3-Part Process For Making Deliberate Curriculum Choices:

Cross posted from Learning Sets

What to cut out? Cut back on? Consolidate? Keep? Create?

Educators face a critical challenge:  how to engage their learners in a curriculum that is responsive to where their students are right now — addressing learning losses and gains — in service to where they aspire to be. Over the past year, all of us have had our lives turned upside down. Each and every one of us had to figure out what to do next based on information that regularly was modified. To be a self-navigator, creative problem solver, and media critic (just to name a few) was essential for our resilience during this pandemic.

This is a call to sustain the flexibility, agility, and innovation that was present in schools during the pandemic rather than jump onto the “let’s pick up where we left off” bandwagon. In this post, we focus on the value and necessity of curriculum as an aspirational and actionable blueprint that staff can use for guidance in developing responsive learning experiences with their students.

To that end, we offer a three-part process for examining existing curriculum to determine what matters most for your “right now” learners. This process may be painful, especially when letting go of carefully crafted assignments and lesson plans.  Perhaps there is guidance in looking to the Latin root word for curriculum, which means a path to run in small steps. The familiarity with this path creates ruts that become deeper and make it more difficult to see with fresh eyes. Engaging in a curriculum “reset” may open up fresh approaches for how to rethink curriculum narratives.

First, revisit aspirational goals you have established as a school.

Examine your vision or portrait of a graduate and reflect on what student roles and related skills are central for them to navigate and thrive. This work can provide a balcony view to clarify broader learning goals that ideally guide day to day learning choices that teachers and students make—goals that take the long view on determining the strength, approaches, life-skills, and aptitudes needed to support our learners.

  • For teachers in the identification, creation, and/or redesign of compelling problems, questions, and challenges that can give insight into a refreshed curriculum storyline. Otherwise we are more likely to recycle what we have immediately in front of us, to cover old material, and to miss an opportunity.
  • For students as they are becoming more skillful, sophisticated, and strategic throughout their school years. This is especially helpful now when students may feel increased pressure/anxiety in anticipation of pace of learning to “catch up” for what was missed.
  • For the school community in reaching consensus on realistic priorities will be central to our efforts. Otherwise, there may be a tendency to go for the granular, memorize some facts, scramble to construct where “we left off.” It is critical to reach consensus as a school community on learning goals that will serve as a North Star to decision making.

This renewed focus and commitment to the vision or portrait of a graduate should be driving your curriculum reset.

Second, examine and clarify your current curriculum narrative.

  • Compile existing units of study from your curriculum. Ideally, this can be done in grade level bands (e.g., K-1, 6-8) to ensure the choices you want to make do not put undue pressure on other grade levels to capture essential content. Working in departments on the high school level is obviously important, but it is also equally important to review across a grade level to see what the challenges will be for learners attempting to juggle multiple demands.  
  • Examine each one and tell a brief story (thumbnail synopsis) of that unit. Why does it exist? What is the essential learning students will be able to continue to develop and transfer when that unit is over? What are the most critical standards to be in the foreground?  
  • Review the storyline through the scope of the year. Are there connections between the units? What does your curriculum value the most?  

Third, ask yourselves the following questions:

Could you cut out unit(s) of study to make room for deeper investigation and development of key concepts and skills?

In any composition there is an editorial review where the question of “cutting” material is central to the whole. What matters most given the time that we have for our specific learners with our specific conditions, we must govern how we decide. To be clear, when cutting units it will be critical to examine standards that were emphasized in a unit. Given that standards are cultivated over time, it is likely that the faculty teams can readily identify the most critical standards that have been in the “foreground” in the design of learning experiences. It is always a concern to us when we see a unit of study with 30 standards listed (this is not an exaggeration) since these proficiencies take time to develop. Bundling standards that naturally cluster together in student learning is a natural way to align assessments. A faculty team can look at bundled and individual standards to sort out which are the most essential to their specific learners and those that are not.

Could you cut back each unit of study significantly? 

It is highly likely that individual educators have made key decisions to cut back during this past year. Moving forward we suggest your planning teams review the “thumbnail” story of the curriculum through the year to determine places where they may elect to cut back and distinguish the most essential from the less critical material in their units.   The task is to distinguish the most essential elements in the curriculum and place them in the foreground.

