Sep 15

Covering the curriculum

There is no doubt that most school curriculum is jam packed with far too many outcomes. It is eye opening to read just what has been placed on the school curriculum plate over the years. Author Jamie Volmer expresses it well in his article, “The  Ever Increasing Burden on America’s Public Schools.”   While every addition has merit, we’ve long past the point of excessive.

Over the years, I’ve been involved in the curriculum development process. Sitting on various committees, the format seems to be well engaging. Stakeholders are brought in to provide their oversight and debate which outcomes are most important. The unfortunate result, is that egos are seldom left at their origin and therefore every outcome becomes non-negotiable. Hearing, “my organization can never support this curriculum without the inclusion of these outcomes” is rather frustrating.

The bottom line is that every outcome does not have equal importance. There is a hierarchy of importance and everybody involved in the curriculum design process must be aware of that simple fact. What we’ve had up to this point is excessive outcomes, that at times, has provided a barrier to innovate teaching because covering the curriculum has become more important than deep learning. Add in some standardized testing, link them to accountability and you have many teachers who default to surface learning, i.e. covering the curriculum.

Now, before the cheers or boos (depending on your camp) come up about standardized testing and accountability, let me be perfectly clear that both are required. Multi-million dollar organizations, of which an education system is one, requires checks and balances. While teaching practice may vary greatly, the impact of the learning must have a level of standard to ensure high quality education from class to cl,ass, school to school, and system to system. And, although I prefer the term assurance, it would be naive to believe that there should be no accountability for the use of public funds to finance education. The issue with standardized testing and accountability rests on the emphasis as opposed to the existence.

In Alberta, the education ministry has made some bold moves in shifting the emphasis by the elimination of the provincial achievement tests in grade 3 last year, grade 6 this year and grade 9 in 2015-16. I’m hopeful that our diploma exams can also receive less emphasis through continued dialogue with our post-secondary institutions to allow for the de-stressing of our students, parents, teachers and schools. But let’s focus on what has been realigned, re-emphasized and ultimately re-imagined! I would suggest that these bold moves and emphasis shift do not support the need to simply cover the curriculum!

There is a hierarchy of outcomes! There are essential outcomes that without concentrated time for deep learning, students will ultimately fall into the abyss! And now, given the elimination of these barriers (real or imagined), teachers have the opportunity to go beyond surface learning and covering the curriculum. For years, educators have requested a culling of learning objectives in all curricula and now we have the freedom to begin just that! Teachers in our system have been given a very clear message from me to ensure students have full understanding of the essential outcomes to be successful. I’ve asked our staff to redefine the curriculum into “need to know” and “nice to know” and focus on the first.

While there is still work to do on the consensus on essential outcomes, teachers have the ability right now to “thin” the curriculum and focus on innovative strategies without “big brother” looking over their shoulder. Project based learning and other pedagogies focusing on deep learning will enhance cross curricular connections, elevate student engagement and provide an improved and transformed system. With initiatives like curriculum development prototyping on the horizon and grassroots work through inspired curriculum, the move by teachers to begin debating essential outcomes will allow them  to get ahead of the curve, to reflect on their own teaching practice and most important provide an even better learning experience for their students.

Let’s make sure we don’t just, “cover the curriculum!”

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