If someone came up and asked you, “what is curriculum” – would you have an answer? Would you need time to reflect? As we support schools and districts in creating their curriculum maps and units of instruction, we have come to understand that the answer to this question is not simple, easy or consistent. In fact, answers vary dramatically from school to school, teacher to teacher, and subject to subject. If we haven’t agreed on a definition, how can we expect to work cohesively and productively?
When we help schools and districts come to a consensus on what curriculum is for them, certain themes tend to emerge:
Curriculum captures what a school defines as essential.
We live in the age of Google with unlimited information at our fingertips, but we view that information with our own lenses, based on our own culture and background. The same is true for curriculum – each school views curriculum information based on their own ideology and priorities. For example, one school may be all about hooking and engaging students through inquiry – having a category for Essential Questions may not fit their vocabulary. Instead, they might have one category for Inquiry and Engagement Questions.
What if the mission of your school is a critical aspect of your curriculum? It should be explicitly included in the curriculum that is developed. Or maybe your school is standards driven, making standards vital to what makes up your curriculum. If ensuring that students are able to learn content in a variety of ways is critical to student success, that should be a major piece of your curriculum.
As you read the hottest educational book or listen to that amazing speaker at the next conference, remember to adapt what they share and apply it to your unique situation – more is not always better.
Curriculum is based on key concepts or skills.
When creating curriculum, it is essential to start with the big ideas you want students to learn throughout the course – these could come from the standards or school articulated concepts or skills. The amazing benefit of starting with these big ideas or the standards is that it allows the curriculum to be grouped into core concepts.
NGSS does a great job of bundling the Performance Expectations into learning groups. The Common Core ELA standards can easily be grouped together to make clear units of instruction. Groupings like this help us, as educators, strategically cluster the material for cohesive units and compare the curriculum from one grade to the next to make sure that our students have smooth transitions.
Curriculum integrates with related initiatives.
We often hear that schools are taking a break on their curriculum work to focus on differentiation, project based learning, technology integration, one-to-one programs, flipped learning – fill in the blank. This is a missed opportunity to connect all the pieces that support learning for students. All the initiatives that go on over the academic year should tie to what happens in the classroom which, in turn, ties directly to the curriculum.
When a new initiative is tackled, take the time to reflect on how it impacts, and can integrate with, the current curriculum.
Curriculum uses the textbook, literature, or readings as resources.
When we ask a group what their curriculum is, without fail, we always get a few shout outs that the textbook is the curriculum. I developed this misconception my first year teaching when I was given a milk crate full of books and told, “Here is your curriculum!” I fell into the idea that you teach chapter 1, then you teach chapter 2, and so on. It wasn’t until I started to curriculum map that I realized that my textbook wasn’t my curriculum because it didn’t align with what we defined as essential at my school. This shift changed how I grouped units and brought in additional resources to support student growth.
When textbooks change or a new novel is read, the curriculum should not need to change. These resources don’t define the curriculum, but are used to support the work that students are doing.
Curriculum is what happens in the classroom.
When you put all these things together, you really get at what happens in the classroom. All the the things that teachers do to engage, excite, ignite, guide and inspire student learning make up the curriculum. The beauty of curriculum is that it is all about the students in our classrooms and what they need in order to learn what is essential – from standards to core concepts to values to life skills.