Less Is More: The Secret of Being Essential

Cutting things out of the overcrowded curriculum presents our only chance for getting students to go deeper, think harder, push past complacency to the habits of mind Essential schools hold dear. But what goes and what stays? And who decides?

PRETTY MUCH EVERYBODY agrees: “Less Is More” is the toughest of the Coalition’s Nine Common Principles to explain and to live by. What does it mean? (An array of possibilities worthy of an old-style multiple-choice test springs all too easily to mind-reading fewer books, spending less time in school, perhaps even doing less homework?) Does it advise teachers to spend less time on some things and more on others? If so, what goes and what increases-and what effect do those changes have on student achievement?

Merely because the maxim is so catchy, people are apt to use “Less Is More” to serve whatever purposes they like, including as a deliberately misleading attack on Essential School ideas. In fact, however, the second of Theodore Sizer’s founding precepts is among the most closely reasoned and intellectually rigorous of the nine-and by far the most difficult and demanding to put into practice. It asks schools to limit and simplify their goals, so every student might master a limited number of essential skills and areas of knowledge, rather than race to cover broader content in conventionally defined “subjects.” And it asks them to redesign their academic offerings so they will center more around “the intellectual and imaginative powers and competencies students need.”

Simple as it seems, when teachers put it into practice “Less Is More” affects virtually every aspect of schooling, from curriculum to pedagogy, from teachers’ tasks to student schedules. Those Essential schools that have taken it most seriously describe dramatic changes-in school structure, in political and educational discourse, and in the levels of student achievement-since they have taken on this Common Principle.

Less ‘Stuff,’ More Thought

“Serious use of the mind takes time,” Ted Sizer argues. “If you have really high intellectual standards for kids, the curriculum overloaded with stuff has to give way.” To write well requires painstaking revision, he notes, just as to read deeply requires the time to go over text closely again and again. “Practicing any art or any science means circling around a subject, trying this and trying that, asking questions that simply cannot be answered in a trivial way.”

This commonsensical observation holds true in extensive research findings about how humans learn. In the last few decades cognitive theorists have firmly established that we come to know things not by simply memorizing or accumulating facts, but by thinking things through. This is an active process; it puts information into a meaningful context and asks us to struggle with its complexities and contradictions. When we use information to serve our real needs in this way, research shows, we remember it.

Harvard University researcher David Perkins calls this “generative knowledge”It “does not just sit there but functions richly in people’s lives to help them understand and deal with the world,” he notes in his 1992 book Smart Schools: From Training Memories to Educating Minds. Learning is a consequence of thinking, he asserts, not the other way around. If we want students to retain, understand, and actively use what we teach them, our schools must provide “experiences in which learners think about and think with what they are learning.”

In Essential school classrooms, this belief often shows up in the form of another Coalition metaphor, that of “student as worker, teacher as coach.” Kids work actively on richly conceived projects that mean something to them. Their assessments often put them on the spot, asking them to demonstrate and use what they know before an audience, or apply it in a real-world context. (David Perkins calls these “understanding performances,” or “performances of understanding.”)

Do students learn more this way than they would in a “back-to-basics” classroom that concentrates on covering the textbook before the year is over? Research results show overwhelmingly that knowledge acquired in conventional classrooms is short-lived and heartbreakingly fragile. (One way to see this, assessment researcher Grant Wiggins suggests, is to ask kids to take any final exam again, one year later.) Students may answer correctly on a short-answer quiz but not recall the same information in another, more authentic context. They often can repeat facts they have “learned,” but cannot interpret or explain them. (Many Harvard graduates in a recent survey, for example, could not explain why it is hot in the summer and cold in the winter.) They learn the “right answers” by rote, but they can’t connect them with real phenomena in the world around them. So busy memorizing the textbook causes of the Civil War, they can’t see past the next day’s test to make comparisons with modern-day Russia or Yugoslavia.

Deciding What to Cut

But you can’t expect to address this kind of question in depth and still get to the Civil War by Christmas which is why “Less Is More” simultaneously threatens the classroom habits of teachers, the expectations of parents and testmakers, and the existing structure of schools more than does any other Essential School principle. (Its practice does not, however, bring down student performance on measures like the SATs, or hurt kids’ chances of college admissions; colleges, in fact, are crying out for this kind of thoughtful high school work. See Horace, Vol. 10, No. 5, May 1994). In the hubbub of standard-setting that has swept the nation lately, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has addressed this issue squarely, taking on the crucial task of identifying priorities for both content and skills from the dizzying array math students face in the traditional course of study. (See page 3.) The NCTM’s published standards have helped clarify what a “thinking curriculum” looks like in practice. And they have given Essential school math teachers like National Re:Learning Faculty member Daniel Venables a leg up as they struggle to cut inessentials from the revered traditional syllabus.

