Why we still can’t teach “everything of importance”

Reid works at a very busy school. I know, I’ve worked there too. But all schools are busy… and many of the people who work in them have become obsessed with their own “busyness”. People compete to see how early they can arrive and how late they can leave, and the quality or effectiveness of teachers is often based on judgments founded purely on the times they arrive and depart from school. I’ve written about all of that before.

Now, Reid steps up on the stage and asks us “what gets cut?” and points out some ridiculously obvious truths that – it seems – nobody had bothered to calculate before… none of us had, ironically, “done the maths”. When added together, in all subjects, there are more standards, learning outcomes, objectives or whatever you want to call them than there are days in the school year!

This is where we begin the weather-beaten debate about mastery, developmental continuums, standards-based curriculums, standardized testing, reporting… you know the one. But, the basic truth remains… we, and our students, are behind before we’ve even started. There is no way any student can “master” the number of outcomes we (are supposed to) expect them to each year. There is no physical way we can teach all of them either. We are perpetually behind.

I am very grateful to Reid, because his talk put me right back in the moment I was attending my first PYP workshop in Switzerland. The workshop leader gave us a reading and it slapped us all in the face. Grant Wiggins’ elegant and hard-hitting assault on schools’ attempts to “teach everything of importance” mocked those of us coming from the National Curriculum of Anywhere and dared us to believe that teaching could, and should be completely different. Not long after the death of Grant Wiggins, I am not going to quote or paraphrase his article. Instead, I offer you the link here and urge you to take a few moments out of your busy day to read it from beginning to end, and with no other distractions.

Reid, thank you… and Grant, may you rest in peace and your wisdom live on.



  1. gcdisthinkingoutloud

    Thanks for sharing again Sam. I was speaking with Reid just before L2 about his presentation. Thanks for the reminder of Wiggin’s words, this constant busyness does not help anyone of us, especially our learners.

    The difficulty is that we still do not know what to drop. We are mixed between the values of the old, and the new and to be honest, I am mixed between the values of the old and the new. I still do not know what to drop, and nobody can tell me, I have to figure this out for myself.

    • sherrattsam

      HI Glenn… I love your last few thoughts there – the quandary we all find ourselves in. Personally, I reckon we allow inquiry to tell us! Always create the possibilities for things, but never expect to cover everything!

  2. dfinesto

    What a thought provoking post Sam.
    Would love to spend time (heaps of time) sharing this with my team at school and work out how we might bring this thinking to our teaching and learning. Time spent well, instead of planning how to squash our scopes and sequences into weekly boxes and convince ourselves that we are covering all he learning outcomes.

    The following expert from your post resonates loud and strong:

    “We should teach the
    minimum basic content necessary to get right to essential questions, problems, and work within and across disciplines. Pride in one’s work leads to greater care for the basics, pride depends on authentic and engaging work, and a product “owned” by the student.”

    So sorry that I missed out on the Learning2 conference in Manila due to post-operative recovery. 😒

  3. sherrattsam

    Hello! Great to hear from you and hope you’re recovering well. As I said in reply to Glenn (above)… I think we should be planning for possibilities and creating the conditions for all types of learning, but not expecting ourselves or our students to be able to cover it all.

    Wiggins puts it very well doesn’t he?

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  5. Reid

    Hey Sam:

    Thanks for the reference and link to Grant’s article. Very good stuff. I keep coming back to these questions: As students and teachers, how do we work smarter, not harder? How do we honor individuals, yet still have some foresight into the efficiency of a system? How do we move away from mandating, whilst still understanding the value of exposure and balance? How do we take out the exponentially growing “busyness” culture and constant race against time? And, what implications could this constant running in their developmental years have on the long-term mental, emotional and physical health of this generation?

    Again, I don’t have the answers. But these are questions we should strive to explore before it’s too late.

    Thanks again Sam.
    Very thought-provoking.

    • sherrattsam

      Cheers, Reid. I think a lot of this depends on teachers understanding, and being allowed to understand, that over-planning is counter productive. Yesterday, our Art Teacher said that many of these schools are suffering from an “identity crisis” – we talk about inquiry, intrinsic motivation and the importance of flow (my next posting… coming soon!) and yet we also talk about everything being based on standards, outcomes and learning objectives. We need to find our identity, and we need to do it soon!

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