as things I like - for example, it has a cohesiveness and flow that a "put-together" set of lesson plans like mine may lack), but the point of this post is not really to criticize Agile Mind. The point (I knew I would get to it eventually) is that the "materials selection process" we (and I imagine many districts) have in place is fundamentally flawed. The default assumption is that if we are revising the curriculum, then we need to purchase new materials, and those materials are going to be in the form of a textbook (either print-based or digital, but still essentially a textbook).
I think that is wrong. I think it's a fundamental misunderstanding of the context of what it's like to be a learner today. It completely misses the advantages and affordances of digital over print (or at least open digital over pre-digested, closed digital resources). I think that for all "materials selections" from here on out, the default should be to not purchase a new textbook. That doesn't mean a new textbook can't be purchased if it's decided that's the best option, but it means the burden of proof should be on those that want to purchase a new textbook to justify why we should. To use the trendy term, what's the "value add" of these materials?
We haven't been told how much this adoption is going to cost, as I don't think they've negotiated that yet, although the figure of $500,000 has been thrown around (not sure if that's an initial cost, or a 7-year cost, or what). I'm going to assume that this will cost somewhere between $50,000 and $5 million. Whatever the final figure, I think that's an egregious waste of money.
Here's what I propose instead. Don’t adopt anything at this point. Perhaps some outstanding materials will come along in the future that will be worth adopting but, at the moment, these are not outstanding materials. Instead, let's use a small part of the money that would’ve gone to this textbook adoption and invest in our teachers. Wouldn’t it be amazing to get a group of Algebra teachers together for two weeks over the summer and come up with the types of activities we want to do with our students? (Maybe $15,000 or so, depending on the number of teacher and number of days - we currently pay $150/day stipends for teachers doing curricular work.) That would give at least one full day to work on each unit in CCSS-M - wouldn’t that be a better use of our time and money? Wouldn't that end up developing materials that were at least as good as - and perhaps better - than the materials we could purchase for substantially more money? And, more importantly, wouldn't investing that money in teachers developing the activities be much, much, much (did I mention much?) more likely to impact teachers' practice?
Adopting Agile Mind (or anything else I've seen out there) isn't likely to change what happens in the classroom with kids. (Or, if it does, it will change it in a negative fashion by providing a script-like experience for students.) But give teachers time, guidance and resources (including tapping into the MTBoS), and I think you will not only develop an outstanding resource that will get implemented in the classroom, but will also influence teachers' practice, and therefore student learning.
If the burden of proof is indeed on those wishing to adopt/purchase new materials, I would suggest that they haven't fulfilled that burden in this case. And I would suggest that districts and School Boards everywhere reevaluate the processes they have in place for curriculum adoption and materials selection. If you can't justify how and why a new curriculum or set of materials is going to help your students become better learners, then you can't justify the purchase price. Instead, consider investing in your people, and their ideas. That's truly a better way to develop agile minds.