Change Issues in Curriculum and Instruction/Isolation

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Isolation in Education By Patti Horne and Rose Hotchkiss May 2007

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Roland Barth (1991) wrote: Are teachers and administrators willing to accept the fact that they are part of the problem?. . . God didn’t create self-contained classrooms, 50-minute periods, and subjects taught in isolation. We did---because we find working alone safer than and preferable to working together. (pp. 126–127)

Introduction: Education and the Culture of Isolation

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For well over a century, a culture of isolation has prevailed within the American education system. Teachers have jealously guarded the turf of their specialties, subjects have been insulated from one another by compartmentalization, and students have been encouraged to compete as individuals in the high-stakes game called school. The same forces that have created isolation within the system have created a monolithic barrier between it and the nonacademic, or "real," world and have even resulted in a disjunction within the psyches of both teachers and students—an alienation from self. As early as 1983, noted educator and speaker Parker Palmer wrote, of the deep pain he detected in many teachers, "I call the pain that permeates education 'the pain of disconnection.' Everywhere I go, I meet faculty who feel disconnected from their colleagues, from their students, and from their own hearts" (p. x). This situation has prevailed both within the public school and the higher education system. Thus Jane Tompkins, professor of English at Duke University, wrote in 1996, "Higher education, in order to produce the knowledge and skills students need to enter certain lucrative professions, cuts students off from both their inner selves and the world around them" (p. 223).

Of course, this culture has reflected the values of the larger society—those of monetary profit, individualism, and competition. However, the larger world is changing, and if it is to thrive, the education system must change as well. "In today's increasingly individualized and specialized world it is unlikely that any one person possesses enough knowledge and ability for every circumstance" (Dettmer, Thurston, & Dyck, 2002). The forces of globalism, multiculturalism, and multimodalism demand a spirit of cooperation and collaboration that must inevitably demolish the traditional barriers of this culture of isolation—both within and without. Even in the early twentieth century, some thinkers recognized that effective education depends on the freedom of learners to interact with each other and with the world around them (Dewey, 1916). As Palmer says, real learning does not occur until "teacher and learners and subjects" are brought into "vital community with one another" (p. xix).

How Isolation Impacts Learners

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The American Dream is founded on the belief that if someone works hard enough he or she can become anything, essentially a self-made success. Each generation believed that their children would be better off than them. As Friedman shares, “We are growing concerned that we are not going to retire as well-off as our parents did, and our kids probably are not going to be as well-off as we were” (Friedman, 301). He theorizes that the world is flattening. With the advances of technology, the world has become a global economy. Americans are not isolated from the rest of the world. If we are to remain competitive, we have to educate our children to be participants in this shrinking world. They must know how collaborate and look at situations from multiple perspectives. These skills can only be developed through cooperative learning and collaborative experiences with other students and teachers. To expect a student to sit at a desk all day and not talk is actually doing them a disservice. We need to help students learn and refine the social skills required to be a contributing member of the global economy. Constructivists contend that it is through social discourse that true learning occurs (Jonassen, 12). No longer should we teach students to “do it by themselves”. In fact, we should encourage them to work with others. Collaboration is emerging as a preferred method to competition in many educational settings. As Jonassen purports, “groups collaboratively build more meaningful knowledge than individuals alone” (Jonassen, 34) It is essential that education no longer isolate learners from other students, teachers, the community or the world.

Another issue of isolation that affects learners is that of teaching content in isolation. Father Guido Sarducci’s Five Minute University video on YouTube ([1]) demonstrates quite well how little is retained when the information is “given to students” so that they can “give it back” on a test. As this video demonstrates, learning that occurs in isolation results in short term memory gains. Father Guido Sarducci’s belief is that five years after college graduation graduates remember very little of the material they “learned”. It is very easy to laugh at this video because we can all identify with its truths. Research on authentic learning confirms that when students learn in context, such as real-world problem-based learning, long term memory gains are made. Despite the research to support this type of instruction, evidence of its use is not always evident.

