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I've Got a Map For That

Updated: May 14, 2021


In a previous position, I worked for a district that had board members who felt very strongly that teachers should create curriculum and that curriculum should not be purchased. The two key reasons behind this sentiment connected to:

  1. The board felt the teachers were well paid—so why would we pay more money for curriculum that the teachers were capable of creating?

  2. The teachers did not like the curriculum that was purchased for them in the first place and complained about it publicly, loudly, and frequently.

As an administrator in the district, when I heard the board say they wanted teachers to create their own curriculum, I broke out in a cold sweat. Here is the litany of reasons why I get nervous when there is talk about teachers creating curriculum.

Issue 1: Curriculum VS Programs

Let’s first start with the fact that there was a fundamental misunderstanding of what curriculum is versus what a program is. That district was not alone in their confusion. In reality, when done well, programs are purchased resources that the buyers use as a foundation or supplement to the curriculum that they design. Generally speaking, the more money you spend on the resource, the more foundational the resource should be to the created curriculum. Programs need to be designed for use in a variety of different settings and within a multitude of conditions. Therefore, programs are often too large in scope to be used “off the shelf” rather than “tailored for the user.” This is why when people try to use programs with fidelity, teachers often run out of time (there are exceptions to this rule—for example, direct instruction intervention programs are intentionally and literally scripts for a reason). The timing issue is generally connected to the fact that the program was designed with many options that the buyer misinterprets as required. In short, if the board of education and the teachers really understood what curriculum was—a tailoring of the purchased resources—I would have been okay with what was being proposed. Unfortunately, they were actually saying they wanted the district to stop buying resources for teachers to use.

Issue 2: What Curriculum IS and IS NOT

It would have also have been important if the board and the teachers couched curriculum into the bigger picture with standards, instruction, and assessment. I do this using the analogy of a cross-country trip. In my book and in the post, "If You Don't Know Where You're Going, You're Likely Not to Get There," I wrote about the differences between standards, curriculum, instruction, and assessment, but it bears repeating here.

Standards are the “destination,” which all students must arrive at by the end of the year. This is determined by the government, not a local school district.

The curriculum is the “vehicle” the district uses to get the students from NY to LA. Some districts may choose a car, others might chose a bus, another might choose a plane, and another might choose a combination. The point here is that there are actually many different vehicles that will achieve the task of going from NY to LA.

Instruction is the area where teachers have the highest levels of autonomy since instruction is the “route” the teacher uses to get the vehicle from NY to LA. Even if we all have a car, there are many different trails that will allow us to complete the journey. What’s more, the route is dependent on two very individual variables—the knowledge, experiences, and skills of the teachers (the operator of the vehicle) and the knowledge, experiences, and skills of the students (the passengers in the vehicle). This is why you can hand the same curriculum (vehicle) to two different teachers and see wildly different routes (instruction) that still get to the same destination (the standards); you can also see that even with the same vehicle, one teacher can get to the destination and the other does not. Robert Marzano talks about this as the intended, the taught, and the learned curriculum. The intended curriculum is what was planned to have been taught, the taught curriculum is what is actually taught, and the learned curriculum is what the students walk away knowing.

Finally, there is assessment which is the “GPS” that communicates are you where you’re supposed to be on the journey. If you’re supposed to be in LA, your GPS (assessments) will let you know if you’re there or if you somehow came up short or are further along than you expected.

Issue 3: Time and Training

Stick with me. Here’s a multiple choice question:

During the school day, what is the main task of a teacher? Is it…

a. Working with the government to create standards?

b. Interpreting standards and designing a multitude of resources to ensure pathways for learning?

c. Working directly with students to teach them what they need to know and be able to do?

d. Assessing students about what they have learned?

This is not a trick question so please do not overthink this. Though teachers are trained in choices b, c, and d and have strong feelings about choice a, we call them “teachers” not “standards experts,” not “curriculum designers,” and not “assessment psychometricians.” If teachers’ time is mainly spent in front of students, then the main task of a teacher is to TEACH and that is connected best to instructional design. The time it takes to actually design resources and programs not only is its own full-time job, but one that requires a depth of understanding about curriculum, standards, and assessment that people who are instructing as their main focus just simply do not have.