  • Skills: Given the importance of cognitive and technical skills in the long term growth of learners, teachers will want to elevate critical skills integral in supporting students within a given discipline as well as sub skills tied to Future Forward Learning Goals.
  • Content cuts: The tendency to “cover” content needs to be confronted in order to move forward.  Distinguishing content that directly supports and is central to the Future Forward Learning Goals and storyline might prove to be a great challenge but also a rewarding one. Of particular value will be to proactively have our learners show the connections between the key content and that storyline as the curriculum develops.
  • Assessment cuts: Considerations and decisions about what formative and summative assessments will be the most revealing and helpful demonstrations of learning should be determined as a faculty both across grade levels and vertically. Certainly the impact of state or provincial requirements for public educators and education organization policies (e.g.,. College Board, IB) is a major factor in decision making. Bottom line, if there are cuts in the curriculum then there will be corresponding cuts in the assessments.

Could you consolidate based on units of study and personal learning progress during the remote learning time?

Given the nature of your course or grade level subject area layout, if there are related and clear connections between units then combining them is possible. To consolidate means to combine elements to make a more effective coherent whole. On a practical review of the scope and sequence of a year’s units, we can step back and not only determine what we might cut and where we might cut back, but where we can merge units of study. Consolidation can certainly occur within an existing unit as a teacher reviews and revises elements and activities based on past experience. Certainly interdisciplinary units of study can be a fruitful design consideration when consolidating.

  • It may be that a geology course in a high school begins with a look at the formation of the earth as a planet for the first unit and in the second examines oceans and the third unit looks at land. It seems that these three could be combined to shorten the time and be reframed to look at the early story of planet earth: beginnings and elements.
  • On the elementary level, a fourth grade ELA curriculum might have a sequence that moves from a unit on historical fiction focused on a chapter book perhaps Number the Stars by Lois Lowry , to a unit on persuasive writing on an issue. It seems plausible to combine those two and consider having students take a stand on a critical issue raised in Lowry’s classic work.

Could you create a new unit or module to replace this altogether? 

Generating new curriculum units responsive to the learners and to the zeitgeist is an option that seems particularly relevant.  Certainly, new units could be interdisciplinarily derived from a reconsideration of your existing layout for the school year.  A deliberate lens from multiple subject areas on common topics, problems, issues, and themes could provide a fresh perspective for learners. We strongly recommend the development of phenomena-based learning supporting inquiry into emergent problems and issues in a students life.  These might be framed on a personal, local, or global level but what is key is there is an immediacy to the situation. (NOTE: Interdisciplinary units emerge from the natural connections we see “between disciplines”, that is between the subjects.  Phenomena-based is not anchored in our traditional school day but transcends the notion.   We are not suggesting one is “better than the other”, rather we hope to provide a menu of options as units are generated).

A key organizing focus could be phenomena-based given the emergent issues regarding the pandemic. Whether an individual unit or a series of units, learners could examine the impact personally, locally, or globally. Certainly developmental considerations need to be primary here. Here are some examples:

  • On all levels, learners can document and share their experience to document their personal experiences as part of a living history that is being told from diverse perspectives using upgraded authentic assessment formats. The unit could be COVID19: My Story, Your Story, Our Stories
  • Secondary students can dive into an examination of the pandemic and/or consider specific angles. For example, as contemporary historians they might develop an annotated timeline since the first reports in November 2019 from China to the present. As journalists they could “cover” certain angles on the pandemic in a series of articles: the point of view of essential workers, impact on a range of families in the community or, the challenge to local government and decision making. Clearly, an area of fascination for all of us is the scientific research and scramble to develop treatments and a vaccine and certainly for our learners that could be covered in an empirical style.
  • Elementary students might engage and develop service-based learning projects to thank local health care and essential service providers. Whether in the form of written communication or in a short video message, gratitude is appreciated and it is important to display. What is more, it may be possible to actually provide concrete support to members of the local community as the adaptation and easing into functional society occurs.

Looking Ahead

Decisions on curriculum matters have never been easy.   Educators know that there are certain units of study and learning experiences that are particularly satisfying to teach and are hard to let go of. There can be sharp differences of opinion on what matters most for learners between members of a grade-level team or department. Conversely, there are great opportunities for collaboration and responsiveness to the needs, especially now, as we work through these decisions. As school faculties lay out a reimagined path in partnership with their learners and families, the opportunity is to leverage specific expertise in service to common and aspirational learning goals.