“When we sat down to decide what we wanted students to put in their math portfolios, we had the NCTM standards in one hand,” Venables says. With his colleagues at Heathwood Hall Episcopal School in Columbia, South Carolina, he worked first to define what they wanted to see more of in student work. The group then accepted as inevitable the coverage cuts that followed. (See page 4 for a description of the portfolio.)

“In some ways, the More decides the Less,” Venables says. “If we really value that kids connect math to real-world situations, we had to ask, why did we spend so much time teaching antiquated skills like solving quadratics by factoring? In the real world of mathematical modeling, very few quadratics are factorable; except in contrived situations, the numbers just don’t lend themselves.” Now Heathwood teachers spend more time using the quadratic equation to describe actual phenomena like bridge-building, car insurance calculations, target practice, or even football.

Teaching Algebra 2 students to fit curves to raw data offers another way to achieve such “generative knowledge,” Venables says. “You could mathematically analyze data from a science or social studies class how fast a rumor spreads through the school would be a great little project! and try to find the exponential curve that describes it. It dovetails with statistics, too they could sample how many kids know the rumor and use statistics to find the curve that best fits the data.”

Other assessments also require Heathwood math students to apply knowledge to new situations. Ninth-graders, for example, start the year by visiting the site of a simulated car crash on the long approach road to Heathwood’s 133-acre campus near South Carolina’s interstate highway. In pairs they measure skid marks, mark where the “bodies” fell, collect forensic data; then, through a series of labs, demonstrations, and calculations, they deduce the facts of the case. “It was one of those ‘Aha!’ experiences for my ninth-grade son,” says Middle School principal Jane Ness. “He could have learned 25 formulas and still never been able to explain it the way he did.”

Outwards from the Basics

But isn’t there some value to giving students a broad general knowledge base the kind of superficial familiarity with everything from the Iliad to the theory of relativity for which E. D. Hirsch argues in his popular book Cultural Literacy? When we cut down our crowded syllabi, don’t we cheat students of their future as educated citizens? If that were the way people learn, David Perkins answers, perhaps so. In fact, though, students are much more likely to pursue a broad range of intellectual interests once they delve into a subject deeply enough to be genuinely aroused by the web of information that relates to it.

National Re:Learning Faculty member Carol Lacerenza-Bjork realized this vividly when she decided to limit the number of required texts for her English students at West Hill High School in Stamford, Connecticut. “I figure it’s on nobody’s list of outcomes to have the kids read as many things superficially as possible,” she says. “So even though we had at least 30 books to cover on the tenth-grade readings shelf, we cut the titles the whole class would read ‘I figure it’s on nobody’s list of outcomes to have the kids read as many things superficially as possible,’ one English teacher says. Together down to five.” Because of an upheaval in their school’s leadership, she says, her students were fascinated with how leadership styles could affect their own lives; they decided to explore the issue through reading Sophocles’ Antigone and Oedipus Rex, George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm, and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. In written position papers, in oral presentations, and in seminars throughout the year they plumbed these texts together and on their own, each making new connections with outside texts as each discovered and pursued new questions from close reading. (See pages 11 and 12 for a course description.)

“It didn’t even matter that the texts were somewhat traditional and Eurocentric,” Lacerenza-Bjork says. “They became a catalyst for further investigation; the students could see clearly that any piece of literature raises unlimited questions. Sophocles believed, for example, that whoever is popular and has money controls the power; we tested that idea against contemporary readings. Somebody used Hitler as an example, going out and reading a dozen other sources for her evidence. Somebody else took off from Antigone to look at the question of whether female leadership styles are different. Nobody felt confined to what the teacher wanted them to read, or to what could be accomplished between September and June. Even for my reluctant readers, reading became a profound and pleasant experience and nobody was walking around with Cliff’s Notes.”

Sometimes “Less Is More” translates into allowing a student to follow some intellectual passion even if it displaces other academic tasks. Ted Sizer recalls a history student who had the lead role of Job in Archibald MacLeish’s play J. B. “Even his classmates could see something really getting to the marrow of his bones,” he says. “He was delving into something of real consequence, and it gave him a sense of the world that will stay with him forever.” He pauses reflectively. “That’s a big More.”