High stakes testing adds to the isolation problems encountered by learners today. Subjects are taught according to pacing guides that specify what content is to be covered when. This isolation of discrete units in time robs students of opportunities to thread content and connect big ideas. In a moment of discovery the student might question a topic covered previously (or not yet covered) and the teacher may find he or she is unable to seize the teachable moments because of the isolating effects of the scope and sequence he or she is mandated to follow. High stakes testing also has teachers and students focused on isolating the correct answer. It could be argued that the idea that there is only one right answer to any given problem is an educational step backwards. Duffy and Cunnigham’s text refers to Rorty’s pragmatism (1991) which states “knowledge is not a matter of getting it right but rather of acquiring habits of action for coping with reality” (Duffy & Cunningham, 1). If students are to be educated with a global view of the world then they need to have the flexibility of thinking to look for multiple solutions to a problem.

Isolation of teachers vs collaboration

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Teaching is very much a social profession, yet teacher isolation remains a common characteristic in school districts across the nation and is a major cause of teacher attrition (Heider 2005). Twenty-five percent of teachers leave the profession by the end of their first year (Norton, 1999), and as many as forty-six percent of new teachers nationwide leave within the first five years of service (Ingersoll, 2002). New teachers enter a work environment where staff members have been working together for long periods of time and friendships and social groups are already formed. In addition they are often given the most difficult students, the fewest and worst resources and supplies, and left, for the most part, on their own. In response to this problem, many state education associations have developed formal mentoring programs. The most traditional mentoring programs involve the pairing of new teachers with veteran teachers. These mentoring programs, however, tend to have many flaws. New teachers and mentor teachers alike are often so overburdened with demands on their time and their individual work loads that they have little time to meet. In addition, many of the mentors lack training on how to mentor new teachers. Oftentimes the mentors are chosen simply because they have been in the building for the longest period of time. In many cases the general school organization exacerbates the problem. Mentor teachers are sometimes working on a different hall, or wing of the building, in a different grade level, or different subject. The new teacher and his/her mentor may not be given any common planning time. Compounding the problem, new teachers are often uncomfortable or embarrassed to ask for help. They end up feeling frustrated and unsupported. The insolated environment of the classroom prevails.

A focus on using technology solely as an information downloading resource reflects the "isolated teacher" phenomenon. In contrast, focusing on technology's use for collaboration and communication opens the door to creating a new model in which teachers are able to work in a community of educators. Traditionally, Internet technology provided e-mail and list serves, where participants can voice concerns, complaints, and questions and possibly get responses. With Web 2.0 technology, teachers have a world of support at their fingertips. Teachers can network with others around the globe extending the traditional boundaries of teacher collaboration. Web 2.0 technology provides more immediate feedback and greater feelings of support as teachers actively share knowledge and experiences. Web 2.0 technology tends to reduce teacher isolation and increases teacher communication, collaboration, and interdependency (Johnson, et al. 1999). New on-line communities, in the form of Blogs and Wikis exist solely for the voices of teachers. “What is true of Web 2.0 will be true of Teacher 2.0 – dynamic, outward facing, community building, radically democratic, initiatory, active and interventionist; how the Web is changing is how teaching will change (Doyle, 2007)."

Subject Isolation: The Fragmented Curriculum

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Though the topic of departmentalization vs. self contained classrooms has been debated since the start of the twentieth century little research exists on the issue. How content should be structured remains a hot topic. Education reform spanning 60 years, however has shown that “students achieve more and are better able to apply their knowledge when they experience collaboratively planned and taught interdisciplinary curricula (Hensen 2006).” Yet, over the years, departmentalization has increased and has filtered down even to the lower grades of elementary schools.

In self contained classrooms the teacher is responsible for all subject areas of the curriculum throughout the school day. In a departmentalized setting, however, teachers specialize in one, or possibly two, subject areas and students move from one teacher to another throughout the school day. Proponents of self contained classrooms state that departmentalization isolates subject areas, guaranteeing less integration, and denies students the opportunity to make connections. Unfortunately, even in self contained classrooms, boundaries often exist around the subject areas. Traditional schooling treats the subjects as separate entities taught in isolation from each other. “Consider, for example, the inability of the present curriculum to deal with even very ordinary cause-effect sequences: automobiles generate exhaust emissions, which contribute to the greenhouse effect, which alters climates, which determine rainfall and growing seasons, affecting water tables and sea levels, and thus the economy and political stability, which essentially determines who lives and who dies. To study that sequence in formal schooling, it is necessary to combine, at the very least, math, geology, chemistry, physics, meteorology, agriculture, economics, and political science (Brady 1996).” State academic standards generally lack cross disciplinary design coherence. Academic standards, however, are not a curriculum, but rather should serve as a framework around which the curriculum is designed. Additionally, teachers tend to teach the standards with a focus on objectives, checking them off one by one as they are taught. Students learn a little bit of everything, but rarely have opportunities to see how it all connects or to understand the interrelatedness of things as they exist in the real world (Brady 1996). Problem-solving strategies with real-world connections would help to bring meaning to subject matter and greatly enhance student learning. Many schools are adopting the UBD design of curriculum writing which involves making connections between broad concepts that overlap all disciplines. UBD uses instructional strategies based on current brain research, the teacher focuses on the learner's understanding of content and the ability to use the information rather than on the memorization of isolated bits of information (Understanding by Design, 2007).

