What Does It Mean to Follow a Program?

  • curriculum materials Curriculum
  • 05 May, 2018

Years ago, I was invited to coach some teachers. I’ve done a lot of that over the past almost 50 years. I watch a lesson, and the teacher and I sit down and discuss how it may be improved.

But this was going to be a strange situation.

The school had adopted a curriculum program I’d developed. They hadn’t told me that. Now I was to critique teachers who were using my lessons. Uncomfortable territory.

The principal assured me it would be fine since the classes using my stuff were doing well—better test scores than in the past. I wasn’t so sure.

Two teachers were using the program: one was experienced but she’d never taught reading before, and the other was a rookie.

I watched the first teacher, had the follow up meeting… nothing remarkable.

But then I sat in on the neophyte’s class. She wasn’t a superstar—yet. But she was darn good, one of those lessons that probably couldn’t get much better. What she may have lacked in artfulness, she more than made up in fundamental teaching chops. Heinemann probably wouldn’t sign her to a book contract, but you’d be pleased if she were teaching your kids!

During that lesson I started to think I was pretty wonderful. Here was a fresh-faced beginning teacher, a greenie, working with a challenged bunch of kids and outperforming past teachers… using my program. Magic!

Then I came to my senses.

For instance, when presenting the brilliant vocabulary lesson that I’d designed, the rook would sometimes add an extra example of a word’s meaning; other times, she omitted one.

The same kind of thing happened during the comprehension portion of the lesson: Sometimes she’d ask the wonderful questions as I’d written them, sometimes she’d recast one or omit one or add one.

It looked like she was following my lesson plan, and she was, kinda. But she was also sort of teaching her own lesson.

When we sat down for our debriefing, she immediately thanked me for designing such a wonderful program. She explained that she wouldn’t have known what to do if it hadn’t been for me. That was true—in a way. And, yet, it was only part of the reason for her pedagogical success.

That incident came to mind while reading a new research synthesis (Parsons, Vaughn, Scales, Gallagher, et al., 2018) published this month in Review of Educational Research that examined studies of “teachers’ instructional adaptations;” the kind of instructional responsiveness that rookie had demonstrated.

Parsons and company reported that studies over the past 40 years have described the phenomenon in a variety of ways: instructional decision-making, scaffolding, reflective teaching, adaptation, teacher metacognition, dialogic teaching, etc. But whatever it has been called, it’s an essential, and too often ignored, component of effective teaching.

Coaching has been found to enable adaptive teaching (Vogt & Rogalla, 2009), and six studies reported that focusing teacher attention on student learning (assessment) improved both teacher adaptability and student outcomes. Teaching experience also tends to improve adaptability (my rookie was an outlier—it usually takes awhile to gain the kind of “teacher vision” she exhibited).

What was it that I had seen in that observation? A complex pedagogical dance between a teacher trying to adhere to the major outlines of a program—I’d provided the bones of the lesson and sequenced the major activities—while she observed the students’ responses and reacted accordingly. If she saw confusion, she reworded my script or added an example or helpful explanation. If the lesson was clear, but student interest was flagging, she added a teaspoon of enthusiasm and kept their heads in the game.

That reminds me that there are two really important things underlying effective teaching.

On the one hand, as teachers we need to have a profound understanding of what needs to be taught. It matters that primary teachers possess a depth of knowledge of the alphabetic system, or that high school algebra teachers be well schooled in math. That’s where great curricula come in; a coordinated body of texts, lesson plans, and activities that have a strong chance of engendering the desired knowledge and skills.

On the other hand, slavishly following such a curriculum is unlikely to succeed, unless teachers are wisely adaptive. Effective teaching will always be more than following a script. Teachers must assess on the fly and note whether the kids are getting it and if they are not, then something needs to happen. Teachers must make both immediate adjustments—adding explanations, changing examples, requiring more practice—and more ambitious changes, too (“today’s lesson was a bust, I need to reteach it tomorrow”).

I worry these days about the idea of teaching with “fidelity to program.” Was my rookie evidencing fidelity? In a way she was. And, yet, any careful analysis of a transcript of her lesson would reveal that she was making important adaptations to my brilliant handiwork. She was taking a good lesson and making it go. Both components are essential, and one is no more important than the other if learning is the goal.

I’m a big fan of shared curriculum because without it, it is virtually impossible to get large-scale school improvement. Likewise, it makes no sense to adopt such a shared curriculum and then tell everyone they can do whatever they want with it. But such a collective commitment to a common program of instruction in no way should limit a teacher’s ability to adapt lessons to student response. Follow the research, teacher adaptation matters.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Tim Majka
May 06, 2018 11:05 AM

One of the reasons I love using New Visions New York for Global History. It gives me a solid template to work from and allows the flexibility of rewording questions and adapting lessons to the needs of my diverse classroom.

Fran Toomey
May 06, 2018 03:28 PM

For those of us who were "trained" before scripted programs existed, we were schooled in the concept of "diagnostic teaching." It is still a relevant teaching concept. The child is at the center of learning. If we don't respond to the individuality of the child, we are not likely to be successful. Children are often not informed of the "script," so they don't necessarily follow it. They learn from where they are. I am not suggesting that teachers shouldn't use a "packaged" program or construct a program from "scratch"; but rather I suggest that they know a program well and can determine when it is not working for a particular child. In teaching phonics/decoding skills, OG is the goal standard. Note that their Principles of Learning advocate diagnostic teaching.

May 10, 2018 12:51 PM

As a coach, I struggle with the word "fidelity" and you have captured the essence of the challenge. Just always great to get clarity through your blogs! Thank you!

Sue McAdaragh
May 15, 2018 02:38 PM

We have switched from using the word "fidelity" to using "integrity" instead. It honors the professionalism and knowledge depth of the teacher while also reminding them that they are part of a team of teachers who need to use a shared curriculum to achieve goals set for their students.

Andrew Davis
May 18, 2018 07:33 AM

Great stuff. I have written about the same issue, drawing similar conclusions for conceptual reasons in my "It worked there. Will it work here? Researching teaching methods" Ethics and Education Volume 12, 2017 - Issue 3

Andrew Davis Durham University UK

Mitchell Brookins
Jun 04, 2018 01:23 PM

I really appreciate the sentiments you expressed here. For the past decade, it seems like implementing shared curriculums with 100% fidelity is the rallying cry. Observers come into the classroom and their main objective is to take note of how the teacher has strayed from the script. This type of practice breeds a lack of trust. I’ve come to accept that many really don’t trust teachers to make sound instructional decisions. Instead of building capacity, we mandate strict adherence to the script. This strict adherence has sucked the life and joy out of teachers who are the most zealous practitioners. My lived experiences have deeply saddened me.

However, I believe in implementing a curriculum with integrity. Are the essential learning goals met? Are we honing students’ skills the way the curriculum guides us? Are we keeping essential elements so we don’t take away key learning experiences the curriculum is intending to shape? To implement with integrity it takes professionals collaborating in order to make effective choices. None of us knows it all and so, we have to be open to making adjustments that serve in the best interests of the children in front of us.

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

Comment *

What Does It Mean to Follow a Program?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.