Reform Your Classroom: Dealing with Curricula

This post is a continuation of series I started a long time ago obviously called, Reform Your Classroom.  One of the biggest roadblocks many teachers run into is the overstuffed curriculum they are required to teach.  Below I describe how I try to work around within the curricula with which I have been faced.

Most of the curricula I have seen are lists of 50-200 sentences or ideas kids are supposed to learn.  Many of these sentences are grouped under main topics (maybe 8-12 main topics).  My first suggestion is to forget about the lists of 50-200, these are not the point.  Instead make a concept map using the 8-12 main topics.  Knowing how these connect to each other may help you narrow your course to even fewer main topics.

Trying to connect the 8-12 main ideas may require you to add two or three main ideas for two reasons.  1) If you can’t connect the 8-12 main topics, you may need to add other main ideas under which you can group some of the main topics given to you by the curriculum. For example, I had to teach about weather and plate tectonics as two main ideas.  To connect these two I used the idea of “cycles”.  2) You might find that key main ideas are simply missing from your content area.  For example, when teaching Earth Science, my curriculum made no mention of the particulate nature of matter – a key idea for most any science content.

Once you’ve identified the 8-15 big ideas for your class, try to organize them into an order.  To order the ideas, look to see which of your big ideas is most connected to other ideas.  The more connected the idea, the sooner you will likely want to talk about that topic in the course.

Now that you have the big ideas identified and ordered, fill in (on the concept map, in an outline, whatever) some of the things you think your students will need to know in order to fully understand each main idea.  Rather than focusing on formulas, or dates, or rules (depending on your content), try to focus on principles, or understandings.  For example, in the weather section I needed students to understand ideas like “density, evaporation, precipitation, temperature, etc”.  Importantly, I’m not overly concerned about the vocabulary, but the underlying concepts.  Now your concept map or outline is likely starting to fill out.  But these are ideas YOU have generated, ideas YOU know to be important.  Identifying these ideas and being able to identify how they are connected is why knowing your content area is so important.

Notice, we still haven’t addressed the 50-200 “facts” of the curriculum.  However, this whole process started from the “big ideas” of the mandated curriculum – so we are still “following the rules”.  Now that you have identified (using your professional judgment) what is important for your class, go through the 50-200 “facts” you were given.  My bet is that almost all of them are already taken care of (if not, your school likely needs a curriculum revision).  Those items that have not already been explicitly addressed should clearly fit into areas of your concept map/outline.  Of course there will always be a few items that just don’t seem to fit anywhere.  With these kind of items, I usually decided to quite didactically “tell” students the information.  Let’s be honest, if an idea doesn’t connect to other aspects of the course, students aren’t likely to remember the idea anyway.

Importantly, my focus in class is the 8-15 main ideas.  I constantly work to help students connect these ideas using the more minor “facts” as a means to further develop students thinking and linking of the 8-15 main ideas.

Of course this post has left out much of the nuance and difficulty.  I can only hope to have summarized my process. Yet, this process has helped me to focus my class on main ideas to which I can continually return to help students develop a well connected conceptual framework. If you have something that works for you, please share in the comments.

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2 Responses to Reform Your Classroom: Dealing with Curricula

  1. AllysonOlson says:

    I really like your approach to building the framework around the big ideas. A couple of things occurred to me while reading: first, we know that the more connections students can make, whether from new knowledge to existing knowledge, or connections among new knowledge, the more likely they are to retain what they have learned, and your approach supports that. Secondly, it has become increasingly clear that we must pare down the curriculum by being selective about what students must master. By focusing on the big ideas, we place less emphasis on simply filling students with facts. Good post.


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