In order to reduce isolation of subject matter and truly integrate curriculum, teachers must make a mental shift from a topical, fact-based curriculum to a concept based curriculum. Topics and facts are related to specific things, people, places, and/or situations. Concepts transfer. For example; ‘the life cycle stages of the butterfly’ and ‘key historical figures in the development of a state’ are topical, factual knowledge. The conceptual, transferable understandings are ‘life cycles ensure the continuation of a species’ and ‘leaders and events can shape the social, economic, and political directions of a nation.’ What are often referred to as the “Big Ideas of Science” are concepts that cut across disciplines, such as change, order, and systems. We as educators are often unaware of the discipline based concepts and therefore cannot structure learning around conceptual relationships that are truly interdisciplinary. To bring coherence to our fragmented curriculum teachers must understand the difference between a topic and a concept, a fact and a generalization. Teachers must then work collaboratively to create relevant curricula that connect students to their world. We must treat our students as “thinkers, seekers of understanding, and creators of knowledge (Erickson, 2007).”This can easily be accomplished with problem-based learning. Problem-based learning is a total approach to education; a learner-centered educational method. It is based on real-world problems. Students use real-life situations to bring meaning to the curriculum and no longer feel that the course work is "isolated" to the classroom. Students come up with problems that interest them and through research become the experts about the topic. By studying the curriculum through project based learning, students become aware of not only the importance of all of the subjects that they study, but they are able to see the relationships between all of the subjects in a meaningful way. Examples of project based learning can be seen all over the United States everywhere from kindergarten through college. Research has shown that project based learning increases student engagement, decreases absenteeism, improves test scores, and increases cooperative learning.

When I think back
On all the crap I learned in high school
It's a wonder I can think at all.
And though my lack of education
Hasn't hurt me none,
I can read the writing on the wall.
Paul Simon

Isolating "the right answer" vs identifying multiple solutions---pending

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Isolation of content in time (pacing guides) vs teachable moments---pending

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Isolation of schools by grade levels vs elementary, middle and high school partnerships---pending

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Isolation of the school vs community networking---pending

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Isolation of information vs Web 2.0 (information sharing)

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Before the emergence of the internet, students researching a topic relied mainly on encyclopedias and other texts to locate information. The encyclopedia entries presented a general overview of the topic. If no information was found in the encyclopedia, the learner had to search through card catalogs in hopes of finding a book with information on the topic. After finding a match in the card catalog, it was possible to learn that the book was not available at that time. This process was very time consuming and not always productive. The technologies of today allow individuals to access information from around the world in a matter of seconds. The collaborative nature of Web 2.0 enables learners to easily connect not only to the needed information but to other students, teachers and experts in a given field. This “mediated immersion allows students to actively construct knowledge” and is being used to enrich the educational opportunities provided to students in even the most rural regions (Dede, 7). Students in remote areas are able to engage in Socratic discussions with others through the use of tools such as Wikipedia. With internet access a learner has almost limitless educational possibilities. Traditional education (by the book learning) often centered on instruction that presented one point of view, generally that of the authors or historians. Students rarely had the opportunity to experience different vantage points on a topic such as the Civil War. Technology now enables a topic to be approached from multiple perspectives. Students can search the Library of Congress ([2]) and examine primary documents from different members of society during the time of the Civil War. They can also listen to speeches and musicians from that period. The use of these tools and the ensuing discussions greatly enhance the development of critical thinking skills in students. The LEAP (Liberal Education and America’s Promise) program’s report names seven principles necessary for education reform. These principals were derived from a national poll of business leaders. Five of the principles relevant to this topic are:[3]

1. Immerse all students in analysis, discovery, problem solving and communication.
2. Engage the big issues.
3. Connect knowledge with choices and action to prepare students for citizenship.
4. Emphasize personal and social responsibility in every field of study.
5. Establish a culture of shared purpose and continuous improvement.

