Teach with Fidelity.
If you want to get me riled up, tell me I need to do anything with this as the standard.
I remember when I first started teaching almost 20 years ago, I was told by a colleague that the first year we implemented a new curriculum we had to, “teach it with fidelity.” After that, we could maybe make changes, but the first year we had to do every single lesson exactly the way that it was written in the exact order that it was written. The thought behind this was that by teaching every lesson we would have a better understanding of how the program worked. If we didn’t teach it exactly as the curriculum said, it was our fault that kids weren’t learning.
This philosophy made sense at the time. It was the era of No Child Left Behind where there was a heavy focus on “research-based programming.” According to the rhetoric (being propagated by politicians), our schools were failing and we had to do something about it. Curriculum written by mythical education gurus was suddenly the answer to everything. Teacher weren’t the experts. Curriculum writers were. And so began the fallacy that curriculum has all the answers.
Teaching With Fidelity is an archaic phrase that needs to disappear. I might argue it’s actually one of the most harmful phrases in education today.
If educators are told that they cannot change any lesson and must teach it exactly in the order it is written, it nullifies their ability to respond to the learners in their classroom. This is counterintuitive to responsive instruction, an effective instructional practice that results in growth in students because it meets them where they are and grows their abilities from there. When we teach every student every lesson exactly the same way we are harming both kids who can go beyond the curriculum as well as the ones who are not yet ready for the lesson. It takes away the ability of educators to select lessons that are connected to students’ lives and interests which takes away their ability to make lessons meaningful. The result is boredom, frustration or even apathy in students.
Teaching with Fidelity is harmful to school culture as well. It sends a message to teachers that I don’t trust you and your expertise and experience in teaching. Unfortunately, there is a dichotomy of “us vs. them” with teachers and admin in some schools and this phrase only adds to that tension. We have to trust our teachers. They are the ones who work with students daily. They know the students’ strengths and the intricacies of the next steps in instruction because of the relationships they work hard at building. Because of this, we need to empower them to make instructional decisions, not undermine their competence by expecting them to follow a box.
This phrase also results in a system where the ability to confirm is more highly valued than innovative ideas. It tells both students and teachers that there is only one right path to learning. If I cannot teach or learn exactly the way someone else tells me then there is something wrong with me. This is the complete opposite of the world outside of school where creativity and innovation are sought out and celebrated. We need to provide learners with school experiences that empower them to own their learning so they are prepared for the multitude of experiences they have outside of school. I struggle to see how teaching with fidelity does that.
I’ve seen this quote from Maya Angelou quite a bit lately on social media.
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
We know better than Teaching with Fidelity. We know that getting to know our learners and building on their strengths and talents as is the best teaching practice to help them continue to grow. The idea that there is one program that can reach all learners is archaic and misleading. John Hattie names Collective Teacher Efficacy as the number one factor being strongly correlated with student achievement. We need to empower our teachers, not take away their ability to make informed instructional decisions.
We know better. Let’s do better.