TEQ #9: Core Shortcomings of the Traditional System – Doug Finn III

My name is Doug Finn III and I was held back in 3rd grade.  There I said it, not embarrassed by it, just learned from it.  I am a struggling reader and because of that I was not overly motived to learn in school, hence the second time around in 3rd grade.  I had a hard time relating to the material because of my reading difficulties. It was either confusing because I was not ready for it, or it was taught too quickly for me to properly understand.  I think my teachers did the best they could presenting their content to me the only way they knew how, repetition.  That is what they did the second time around. My second year in 3rd grade should have only addressed what I didn’t get the first time around, but no, they repeated everything and I mean everything: same tests, worksheets, homework assignments, the works.  Interestingly enough 35 or so years later I am a Marzano Research Associate and published author, and low and behold the topic of my book is about improving education.  Reflecting on my experiences in school and the system that I went through really gets me thinking about the concept of a teacher teaching “their content”.

In the modern era of education this concept of teaching “their content” needs to be addressed.  What if there was a system designed to teach students what they need instead of age-based curriculum requirements?  It is a simple statement: teach students what they need to learn. Of course it is much harder to actually do.  We assume all 3rd graders needs to learn the same things at the same time but we know all 3rd graders do not learn the same things at the same time.  The traditional omnibus grading system is designed to accommodate for different rates by offering lower grades for students that did not learn all the material in the allotted time and higher grades for students that did learn it in the allotted time.  I will not even get into the averaging of non-related scores into an overall grade for a content area.  Have you ever brought in a can for the food drive and received extra credit in class?  Enough said.

The problem with this socially acceptable process of grades (A through F) is it creates gaps in students learning.  A student gets a “C” in 7th grade math and moves to 8th grade math.  The issue is that the student needs the information that they missed in 7th grade to learn the 8th grade material.  The “C” allowed them to not learn material and move on.  The 8th grade teacher is now in a bind with trying to fill in the gaps and pile on all of “their material.”  This process of gap expansion keeps happening and then we end up with high school students with low reading and math levels.  Teachers ask themselves, “How can I be teaching a 10th grader with a 6th grade reading level?” and rightfully so. It is a question that gets to the core shortcomings of the traditional system.  It is the system that allows for this to occur.  Why do we keep doing this year after year?

As I stated earlier, creating a system where we teach what students needs to learn, is difficult.  If it was easy then everyone would be doing it.  Everyone is not doing it but there is a nationwide movement happening to develop such systems to support student learning and I am a strong advocate for a Personalized Competency-Based Educational (PCBE) system.  PCBE means that the content that needs to be learned is clearly identified and transparent to the students.  The content is presented as a continuum of learning throughout a subject area not just one grade level.  It also means a student needs to be proficient at the clearly identified content before they move on to the next level of learning.  Being proficient before moving on prevents gaps in student learning but it also allows for advancement if a student has already mastered the content, which creates more engagement. There is much more to PCBE but for now we’ll stick to these two points: teach content that is transparent, and avoid gaps by having students achieve proficiency before moving on to the next level.  That right there would be a major improvement to our educational system.

Another idea I want to leave you with when talking about teachers teaching “their content” is in the traditional system a teacher already knows what they will be teaching before a school year even starts.  Seems pretty normal to think that but that is exactly the problem.  We should get our roster of students first, analyze where each of them are in each of the content areas (where are they on the continuums of learning) and then figure out what needs to be taught for the upcoming school year for that particular group.  The students’ needs drive the instruction, not the teacher content.  Think about that.  It is the opposite of what currently happens.  We have teachers with a predetermined set of content and pacing (e.g., 8th grade math) and then we go out and place students by age. Really?  That is how we design our learning.  Moving into the future we need to address our students in a more meaningful way.


Doug Finn III

Douglas Finn III has been working in the area of Personalized Competency-Based Education (PCBE) since 2004.  Within PCBE, he has taught every grade, kindergarten through graduation, and has been an instructional and administrative coach for schools and districts throughout the country.

Doug has been supporting students, schools and districts transitioning to PCBE as a professional development associate since 2008.  He started working for the non-profit Re-Inventing Schools Coalition (RISC) and then transitioned to Marzano Research to become an associate and manager of the Marzano division of Reinventing School.  He is a co-author of A Handbook for Personalized Competency-Based Education with Robert Marzano, Jennifer Norford and Michelle Finn.

Doug received a bachelor’s degree in geology from the University of Montana. He earned teaching degrees in Biology and Earth Science from Northern Michigan University, kindergarten through 8th grade teaching certifications and as he likes to say, has attended the school of practical application for PCBE since 2004.

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