As Friedman states in The World Is Flat, “In the future, how we educate our children may prove to be more important than how much we educate them” (Friedman, 302). Many educators and parents suggest that it is not important to teach today’s youth discreet pieces of information (facts) that could easily be retrieved on the internet. They further caution that information given to students today may be obsolete in the not too distant future. Instead, it is argued that our schools need to teach students to use technology as “Mindtools” to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate the tremendous amount of information available and to construct new knowledge and make informed decisions (Jonassen, 10). The author of A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age summarizes this fundamental shift and what it means to future workers by stating: “If you want to be sure that you are what I call an untouchable (i.e., someone who remains marketable) you need to constantly focus on developing your right-brain skills---such as forging relationships rather than executing trans- actions, tackling novel challenges instead of solving routine problems, and synthesizing the big picture rather than analyzing a single component.” (Pink, 2005) Web 2.0 has great potential to support educators as they work to address the LEAP program's findings and prepare students for an interdependent, global economy.

  • Essay Question(s): What steps can teachers take to counter issues of isolation in their schools and classrooms? What are the benefits of minimizing isolating factors in education today?


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Aguilar, C.M. & Rivero, H. (2006). Blogs: Ending isolation. Principal Leadership: Middle School Education, 7,1.

Barth, R. (1991). Restructuring schools: Some questions for teachers and principals. Phi Delta Kappan, 73(2), 123-128.

Brady, M. (1996). Educating for life as it is lived. The Educational Forum, 60.

Cheung Chan, T. & Jarman, D. (2004). Departmentalize elementary schools. Principal 84,1.

Cookson, P.W. (2005).The Challenge of Isolation. Teaching PreK-8 36, 2.

Dede, C. (2005). Planning for neo-millennial learning styles: Shifts in students’ learning style will prompt a shift to active construction of knowledge through mediated immersion. Educause Quarterly, Nov. 2005, 7-12.

Dettmer, P., Thurston, L. & Dyck, N. (2002). Consultation, collaboration, and teamwork for students with special needs, 4th ed. Boston, MA: Allyn and Bacon.

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education. Rpt. New York: Free Press, 1997.

Doyle, D.P. (2007) SchoolNet. Retrieved from:

Duffy, T. & Cunningham, D. (1996). Constructivism: Implications for the design and delivery of instruction. (Jonassen, DH Ed). New York: Macmillan.

Erickson, H.L. (2007). Concept Based Curriculum and Instruction for the Thinking Classroom. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin Press.

Friedman, T. (2005). The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Grioux.

Gess-Newsome, J. Delivery Models for Elementary Science Instruction: A Call for Research Retrieved from:

Heider, K.L. (2005, June 23). Teacher isolation: How mentoring programs can help . Current Issues in Education [On-line], 8(14). Available:

Henson, K.T. (2006). Curriculum Planning: integrating Multiculturalism, Constructivism, and Education Reform. Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc.

Higher education reform: What really matters? (2007). NSTA Reports, 18(7), 1-4.

Ingersoll, R. (2002). The teacher shortage: A case of wrong diagnosis and wrong prescription. NASSP Bulletin, 86(631), 16-31.

Johnson, M., Schwab, R. and Foa, L. (1999). Technology as a change agent. Theory Into Practice, 38, 1.

Jonassen, D. (1996). Computers in the Classroom: Mindtools for Critical Thinking. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Many, J.E., Nicklow, L., Hutchingson, R. (1997). Constructing meaning from literature: examining discourse in departmentalized, multidisciplinary, and interdisciplinary contexts. Reading Horizons, 38.

Morrison, G. & Lowther, D. (2005). Integrating Computer Technology into the Classroom. Upper Saddle River: Pearson Education, Inc.

Norton, M. (1999). Teacher retention: Reducing costly teacher turnover. Contemporary Education, 70(3), 52-55.

Palmer, P. (1983). To know are we are known: Education as a spiritual journey. Rpt. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993.

Pink, D. ( 2005). A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age. New York: Penguin Group

Tompkins, J. (1996). A life in school: What the teacher learned. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley. (Father Guido Sarducci’s Five Minute University)