Saturday, May 24, 2014

Expeditionary Learning ELA Modules: A Critique

Grade 3 students answering questions posed by Expeditionary Learning.
I've spent the last year working with teachers in grades 3 through 8 who are using the ELA modules created by Expeditionary Learning. I've appreciated much of the design of the modules, the thinking behind some of the lessons, and the attempt to ensure active learning through the use of collaborative techniques such as jigsaw; Praise, Question, Suggest; interactive word wall and others.

But if asked to recommend these to clients after spending a year with the materials, I would not do so. The modules are flawed in ways that must be corrected, especially as these modules have been situated as being a model curriculum that is CCSS-aligned.  Keep in mind that NYCDOE endorsed these modules for their schools in February 2013 before writing had been completed.

EL states:
EL is at the forefront of creating classroom-ready Common Core curricular materials. New York State chose EL to create Common Core-aligned English language arts and literacy curriculum for grades 3-5 and deliver Common Core professional development to representatives from districts across the state. EL is also working with the authors of the Common Core State Standards to develop model secondary curriculum aligned to the standards. (from here)
Although there are several concerns I have with the EL curriculum, two represent the greatest concerns:
  1. The absence of instruction that scaffolds and requires students to generate and frame questions of inquiry to answer.
  2. No one present in the classroom authors the work at hand.
Additional Concerns:
  • The absence of comprehensive writing instruction that moves beyond writing in response to text.
  • The absence of  systematic vocabulary instruction that doesn't rely on directing students to "use context clues" (which aren't always present) or guess.  
  • The amount of time allotted for students to respond to tasks is woefully underestimated.
  • Situating literary texts as something to be used is problematic. There is an absence of an aesthetic appreciation of literary works. Rather literature is situated as efferent (Rosenblatt, 1978).
  • Wait, where's the expedition? The translation of these modules, sans expedition, is simply wrong.  The experiential opportunities are missing.
In this post I want to focus on the first two concerns as these speak to issues of servitude and colonialism.

1. What Career Is EL Getting Your Children Ready To Do?
3rd grader answering a question.

A main challenge I see with  EL's 'model' curriculum is that it undervalues students being active problem framers and instead locates them as responders to already determined questions. Throughout thousands and thousands of pages of curriculum, students are situated in the role of responders to already determined questions and their teachers are located as mimers whose main task is to parrot those already determined questions. Learners are not asked to generate and then frame their own questions to solve. Rather, they are asked repeatedly to merely pen responses to questions that the EL curriculum writers have written, including essay questions.  

Now slide under that instruction for a minute and ask yourself what that set of practices might be developing.  Remember the CCSS is all about making sure our children are college and career ready.

As a former college professor I can assure you that not developing children's capacity to generate and then frame questions of worth is a method to ensure that students are not college ready. College ready at least ought to include students who have done the challenging work of framing problems, not merely answering an authority's questions. Questioning involves speculating about possibilities.
K Mart Greeter.  Image from here
But what about career ready?  What is the career trajectory for people who have been trained to answer questions, rather than generate and frame questions?

Yes, it isn't a pretty outcome for millions of children.

Recently when I asked a group of teachers this question we came up with the following jobs: phone operator, K-Mart greeter, customer service representative.  The absence of question generation and framing leaves the EL curriculum to be more a model of servitude than a model curriculum.

2. Authoring.

“Every empire, however, tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate."  (Los Angeles Times, July 20, 2003)”  ― Edward W. Said

The EL curriculum is scripted. No one in the actual classroom gets to author--neither teacher nor student.  The curriculum is written to direct teachers to the specific materials to gather (including independent books for student reading), what to say, what to write, what to show, and allocates the number of minutes that each task needs to be completed.  It also includes anecdotes teachers can say (I guess in case teachers have none of their own?) when teaching vocabulary for example.  The curriculum is so bloated with commentary and directions that it is not unusual for each module to be comprised of 500+ pages.

With all of those pages there is little room for anyone actually present in the classroom to create curriculum: authentic and complicated conversations between students and teachers. The construct is epic, not novel.

Russian thinker Mikhail Bakhtin (1984) described epic as “ a poem about the past” (p.13), “an utterly finished thing” (p. 17) and novel as being unfinalizable and speculative about the unknown.  A similar difference can be said to exist between the institutionally controlled structures such as curriculum, and teachers' more idiosyncratic pedagogical and content practices. The epic world of Expeditionary Learning curriculum is unified, completed, “beyond the sphere of possible contact with the developing, incomplete, and therefore re-thinking and revaluating present” (p.17).  One can think of this epic world as being unalterable. The EL curriculum is an epic construct. It is untouchable. Dead. Beyond the influence of now.

