The Opportunity for Meaningful and engaging curriculum

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Time has always been a precious commodity for teachers, but now, with the different structures which must be navigated and the uncertainty of the times, educators have to be especially conscious of what they teach, how they teach it and how they assess in order to maximize learning. As a result, an opportunity has presented itself to reexamine curriculum, not only for now but also for the future. The careful consideration of what to include in the curriculum, the tool teachers use to make strategic and informed decisions about classroom practice, can open the door to more meaningful and engaging learning experiences for all students. 

By focusing on what is most important to learning, curriculum can provide the flexibility needed to be responsive to the interests and needs of students and involve them in making decisions about their learning. 

There are five steps to creating such a curriculum: 

1. Focus on the context for learning

First, think about what question you want students to be able to answer and the conceptual understanding they will have as a result. In a unit of study, this means identifying the essential question and big idea, and in a learning segment (a series of lessons) this means identifying the guiding question and learning target(s).

Essential Question and Big IdeaGuiding Question and Learning Target
Is change necessary?What structures do plants use to grow and survive?
Students understand that living things change by growing and adapting to their environment to have the best chances for survival.I can create a model to explain how the roots, stem and leaves help plants grow and survive.

2. Emphasize discipline specific-practices

Most disciplines have practices, skills, strategies, and dispositions used for working with content as practitioners do in authentic situations. Unfortunately, they are often ignored because they are viewed as vague and incidental. However, when explicitly identified and linked to the important concepts they can become tools for learning.

For example, model with mathematics, is a practice. Students create models in mathematics beginning in kindergarten when creating bundles of 10 and continue to do so in high school when creating a graph to illustrate a function. If students understand that a model will help them visualize a mathematical concept, they will rely on modeling when approaching new and unfamiliar math problems. In doing so they have developed a tool for learning.

3. Use an asset-based approach to instruction

Focusing on what students can do instead of their weaknesses or what they have missed is a way to move students’ learning forward. When the first learning activity is aligned to foundational standards or concepts and used as a diagnostic assessment, the teacher can provide an appropriate pathway for student learning while still ensuring that all students have access to high expectations. These differentiated pathways include embedded review, additional practice and extension. All students begin their learning from a place of success.

In addition, all of the activities have embedded formative assessment moments that provide the teacher with the opportunity to provide feedback. Quality feedback begins with what students can do, identifies an area in need of improvement and provides a related next step with how the student can address the area of weaknesses. In this way the teacher is using what the student can do as a bridge to further learning.

4. Develop cognitive routines and active learning strategies

Develop cognitive routines and active learning strategies that allow students to focus on what they are learning rather than the task they are completing. It is not the amount or variety of learning activities that is important but rather the strength of alignment to the learning target and its ability to develop a habit or way of thinking that the student can use independently of the teacher.

For example, learning targets accompanied by success criteria allow students to internalize expectations for particular kinds of tasks so that they can use their experiences to guide similar work in new and different contexts:

I can make an inference when I read by

  • identifying important information
  • connecting this information with what I know
  • coming up with a new idea

These three steps to making an inference are transferable to different content and texts when students have the opportunity to practice, self-reflect and receive feedback on the process.

5. Expand traditional views of curriculum

Expand traditional views of curriculum to include specific strategies that enable students to become self-reliant. Curriculum-embedded performance assessments are multi-step, complex tasks that produce as well as measure learning. They are intentionally designed to provide students with a choice of what they would like to learn and how they would like to learn it while still holding students to high-expectations. Within these tasks are key formative assessment moments that include research, action plans, and drafts that can be revised, based on feedback that is guided by criteria, often created by the

When the information suggested above is readily available in a curriculum document, teachers can make strategic decisions about what to teach, how to teach it and how to assess it so students learn. If curriculum is developed with a less is more philosophy, teachers can be responsive to their students and students can be more active participants in their own learning. When we recognize the value of these actions for students under the current conditions for instruction, we can begin to make valued changes for the schools of the future. 

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