Andrew Early, a student at Thayer High School with a lack- luster record in most required classes, nonetheless has such a prodigious technological aptitude that the school relies on him to solve myriad high-level problems with their computers and video components. “From his classwork you would have thought Andy had little ability in reading comprehension and analysis,” former principal Dennis Littky observed. “But he could wade through the obscurities of a legal document on software copyright and extract exactly what he needed to know. The skills grew out of and along with his true curiosity and passion.”

Teaching Less Demands More

Like many other Essential schools, Thayer allows teachers latitude in designing their courses as long as students demonstrate their competence before graduation in nineteen “skill areas” ranging from communication to citizenry. Yet as in many schools, this threatens some teachers’ sense of who should assess various skills. “Should science teachers be assessing the skills of reading or writing? Should the social studies department be assessing whether a student applies mathematics? I think so!” Thayer teacher Rick Durkee says. “But quite a few teachers want to reduce our list to generic skills like ‘organization,’ ‘cooperation,’ and ‘independent learning.'”

To commit to the role of generalist, indeed, demands much more of teachers who often have insufficient time even to prepare adequately in one subject. At Crefeld School in Philadelphia, teachers addressed this dilemma by designing a three-year curriculum cycle in which all students in grades seven through twelve study the same area in humanities and science every year. “Last year all our humanities classes studied a common theme in ancient civilizations; this year everyone does Western Civ; next year is American studies,” headmaster Michael Patron says. “When you focus the attention of so many adults and students on the same theme at once, everyone contributes the resources they have to the task. Even math and science teachers, and others not directly involved in the project, might try to focus something around the theme. And because individual teachers don’t have four or five preps for different subject matters, they can go more deeply into both content and pedagogy.”

When Tucson’s Catalina Foothills High School planned its curriculum, says science teacher Ted Hall, “we created science courses such as ‘The Human Organism’ and ‘Energy,’ to integrate biology, chemistry, and physics and not be stuck with covering everything in those traditional subjects. We did the same thing with math, putting algebra and geometry together. For the purposes of getting the number of students per teacher down, curriculum needs to be integrated and teachers have to teach in more different areas. Despite the constraints of budgets, teachers should have no more than two or three classes in a day if they are to go really deeply.”

What About Electives?

The crunch comes for many schools when they try to figure out how a philosophy that “Less Is More” can accommodate the many elective courses, from foreign languages to the arts, that have traditionally defined the good comprehensive high school. In Horace’s School, Ted Sizer proposes a curriculum organized into these three areas:

math and science (including technology, health, and physical education);

the arts (including literature in both our own and foreign languages), and with special responsibility for the schoolwide obligation to coach students in “expression”; and

history and philosophy, comprising history (and the allied social science disciplines that place it in a geographic, political, cultural, and economic context) and the exploration of principles as they relate not only to historical governance but to decisionmaking both in school and in personal matters.

The intersection of all three areas, Sizer suggests, constitutes a fourth area of Inquiry and Expression, for which all faculty take responsibility teaching them not in a vacuum, but embedded in subjects of substantive importance. The arts, for example, “are not only important because of what they represent,” argues Stanford University’s Elliot Eisner. “They are important because of the ways in which they engage and develop human intellectual ability . . . to judge, to assess, to experience a range of meanings that exceed what we are able to say in words.”

To facilitate this, Sizer proposes, the first days of every school quarter should intensively focus on these “common” matters of inquiry and expression reading and writing, communicating verbally and otherwise, organizing and analyzing ideas, reflection, study skills. All faculty should be held accountable for teaching them, and all culminating exhibitions would include exercises that call for their command.

Do students actually learn content when not made to take a course exclusively in a given subject? The Crefeld School makes sure they do, by requiring every senior to pass (with a 90 percent grade) twelve brief competency tests on topics the school considers crucial to success in the world after high school. Some of the tests emphasize academics world geography, U.S. Government and the Constitution, and essential facts in science and math. Some reflect mastery of intellectual skills-for example, one asks students to read an assigned scientific research article and write an analysis of the experimental method used by the researchers. Some test the student’s understanding of practical affairs and their consequences: nutrition, substance abuse, sex.

“My favorite is on home medical care,” Patron says. “We ask students to stock a medicine cabinet with the ten items they consider most important, and explain why. Then we give them three scenarios of home health care emergencies and they must describe in writing how to apply first aid using their ten items.”

Since Crefeld does not require a course in health, how do students prepare for this graduation requirement? “On their own,” Patron says. “We have health texts they can look through; we have regular assemblies on health-related matters; teachers may offer review sessions on particular topics after school.” The general content of the tests is no secret; kids may take them for practice before the senior year. But “the burden is definitely on the student,” Patron observes, “to do the research and prepare herself.”

