How to create viable curriculum: some questions to ask your team

In the interest of being more constructive than my last post, here are some questions that any team of teachers should ask themselves in order to make a district-wide library of curriculum documents be truly viable:

Why go through the trouble of creating curriculum documents?

A new teacher coming into a school building needs to have some sort of clue as to what to teach. Can they get that from a textbook company? Sure, but a good hand-crafted, professionally selected set of resources complete with suggested learning targets, activities, labs, and assessment items is a better foundation than just a prepackaged set of worksheets and virtual labs.

Students and parents need to know what they are going to be learning about in a particular course or grade level. A good curriculum project should result in documents that teachers can share with students and parents. There should be transparency to all stakeholders as to what is happening in the classroom. Are teachers showing videos every day? Is what students are learning about important and relevant? Published curriculum documents are one way to show parents and administrators what we hope to achieve in our classrooms.

Who are we writing our curriculum for?

Sadly, the student audience is often overlooked when we’re writing curriculum. Think about the last time you wrote a course or grade level curriculum. Did you use student friendly language? I strongly suspect that you were writing it (at best) for your supervisor, or (at worst) you assumed that no one, including yourself, would ever look at it again.

If we choose to create curriculum to appeal to some mythical state inspector or RTTT grant committee, then we are going to be crafting it with that audience in mind. If we are primarily concerned with communicating our goals with parents and students, then it will look very different.

What should our curriculum focus on?

I (rather snarkily) mentioned this in my last post. What does our curriculum emphasize? When parents and students see our finished curricula posted online, do they get the sense that we care more about our students than meeting state or national testing corporation requirements?

If our curriculum is written as a series of facts to be learned, then we declare to parents and students that our most important audience is the testing companies. Why? Facts are easily tested. Its simpler to write test questions about facts. But anyone can google facts, that’s why they should be emphasized less in a modern educational system.

We should instead build curriculum for all grade levels that builds skills a la Wiggins and McTighe:

“So then, what is a curriculum? In research for our book, Understanding by Design (Wiggins and McTighe, 1997), we uncovered 83 different definitions or connotations for the word, curriculum, in the educational literature! Such a variety of meanings confer an unhelpful ambiguity on the challenge of moving from standards to curriculum. Worse, most definitions focus on inputs, not outputs — what will be “covered” rather than a plan for what learners should be able to accomplish with learned content. This is a core misunderstanding in our field. Marching through a list of topics or skills cannot be a “guaranteed and viable” way to ever yield the sophisticated outcomes that the CCSS envision.”

We should instead focus on “…complex abilities and performances that students should master for college and workplace readiness.”

Basically, our curriculum should consist of a series of opportunities for students to practice skills that we believe are important to their future success. The first step of any curriculum project in a district therefore should be to agree on what those skills are and how to foster them in a developmentally appropriate way at each grade level. I’m excited that in our building the science and social studies departments are considering ways to track student progress from year to year not using standardized trivia-based test data, but by using more performance based assessments of student skills. We’ll be working over the summer to hammer out which skills we want to be sure to address and perhaps designing some of the assessments.

How can we guarantee that teachers will follow the curriculum guide provided to them?

We can’t, especially if that curriculum includes specific timetables of when kids will learn and master each topic. I mentioned previously that I dislike the term “guaranteed and viable” pretty intensely when attached to the word “curriculum.” The main reason is that a curriculum guide is just that, a guide, not a guarantee.

Teachers cannot control which students walk into their classroom in the fall. Would it be great if all students came to us with the same set of skills, one that matches nicely with the skills needed to be successful with our curriculum? Of course, but that rarely happens. Life is messy, especially the home lives of many of our students so they come to us with various deficiencies and strengths. Every group of students is different, so to pretend that we know exactly how long it will take for everyone to learn a particular topic or skill, without knowing each student’s capabilities, is ridiculous.

Holding a teacher accountable to an inflexible set of learning deadlines spelled out in a “guaranteed” document is one of the worst kinds of educational malpractice I can think of. This practice leads to teachers merely “covering” the material to cover their asses and denies kids the help they need if their particular skill set doesn’t integrate well with the established curricular time table.

Some conclusions from the above questions:

    1. Work together with your grade level or department to create your own personalized, meaningful curriculum guides to use in your classroom.
    2. Write your curriculum documents using student- and parent- friendly language and layout. Post them in an easily accessible public location online.
    3. Focus on supporting the growth of important skills and don’t simply “cover” trivial facts when writing your curriculum guides. Begin by identifying which skills you believe are key to student success at your grade level and beyond.
    4. Treat your documents as a guide, not a rigid timetable, and do not use them as a evaluative ruler by which to measure teacher success. Teachers need to be able to adapt their curriculum to help the students that they received rather than those they planned for.

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