What is Curriculum? From Managed Instruction to Personalized Learning

teacher helping students with project that she was able to build herself, because she was not working in a managed instruction environment

Update 5.22.20: We’ve written a response to this piece, noting what we’ve learned since 2017 and how curriculum is different in 2020. Please read this piece for our most up-to-date thoughts. 

In the post-NCLB age when schools have (to some extent) made the shift to digital and personalized learning is the new meme, what in the world is curriculum?

Thirty years ago, a school board adopted textbook was the core curriculum. Twenty years ago, most states introduced learning standards, and those also became part of the definition of curriculum.

Teachers have always supplemented the core curriculum to meet the needs of students. In the digital classroom today, the whole curriculum appears to be a mashup of supplemental materials.

In this blended, mix-and-match, do-it-yourself world of education, what is curriculum, and who develops it? How do we know if it works? The following are six timely questions, without definitive answers, about what we teach students.

What is curriculum?

In the most general sense, curriculum is a course of study. But as Great Schools Partnership notes, in practice it typically refers to objectives, lessons and assessments:

“…curriculum typically refers to the knowledge and skills students are expected to learn, which includes the learning standards or learning objectives they are expected to meet; the units and lessons that teachers teach; the assignments and projects given to students; the books, materials, videos, presentations, and readings used in a course; and the tests, assessments, and other methods used to evaluate student learning. An individual teacher’s curriculum, for example, would be the specific learning standards, lessons, assignments, and materials used to organize and teach a particular course.”

Educators on Twitter responded this way:

  • Andy Pridgeon (@AndyPridgeon): When thinking about curriculum, I want a rigor and a 21st century skill framework…and I want to ID tech that supports it all.
  • Janice K (@jwross1): curriculum encompasses a variety of mental, physical and emotional experiences a child goes through when learning a concept.
  • Erin Wolfe (@ErinWolfeHPS): Sometimes it’s easier to define what it’s not- It’s not a set of worksheets, or teacher scripts. 😉
  • Andrew Biros (@AndrewBiros): Ts should start w/Qs: Who are my Ss & where do they come from? Who am I & how do I fit into their lives to serve their needs?
  • Richard C. Seder (@emergentpolicy): a sequence of scaffolded concepts, content, & activities intended to develop knowledge, skills, and competencies in participants
  • Daniel Torres-Rangel (@danieltr83): I think about the layers of curr as: Philosophy, Lrng environment (physical/experiential), Pedagogy, Outcomes, Assessment

Daniel, who taught math at Summit Public Schools before joining Google as an Instructional Designer at @Google, added:

“As far as writing the content (activities, projects, etc) I like the comparison to writing a story. Why are you writing the story? Who is the audience? What is the story about and how will the major plot points unfold? What is the story arch? Who are the main characters? How will they be introduced and develop? How will certain events be foreshadowed? What surprises will there be? What emotions should the story evoke? What will motivate someone to keep reading? A curriculum that follows this analogy is the Eureka Math curriculum.“

Interesting, right? There are many different conceptions of curriculum. Like Janice, I think of curriculum as a sequence of “mental, physical and emotional experiences.” That definition keeps the focus on the experience of the learner. Given the increased focus on broader aims, I appreciate her scope of included experiences—mental, physical and emotional—which is broad enough to consider influences of culture and relationships.

Core or supplemental?

In the old days, there was almost always a core curriculum with a few sanctioned and unsanctioned supplements. In blended environments, it’s not uncommon for the curriculum to be made up of many components, including adaptive software (e.g., Dreambox or iReady), standards-aligned materials (e.g., Eureka Math), tutorial materials (e.g., Khan Academy), projects and performance tasks.

The good news is that learners are receiving more formative feedback than ever. The bad news is that it is still challenging to combine formative assessment data into actionable information. That makes it harder to create cohesion between the components. The Christensen Institute definition of blended learning notes that “modalities along each student’s learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience.”

Who does what?

It’s Sunday night and you need a lesson, what do you do? A lot of teachers head to Pinterest to find lessons. For someone like me that values instructional coherence (i.e., everything works together for students and teachers), Pinterest lesson planning sounds like a waste of time. However, a frustrating alternative has been attempts to script teachers (more on that below).