Further encouraging evidence for the efficacy of cutting back comes from Heathwood Hall, which has deepened the content in all courses by de-emphasizing coverage merely for its own sake. Not only do Heathwood’s top students remain challenged, Upper School principal Lark Palma says, but those who previously achieved at lower levels are now accomplishing much more.

“We eliminated all but one of our six Advanced Placement courses,” says Palma. “But we still encourage anyone who wants to take the AP exams.” Twice as many students as before now take the rigorous exams, and just as many fully 91 percent in 1993 score a “3” or better.

Houston’s Westbury High School has shown a steady increase in student achievement test scores since the school decided to steer ninth- and tenth-graders away from all elective courses. Teachers who previously taught vocational or business courses in the 2,400-student school now work as full members of academic teams, teaching computer skills or coaching students in hands-on activities that relate to their portfolios and exhibitions.

In Westbury’s science department, several teachers are working with the help of a Rice University team to merge physical science, biology, and health into an integrated two-year course. “We laid the groundwork by having teachers who had always taught biology pick up one section of physical science last year,” says Westbury Dean of Instruction Karen Owen. “It surprised them how many common threads they found.”

And because all faculty members serve as advisers on cross-disciplinary senior research projects, every department has looked closely at ways they can teach toward the school’s across-the-board standards: problem-solving, communication, self-discipline, citizenship, and creativity. “We all agreed to assess those skills no matter what subject we’re teaching,” says Owen.

Teaching for Understanding

Once teachers begin to value depth over coverage, they find that old classroom practices serve them less well. Although a lecture now and then can set the necessary context for discussion, they say, Essential school teachers turn more often to techniques like cooperative learning or Socratic seminars to get kids deeper into their subject areas.

At Chicago’s Sullivan High School, a Coalition member that serves a student population reflecting that city’s ethnic mix, the entire faculty and ancillary staff have been trained to lead Socratic seminars. Every student in the school participates in weekly seminars in English and history classes, monthly seminars in science, and occasional ones in subjects like math and languages. In addition, the school holds quarterly “all-school seminars,” monthly before-school enrichment seminars, and frequent special-topic seminars.

Science teachers, for example, use unedited texts from Aristotle and Galileo as well as from contemporaries like Richard Feynman and Isaac Asimov to conduct seminars with mixed groups of up to 30 students representing every achievement level. When kids find the text rough going, they work individually with reading aides until they have mastered the content well enough to contribute. To watch a room full of Sullivan students defend and explain to each other their understanding of difficult or controversial texts leaves even skeptics impressed with the power of the Socratic approach.

“The topics that scare off teachers because they seem too hard are often the very ones that interest students most,” says Robert Brazil, who brought the technique to Sullivan as principal in 1983.

But seminars alone will not deepen understanding, teachers say; they must be linked with writing assignments that draw on the text and make use of the ideas raised in class. And they require teachers to take on the challenge of preparing the kind of cogent questions that launch effective discussions.

Concentrating on “fact” questions in a seminar, for example, will fail to yield rich discourse. What works best, practitioners say, are interpretive questions for which the text may support several possible answers and which lead to a cluster of other questions. Later, evaluative questions provoke students to express opinions that draw on their personal experience for support.

“This is not just a different form of pedagogy,” says Dennis Gray, who has trained teachers all across the country to lead Socratic seminars. “It’s a new way of being, of relating to the text, the curriculum, students, yourself, and other staff.” And it demands substantial time not only for the discussion itself, which takes longer than the typical 45-minute period, but for students and teachers both to critique the process afterwards.

That reflective process, Ted Sizer observes, goes a long way toward the goal of student learning. “If you understand how you learn, you can then learn more,” he says. “One of my favorite teachers, for instance, asks her history students to write a paper on ‘My History with History.’ After all, good athletic coaches videotape their players to let them observe what they’re doing and change whatever moves are clearly not effective.”

Here too, Sizer points out, “it takes time to step back to say, ‘Why did you write that way, calculate that way, say what you did about that experiment?’ It takes schools that make sure the answer is not ‘I didn’t have time to make it better.'” The math department at Heathwood Hall, Daniel Venables comments, took a relatively simple but powerful step when it required students to include in their portfolios corrected work sheets for all questions missed on quizzes and tests. “It was amazing how often we had let them just tuck the wrong answers into their books and move on,” he says.

Getting Parents on Board

When parents and the community can see real differences in students’ attitudes toward learning, initial suspicions about a “Less Is More” philosophy turn to admiration. Schools must lay the groundwork for this by working out their goals early on with all key stakeholders, says Susan Robb, who coordinates the Essential School program at Pennsylvania’s Bellefonte High School. Before the school launched its interdisciplinary Senior Institute, she says, “we got together with parents, students, teachers, board members, and administrators and identified ten ‘essential skills’ the kind of skills that if you can do them, you can do anything.”

