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  • Writer's pictureKristin Phillips

Curriculum design that is messy (but research based?)

Traditionally curriculum is designed in units: persuasive writing, short stories, fractions, cell theory etc. In order to make the content easier for teachers, (and textbook writers-or perhaps it is the other way around), to organize, we chunk it into start-and-finish units of study. We teach, teach, teach and then we test the students AND THEN WE MOVE ONTO THE NEXT TOPIC. Do we give students the “percolating” time suggested by distributed learning? Do we “interleave” topics so that students have opportunities to see connections between concepts and ideas? Do we often insist that students over-practice a skill even after they know how to do it (think about math textbooks)?

What would happen if we adopted a more recursive method of curriculum design? Let’s take a year in math as an example. Many students struggle with fractions. Most students learn about fractions sometime in the spring, usually because it is placed in the latter half of the textbook. And then they don’t study fractions for an entire year. The same thing happens with long division, area and perimeter, and how to find the mean, median and mode of a data set. We teach addition separately from subtraction and multiplication separately from division. Then we are distressed that kids forget what we taught the year before. We are distressed when they don’t understand how to solve a problem. If we designed a year- long math program that touched a little bit on fractions every month, a little bit on data, a little bit on operations and so on, students would have distributed learning opportunities and by interleaving concepts, students would be able to see how mathematical concepts are inter-related.

A workshop approach to curriculum allows students to revisit topics on a regular basis. Teachers can easily employ small group instruction within a workshop environment. Mini-lessons to the whole class and small groups form the basis for direct teaching. There is more freedom for students to revisit topics of interest, or topics of confusion. In a writing workshop students can explore writing formats throughout the year based on their audience and purpose. In a reading workshop, students read a wide variety of texts and become more proficient at discussing texts critically as they have multiple opportunities to engage in authentic conversations and work about their reading. In a math workshop, students work at different problems from different strands every day, thus developing flexibility in mathematical thinking as opposed to memorization of algorithms. In an arts workshop, students have the opportunity to explore concepts and work with different mediums multiple times of the course of the year.

The spring is a great time in teaching because we begin to think about next year. We want to refine those lessons that worked well this year and toss those that didn’t. In teaching you always get a do-over. As you begin to do some preliminary thinking about next year, think about how you could design your year to be more recursive: • How often do you come back to the big ideas? • How can you organize content so that students have percolating time? • How can you sequence content so that you come back to ideas multiple times? • Which concepts in your subject are similar or go together? Can you teach them in an interleaved way? How can you help students to make those connections?

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