Figuring Out What Really Matters in Curriculum Planning

Dan BeerensThe CACE RoundtableLeave a Comment

I often joke in workshops that, as teachers, the day we return from spring break is when we kick in to “fast teaching” mode! We do this because while we were relaxed in November and February, and consequently added a few days to our favorite units, we are now faced with being behind on the content we feel responsible for teaching. This is a problem that pops up as regularly each spring as dandelions in our yards. What can we do about it?

For starters, let’s make a good plan. I am a huge fan of curriculum mapping as a vehicle for having the important conversations with colleagues around what really matters in our learning experiences over the course of PK-12 in our schools. Good planning inspires hope and helps to keep us on track through the course of the year. We can commit to eliminating this “cramming” behavior at the end of next year if we plan well this summer/fall as we start a new year!

Let’s remember we are responsible for the following categories in our planning of educational experiences (category examples are in parentheses below):

  1. Concepts (migration, freedom, opportunity, needs)
  2. Topics (Westward movement)
  3. Facts (Early Americans migrated west. They were looking for opportunities to better meet their needs and experience freedom.)
  4. Skills (research, writing, presentation)

In this example, skills, facts, topics are very important, but most critical is that we look at our units through a conceptual lens. Concepts are so important because they are transferable to other areas of life and are the ideal level at which to consider biblical integration. In subjects like math and physical education, which are skill and fact heavy, we may have less opportunity for biblical integration as opposed to the humanities, which abound with concepts.

So, what concepts are most important? In his book, Making Learning Whole, author David Perkins suggests that we focus on ideas/concepts that have disciplinary, societal, personal significance and that are charismatic and interesting to the learner. While he calls these “ideas of wide scope” I prefer the term “lifetime take-aways” because these conceptual understandings can shape a student’s critical thinking for a lifetime – for example, Christians serious about living out their faith and combatting a materialistic North American lifestyle should consider a biblical perspective on wants versus needs. In other words, a robust discussion about this concept should happen at some point in a student’s life to help them to consider and remember, for a lifetime, how a biblical perspective needs to be applied to each purchasing decision they make in light of a world in great need.

But, what about standards/benchmarks? One of the most freeing statements some wise person made is that not all standards are created equal! Sets of standards and benchmarks are developed by experts (who love the subject area!) and typically are too large and unwieldy. (I feel your pain, social studies teachers!) If we have identified the concepts we are going for, standards suddenly become much easier to manage. For example, we might have multiple standards about various wars – yet do we have to study each and every one of the wars or simply develop a student awareness of them and focus our time instead on the concepts of conflict, causation, peacemaking, and just war theory? When choosing standards, many experts agree that three criteria apply:

  1. Endurance – things that matter for life – for example, reading proficiency.
  2. Leverage – knowledge and skills that will be of value in multiple disciplines (i.e. life!) – for example reading and analyzing graphs, charts and tables.
  3. Readiness for the next level of learning – things that are needed for the next level of study…and life!

Once we have had these kind of high level collaborative discussions with colleagues and define together our “lifetime take-aways” that incorporate critical concepts, knowledge/skills, and that connect in a significant way with the mission of our school, why wouldn’t we want to capture them in a good map and continue to develop them as we interact with and learn from our students over the course of the year?

Works cited:

Erickson, H. Lynn. Concept-based curriculum and instruction: teaching beyond the facts. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2008. Print.

Perkins, David N. Making learning whole: how seven principles of teaching can transform education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2009. Print.





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