The seniors in the Institute spend a four-period block daily with a cross-disciplinary team of science, English, and art teachers, exploring a theme such as this year’s “How Do We Grow?” In a year-long exhibition project, small groups focus on one or another aspect of the theme (for example, population growth). Finally and Robb emphasizes how crucial this is-they explore their topic through a variety of activities that take them into the larger world. Tutoring elementary school children weekly in literacy, analyzing paintings at the Philadelphia Art Museum, working and observing in local professional offices, they begin to relate their learning skills to real-world endeavors.

“When you move to less coverage and more depth and focus, you’ve got to make that apply in real ways,” Robb says. “That’s how it becomes real and justifiable to the community, to parents, and to kids. When the fruit is there when students are standing up in front of people in the community and being real contributors then ‘Less Is More’ falls into place and makes sense.”

“Part of the tension comes from how you report things to parents,” observes National Re:Learning Faculty member Simon Hole, who teaches fourth-graders at the Narragansett Pier School in Rhode Island. “In elementary school just as in high school, people get very anxious about covering skill work in this case things like spelling and arithmetic facts. If we neglect the higher order skills, though, kids end up at nine years old already having Right Answer Compulsion. That’s deadly.”

Instead, Hole says, his teaching team pushes students to express opinions, back them with evidence, and connect their understanding with other things they know.

“When I’m working with staff from other schools, I ask people to suspend their disbelief,” he says. “Pick one thing about which you all can say, ‘Kids need more of this’ like asking good questions then really zero in on that, and let everything you do push toward it. That doesn’t mean we don’t value other things; we know enough to fold skills like spelling and computation into top-shelf projects. But kids are in school to learn how to think!”

Still, “nowhere on the report card is there a line that says ‘Critical Thinking,'” Hole says ruefully. “We’ve begun to work with parents on that, getting away from assigning grades and toward new rubrics.” A better report card, he suggests, would let parents know how the child’s writing looks, perhaps by comparing it against a standard or by displaying progress in graphs.

The Habit of Thinking If we really believe, as Simon Hole says, that children are in school to learn to think, then “Less Is More” becomes a bald necessity. To nurture good habits of mind, Ted Sizer argues, schools must accept their responsibility to teach facts the “stuff” of knowledge in context, then to provide repeated and meaningful ways for students to practice using them. A youngster learns the Bill of Rights; we ask him to apply it to past, present, and hypothetical situations. A student learns that John Milton was blind; we ask her to show how that illuminate his poetry. Through time-consuming activities like these, students think their way to learning. What they retain the “residue” of their school years is then not the stuff of Trivial Pursuit, Sizer says, but the mixture of awareness and logic that characterizes the people we most admire.

More, Sizer insists, we must reinforce such habits by building them into the machinery of assessment. “Our testing systems value the immediate,” he says. “The 30-minute writing sample in the SAT sends out exactly the wrong message; none of us wants to be judged on the first draft of something we’ve only had 30 minutes to write about.”

Unless we restructure schools deliberately to support these thoughtful habits, some critics contend, we give out the cynical message that education has become merely a vocational pursuit, designed solely to train children for the marketplace of the next century. Posed against this is the purist model held by those who yearn to “transmit” a fixed and isolated tradition to the young just as one passes on the family farm, argues Benjamin Barber, a professor of political scientist at Rutgers University. Alan Bloom (The Closing of the American Mind) represents the purist, Barber says; Christopher Whittle, with his advertising-drenched “curriculum,” the vocationalist. In his book An Aristocracy of Everyone, Barber wryly proposes a multiple-choice test for “what our 47-year-olds know,” arguing that our society gives a host of implicit signals to the young about what things we value most.

“Book publishers hers are financially rewarded today for publishing (a) cookbooks (b) cat books (c) how-to books (d) popular potboilers (e) critical editions of Immanuel Kant’s early writings,” one typical test item reads. “For extra credit,” the list concludes, “name the ten living poets who most influenced your life, and recite a favorite stanza. Well, then, never mind the stanza, just name the poets. Okay, not ten, just five. Two? So, who’s your favorite running back?”

“As soon as you define standards in terms of intellectual rigor rather than in precocity in rattling off facts,” says Ted Sizer, “your coverage shrinks. Let teachers decide together how that plays out with each group of kids. Let them display the work that follows. Let serious knowledge be used well.” Quod erat demonstrandum. Less is more.