A teacher's job is to teach so that students learn important things out of the content, ensure they have a clear understanding and make necessary adjustments to cater to the needs of each learner based on his or her results. Textbooks make a good resource, but it shouldn't constitute the syllabus any more

Exactly three years ago, in February, I was observing different classes in some local high schools of Chico, California as part of a fellowship. A question struck me: 'What is the most common challenge being faced by teachers everywhere?' While searching for the answer, I received a book entitled Integrating Differentiated Instruction & Understanding by Design: Connecting Content and Kids by Carol Ann Tomlinson and Jay Mc- Tighe from a professor, and my research began to gain momentum.

In the US, the problem in terms of learning is an overload of content. It is magnified in tough subjects like science, history and maths.

This content 'overload' requires teachers to make choices constantly regarding what content to include and what to rule out.

High ambitious content demands can be daunting to the teachers in teaching and achieving the targeted results.

Apart from the amount of content identified, some objectives are stated in a way that makes them difficult to address. Some objectives are too big.

For example, look at this one from a grade 10 Social Studies textbook: 'At the end of the lesson, students will be able to identify the causes of girl trafficking in Nepal'.

But how many causes? What about the solutions? The statement is simply too broad to provide goal clarity and guidance to instruction and assessment. To make matters worse, teachers in Nepal's institutional schools are compelled to teach three English textbooks: English communicative course, English grammar and English literature.

Each of these contains at least 25 lessons. In total, 75 lessons have to be taught in a year. How feasible is this? Some American states have tried to address this problem by publishing and identifying more specific grade-level benchmarks and specifying performance indicators.

Nevertheless, the challenges of content overload persist. Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe propose that learning outcomes be considered in terms of understanding the "big ideas" and core process within the content standards, a relief to teachers.

A 'big idea' is directly linked with the fundamental concepts, principles, theories, and processes that should serve as the major part of the curricula, instruction and assessment.

Big ideas mirror expert understanding and anchor the discourse, inquiries, discoveries and arguments in a field of study.

They provide a basis for setting curriculum priorities to focus on the most essential content.

As a teacher, we want our pupils to explore essential and sensible questions and come to understand important ideas in the content standards.

Then we have to make plans accordingly. Success can be derived only from perfect planning.

If a student fails an exam, it isn't the student but the teacher's plan or the curriculum that has failed.

Hence, curriculum designers are recommended a three-stage background design process. The concept of planning backward from the desired results is no longer new. Backward planning asks teachers or curriculum designers to consider these stages- identifying expected results, listing indicators for understanding and planning learning experiences and instruction.

For backward design, teacher planning is focussed on classroom activities. And activities should be engaging, hands-on and child-centred.

Although this approach is old, studies have shown that the use of backward design for planning courses, units and individual lessons on purpose leads to more specific and clearly defined goal, more appropriate assessments, and much more purposeful teaching in class.

It's true many teachers believe their job is to cover the course. Contrary to this, a teacher's job is to teach so that students learn important things out of the content, ensure they have a clear understanding and make necessary adjustments to cater to the needs of each learner based on his or her results.

Textbooks make a good resource, but it shouldn't constitute the syllabus any more. This sort of planning drags teachers out of their comfort zone.

When we plan backward, we have to know clear differences between 'knowledge' and 'understanding'.

Knowledge just refers to the ability to recognise or identify something; for example, a new word in a text passage, which you "know", probably from the standpoint of having seen it before, but you don't know how to use it.

Understanding goes deeper about something.

To understand something you have to gain knowledge and put it into practice.

'Knowledge' is more inclined to theory, whereas 'understanding' is more inclined to practice.

Understanding also is revealed when students autonomously make sense of and transfer their learning through authentic performance.

Six facets of understanding-the capacities to explain, interpret, apply, shift perspective, empathise, and self-assess- serve as indicators of understanding.

It's important to note that although we educators may offer students options to demonstrate what their knowledge is and what their understanding is, our evaluation rubric has to be the same.

Responsible teachers need to work hard to find a balanced approach between individualised assessments and standardised 'one-size-fits-all' measures.

Educators have to change the stereotype that they cannot teach old dogs a new trick. Educators always have to be receptive to new ideas. They once were students.

They have to put themselves in their shoes to teach better. There're many reasons to keep up with the old habits.

So the first step is to determine whether they have the willpower to do better.

There should be a principle of substitution at work, not one of addition. They shouldn't eat junk food and then take medicine later.

Sherma, a Fulbright TEA fellow 2018, heads the English Department at Euro School

A version of this article appears in the print on February 10, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.