Whether curriculum architect or instructional facilitator, the key is role and goal clarity—making clear the teacher’s role and the kind of supports they can expect.

“We want our teachers to focus on developing impactful instruction,” said Vancouver superintendent Steve Webb. He’d rather have them designing experiences than content–quality pedagogy that gets at deeper learning.

“The teacher’s role in Vancouver is to design high quality lessons leveraging the resources provided relative to a core adoption,” said Webb. They’d like to avoid the Sunday night problem of teachers searching for resources.

In the New Tech Network, teachers can use or adapt projects from a big library or develop their own using standards-based rubrics. New Tech teachers share a common project-based approach, a school model with big blocks for integrated projects, a common set of tools and a professional learning network. That sort of context for co-creation makes sense to me.

How to create curriculum alignment?

There are thousands of chief academic officers (CAOs) that built NCBL instruction regimes with aligned units of instruction, assessment and professional development. These aligned systems supported new teachers but felt repressive to veterans. Teaching to the middle of an age cohort worked for some students but not for students ahead or behind. Adding “Response to Intervention” systems helped for struggling students.

It’s easy to say that managed instruction is old school and digital learning is the future, but the lack of alignment of instruction and assessment, as well as schedule, structure and support services, is a big problem—it leads to poor student performance and frustration on the part of educators.

Now many CAOs are trying to pivot to blended and personalized learning. Alignment remains important, but the new task is to create a coherent and customized course of study for each student. Following is a summary of the differences between managed instruction and next generation learning.

Managed Instruction Next-Gen
Design Centralized Bottom up, top down, inside out
Materials Print on seven year cycle Dynamic modular digital library
Pacing Uniform Individualized
Assessment Periodic benchmark Continuous and adaptive
Progress Cohort Demonstrated mastery
Competencies Instructional design, pedagogy Learner experience, EdTech, data
Desired Outcomes Math and reading test scores Communications, critical thinking, habits of success

Foundation advisor Neerav Kingsland thinks “most schools and districts will be on educational platforms that combine human curation of content and algorithms to develop an instructional program from afar.” As platforms get better, Kingsland thinks they will replace the traditional CAO role of assembling aligned components.

My friendly amendment is that it will be platform networks—learning models, platforms and professional learning communities—that prove to be transformational. In the not too distant future, most schools will be part of a platform network.

Is there a best curriculum?

Six years ago, after the introduction of Common Core State Standards and some associated foundation and private investment in instructional materials, there was a brief resurgence of the idea of one best curriculum. But with school choice, course choice and—with personalized learning—choice at the experience level, that idea seems to be fading fast.

The leading advocate of student-centered and competency-based learning, iNACOL, defines personalized learning as “Tailoring learning for each student’s strengths, needs and interests–including enabling student voice and choice in what, how, when and where they learn–to provide flexibility and supports to ensure mastery of the highest standards possible.”

There is some question about different forms of intelligence, but it is obvious that we’re each differently gifted and motivated by unique interests. It’s not yet clear how to best leverage and cultivate these differences

What’s important?

While many advocate for a knowledge-rich curriculum, it is clear that (by traditional measures) teacher quality is the most important schooling variable. That may be mitigated slightly as school models grow more complex with more sophisticated personalization and students progressing based on demonstrated competency. But one thing we can probably count on is the primacy of relationship.

For most of us, learning is relational—it’s motivated and supported by relationships. Human connections inspire interest, power persistence and guide progress.

Remember Big Picture‘s summary of good school design principles? “Rigor, relevance, and relationships.” You won’t get to the first two without the last.

As we contemplate student learning experiences, it’s good to remember how culture, tools and leadership support relationships. It’s relationships that matter most.

For more, see:

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Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment

Tom Vander Ark

A Twitter comment said i missed the boat on open education resources (OER). Fair enough, should have added a discuss on open v proprietary. In short, you can run a great school or district with OER. Don't pay for content that isn't smart (with embedded assessments) and engaging

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