Further, EL situates teaching as being complicated, not complex. Brent Davies' and Dennis Sumara's observe that “teaching has been cast as a complicated rather than a complex phenomenon—one that can be understood by analyzing its component parts and one that, for all intents and purposes, does not vary across time, setting, and persons” (“Cognition, Complexity, and Teacher Education,” 1997, p. 121, emphasis in original).   It doesn't matter who you are and are not. Who the children are and are not. Teaching and learning does not vary across time, setting, and persons. At 10:05 on Tuesday, all 3rd grade teachers should...

Such a belief sucks the energy and creativity from people: teachers and children alike.

In The Dialectic of Freedom, Maxine Greene writes about the difficulty teachers face with burgeoning demands and bureaucratic prescriptions that the public at large demands from educators. She writes:
“We do not know how many educators see present demands and prescriptions as obstacles to their own development, or how many find it difficult to breathe. There may be thousands who, in the absence of support systems, have elected to be silent. Thousands of others (sometimes without explanation) are leaving the schools” (p. 14). 
I've witnessed this leaving--the exiting of excellent teachers who simply can no longer allow themselves to be puppets of corporate enactments of learning. The struggle to continue to teach in light of model curriculum like EL is a formidable task as the mandated use of such curriculum restricts what is allowed to be taught and whose voice, value, and ideas are honored, ignored, and discouraged. 


  1. Strong critique; this is scary, scary stuff!
    1984, anyone?

  2. I'm a middle school teacher in the south Bronx who has managed to keep some autonomy and creativity alive in my classrooms as one curriculum has replaced another and another over the past 17 years, I'm dismayed to say that this year I'm being forced to follow the script of expeditionary learning and it's suffocating me. For the first time in my career, I'm starting to think about how to get out.

    1. I hope you won't. Teachers who think are so needed.

  3. We (a team of ELL/reading teachers in Boston) are attempting to make sense of a "Bud, Not Buddy" unit we're being asked to use this year. Out of frustration, I searched "EngageNY sucks" and found your post...validating, thanks. In addition to the broader concerns about creativity, authorship, and actual instruction, we're particularly and specifically vexed this morning as we grade the 'context clues' multiple choice questions Engage directed us to assign last night. They're not actually assessing use of context, but of word knowledge. So frustrating!! If you know what 'vermin' means (or you look it up), you get the question right. You attempt to actually use context, you get it wrong. Yet Engage pitches itself as a $13m standards-based solution. Ugh.

    1. I found the vocabulary instruction (like the writing) to be very weak and sometimes inaccurate. For example indicating students should use context when context was simply not present. Rather, as you indicate, prior knowledge was needed. We rewrote two of the units for our clients. The rest they avoided and we developed new work. Good luck.

  4. Taught this curriculum with fidelity for several months. Found it to be utterly boring, yet did appreciate some of the ideas and structures within. Our team was told that the EL was awesome because "teachers are not curriculum writers. It is so hard to do that." This after writing amazing, engaging, rigorous, student centered curriculum for a PYP school for 4 years. Funny but the EL seems very popular online, but I couldn't feel the power of it. I believe the IB PYP framework is far superior in it's respect for teacher's creativity and providing for student interest, engagement, and inquiry. I think teachers may like EL because it IS better than those basal literacy curriculums from the past, but not "good". Like never having chocolate cake and thinking a bagel is better than the bread you were forced to eat previously. Funny an above poster searched "EL sucks" which is the same thing I searched for. Keep this blog rolling please!

  5. In our district, we are mandated to use the first four modules. We have to post the unit & lesson number. Sometimes there are walk-throughs to check up on teachers. It has been 5 years of this. Of those 4 "central texts", only two are interesting to students in general. I totally agree with you. Not only are students not generating questions and actually thinking, there isn't enough time to stay on pace, teach the literature, and add in targeted instruction for actual language skills students need, especially English language learners. Yet, our district administers a "DBA" at the end of each quarter. I have to grade a writing piece from the module work and additionally, students have to sit and take a standardized test of 4 passages with multiple choice, which combines with the rubric scores for the writing to create data for the district. Students are serving the data. The district is not serving the students. And our ELA state test scores are getting lower each year. I only recently started searching for module critiques, and it is gratifying to know that my complaints are the same as yours and also another educator who published a scholarly review of the modules grades 3-8. How do we get the powers that be to wake up and realize what they're doing to these children? I am determined that this will change before I retire in a few years!

  6. Worst program ever! It's way over the kids heads. So a struggling student falls further and further behind. Boring and too many manuals. Nothing is bundled together. Instead we're searching through wordy manuals for every lesson. Why isn't everything for each lesson together? Why aren't all the worksheets in the student workbooks? Don't let me start are the cycles, parts, lessons! Why so many damn titles? They need to trash this program. But it's free so that won't be happening anytime soon.


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