Making Sense of the Complex

Many public educators are feeling overwhelmed by all the initiatives coming our way. I too get anxious when I think about everything we are expected to do. A conspiracy theorist might suggest that some people in power might want us in this frame of mind, but I try to stay focused on what I can control.

I am reading a terrific resource titled Embedded Formative Assessment by Dylan Wiliam (Solution Tree, 2011). Here is one of my favorite passages so far:
Trying to change students’ classroom experience through changes in curriculum is very difficult. A bad curriculum well taught is invariably a better experience for students than a good curriculum badly taught: pedagogy trumps curriculum. Or more precisely, pedagogy is curriculum, because what matters is how things are taught, rather than what is taught. (p 13)
Couldn’t you replace “curriculum” with “standards”? I know this quote helps me keep things in perspective. I don’t know who said it, but good schools are only collections of good teachers. I am happy and feel fortunate that I work in the school that I do.

Author: Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is an 18-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th-grade teacher in Rudolph, WI. He now serves as an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District ( Matt also teaches online graduate courses in curriculum design and instructional leadership for the University of Wisconsin-Superior. He tweets @ReadByExample and writes for ASCD ( and Lead Literacy (

4 thoughts on “Making Sense of the Complex”

  1. Dear Matt

    I am glad you’re finding my book useful. As for the quote about “A good school being just a school full of good teachers” I’m sure I wasn’t the first to say it, but I have said it pretty often. However, I should point out that I do not think that this is necessarily a good thing. Just in the same way that a team can be better than its individual members if they play as a team, then it should be possible for a school to be better than its individual teachers, but because of the lack of teamwork in education, this is rarely the case. My own analyses of school data show that the school effect is about the same size as the sum of the teacher effects.

    Best wishes

    Dylan Wiliam


    1. Hi Dr. Wiliam. Thank you for taking the time to respond to my post. Honored!

      The text I posted here is an almost verbatim response to a colleague. She, like many of us, are experiencing higher-than-usual anxiety over everything coming at us– RtI, Common Core, Smarter Balanced Assessments, Teachscape, and so forth. Your thorough research and explanations in your resource have helped me stay grounded in what’s important and effective for learning. I plan to purchase more copies of Embedded Formative Assessment to make available for my staff.

      As for the quote, you make a good point about schools being more than the sum of their parts. “A good school is only a collection of good teachers” is a bit too simplistic (but makes for a memorable phrase ;)). In the school I inherited, the staff was already buying into a strong instructional framework (gradual release of responsibility), which has formative assessment embedded throughout the process, as you know. This belief and understanding of good instruction has really drove our practices and values.

      What I’d like to do this year is really hone in on the “We do it”/formative assessment part of this framework. Not as a tool, but embedded in what we do in our daily interactions with kids as you suggest. We’re also integrating tech into this plan in the form of digital portfolios. I see great potential in using tools such as Evernote to facilitate self-assessment and home-school communication of learning.

      Thanks again,



  2. Hi Matt,
    I find ‘curriculum’ is used two ways. The Common Core (US) and Australian Curriculum are a set of outcomes or standards that students need to know or be able to do.

    Jay McTighe defines curriculum differently. He says the curriculum is a map or blueprint that organised outcomes into units and aligns the outcomes with assessments and instructional activities.

    I’ve started to avoid the use of the word ‘curriculum’ unless there is a shared understanding with those with whom I am speaking – which makes the conversation continuously complex :).


    1. Janet, you point out the complexity of understanding what curriculum means and how people can get it confused. I think more educators are aware of the difference between curriculum and standards with the advent of the CCSS. This is why I highly recommend Dr. Wiliam’s resource. It’s very practical. He cuts straight to the process of using formative assessment during our instruction.

      Thank you for sharing your thinking Janet.


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