So the reason why I broke out into a cold sweat when I heard the board talk about teachers creating curriculum is because I wondered when teachers were going to do that work. Please don’t tell me that it’s in their planning time since that’s the time when teachers do things like planning their instruction, making copies, grading papers, making calls to families, working with their colleagues to talk about their next unit, etc. This does not mean that teachers are not capable of designing curriculum; it means that they do not have the time to create programs and invent resources. What’s more, though teachers receive training and have experience in lesson and unit planning, completely inventing programs and resources is not the same thing.

For a concrete example of this, I will share the rollout of the new New York State Science Learning Standards (NYSSLS). NY expected districts to introduce the new standards to the teachers. If you’re an elementary teacher, let’s remember that you probably teach English, math, social studies, and science. As well, science is very often taught every other day for thirty minutes. Just speaking for the district where I work, we partnered with a staff developer, Susan, who was trained by the state in multiple day-long sessions about the differences between the new standards and the old ones. Susan then worked with multiple school districts where she repeatedly shared the changes which forced her to (a) develop her knowledge enough to teach others and (b) gave her repetition so she became not just knowledgeable, but had a high level of expertise.

As a district, we had to decide if we should send one person per grade level to be with Susan repeatedly over the course of a year and then that person would have to turnkey what was learned from Susan OR if we would send everyone to work with Susan for one full day. In the turnkey model, we would have to ensure that the turnkey person would have the time to share what was learned in a full day with Susan with the other team members and we knew that wasn’t possible. Therefore, we sent each team of teachers by grade level for one full day of training with Susan.

It wasn’t enough for the teachers to be informed about the standards, they needed to teach the students. Thus, a vehicle was needed. Here’s the question…after one day of being exposed to the changes, can the teachers create the plethora of resources, units, and lessons for a full scale program? Do they have high levels of knowledge, experiences, and skills with the standards yet? Do they have the time to devote to this work? When will that happen? You can see clearly that after one day of being exposed to the most high level information and knowing that the next day and all the days after the teachers would spend the vast majority of their time in front of kids (not behind the scenes designing), that the idea of inventing a full scale program can be not just sweat-inducing, but silly.

Solution: Curriculum Maps

So, let’s talk a moment about curriculum maps—which is what I would argue is the place that teachers should spend their curricular energy. In many places, curriculum maps are a compliance-based document where teachers copy over word-for-word what was written in the program and resources that the district purchased for the teachers to use. If this sounds familiar, I’m sorry. That is a recipe for disaster. Before you go on a trip, you should have a map of where you’re going, how you’re going to get there, generally where you might want to stop, what to avoid, etc. As you go on that trip, you might make some notes about where you’d like to revisit when you take the trip again and other reminders based on what you’ve learned while on the trip. THIS is what a curriculum map should be and this is the work that teachers should do regarding curriculum. Rather than something a teacher would do for someone else, it’s a teacher’s personalized plan for using:

  • The resources that were provided by the district

  • Any other resources the teacher might bring to the table

  • Any reminders or observations the teacher makes throughout the journey

Just like when you go on a literal trip, you would never make a map and then give it to someone else or never look at it again, a curriculum map is one intended for you (the teacher) to use for you as a prediction of where you want to go, how you want to get there, and as a reference for you to use throughout the journey. Certainly it still takes time to create a curriculum map, but creating the map is vastly different than creating the resources that are used to build the map. As well, creating the map is worth the time when it's something that you actually use.

Going back to the previous district I mentioned at the start of this letter, though they did not know it, the board of education and the teachers were actually upset that the teachers were expected to implement the resources without having the opportunity to create a curriculum map that would let the teachers know which aspects of the resources they were really going to use (intended curriculum). The answer to that dilemma is not saying the district isn’t allowed to purchase programs and resources; the answer should be that teachers are provided time and trust to create curriculum maps that determine what aspects of the programs and resources make sense based on the teachers’ and students’ knowledge, experience, and skills.


P.S. Have you heard about the Super Mario Effect? If not, you HAVE to watch this TED Talk with Mark Rober where he shares what he learned from his 3 million YouTube subscribers who participated in a basic coding challenge. The data all pointed to what Rober has dubbed the Super Mario Effect. The YouTube star and former NASA engineer describes how this data-backed mindset for life gamification has stuck with him along his journey, and how it impacts the ways he helps (or tricks) his viewers into learning science, engineering, and design.

P.P.S. Please remember to...

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