If You Don't Know Where You're Going, You're Likely Not to Get There

Happy Friday,

For some reason, even if you ask teachers and administrators (both of whom should know the difference), people often confuse the terms "curriculum" and "instruction." When you add in the terms "standards" and "assessments," these already muddied waters become even murkier. So, is there a difference between these things and, if so, what is it? Does it really matter? The short answer is YES!!!! There is a difference and YES it really does matter!

As I describe in my book Engagement is Not a Unicorn (due out Fall 2020) it can be

confusing to understand the differences between standards, curriculum, instruction, and assessment. Each of these are described below using a metaphor of traveling from New York to Los Angeles. That is, if the standards are the destination (let’s say Los Angeles), the

curriculum is the vehicle (car, boat, bus, plane, etc. used to arrive at the destination). The instruction is the approach or route used to get to Los Angeles—I chose the scenic route, you chose a shortcut. Finally, in this metaphor, the assessment is the GPS that tells us if we actually arrived in Los Angeles, if we broke down along the way, or we made even better time, got past our destination, and are in the Pacific Ocean on our way to Hawaii.

  • Standards: Standards are the expectations for what students should know and be able to do at each grade level. The standards answer the question, “What is the destination for the intended learning?”

  • Curriculum: Curriculum is the content that gives students access to the standards. According to Robert Marzano[i], it should be both:

  • Guaranteed (i.e., all students, regardless of their teacher or school will have access to the same content, knowledge, and skills across the district).

  • Viable (i.e., the curriculum is realistic in scope and has made careful decisions to narrow the universe of knowledge into developmentally appropriate and challenging learning targets for the students in the district). [1--see note at the bottom of this post]

  • Ultimately, the curriculum is the common and reasonable plan used to teach students the learning goals embodied in the standards and prepares students for success for the next grade level. The curriculum answers the question, “What is/are the best vehicle(s) for all students to arrive at the destination?”

  • Instruction: Instruction is the approach (route) a teacher uses to ensure that all students learn the content. Instruction is fluid and changes depending on the teacher’s abilities and the students’ needs. Instruction is a variable in the learning “equation” since how a teacher chooses to teach the content is highly dependent on the students, the resources, and the teacher’s own knowledge of the content and pedagogy. This explains why two teachers can tackle the same curriculum differently. The instruction answers the question, “What are the best approaches I can use to ensure all students arrive at the destination?”

  • Assessment: Assessment is the measure of what students have learned. This is fundamentally different from what teachers have taught because students may not demonstrate learning of taught material and this explains why not all students answer all questions correctly all of the time. Assessment is able to identify what students know as well as identifying if the curriculum and/or instruction are meeting the needs of our students or require revision. The assessment answers the question, “Where are the students in relation to where they are supposed to be?”

My desire in sharing this analogy is to get us on the same page. I hope this helps to do that. Now that we're there, let's talk about my tweet on June 3, 2020:

Standards (not curriculum, instruction, nor assessments) are the destination we want all students to reach and all teachers to aim for. However, we know that due to COVID-19 many teachers were told to "suspend new learning"and/or their instruction was impacted because students didn't have technology and/or no one knew this was coming and so no one was prepared to teach in this way. Therefore, what we have experienced regarding curriculum is nothing short of an educational "Wild West" where the rules were made up by the local sheriff (at best) or there was anarchy (at worst). Standards exist to create consistency so that we're all heading to the same destination even if we're given the ability to choose the vehicle, route, and/or the GPS. During COVID-19, the original destination was revised--and rightly so. Everyone was trying to manage and cope given the unprecedented circumstances. This is not surprising nor is it cause for condemnation.

As we head into a new school year, though, one in which we can anticipate the need for revisions in how we do business physically, we should also be provided with revisions that are just as necessary in what we're aiming for educationally.

This is not to say that the state has not provided a destination--the standards are in place. However, since we can say with great certainty that the destination was likely not achieved by most students last year, it only makes sense to re-evaluate the next destination on the trip. Going back to the NY to LA trip metaphor, let's say the goal for the 19/20 school year was to go from NY to Chicago and that for 20/21 the goal is to go from Chicago to Denver. We would expect that in any given year there are probably some kids who are really going to struggle to get from NY to Chicago, of course. In 19/20 though, it's likely that most students never got there. The teacher whose job it is to get the students from Chicago to Denver has always needed the full year to get the students to successfully make that leg of the journey. Imagine now that not only did the kids not make it all the way to Chicago, but

  • Some kids wandered off the path altogether

  • All kids experienced some level of trauma because the turbulence was so bad during the trip

  • Some kids lost family members along the trip

  • Some kids parents lost their jobs

  • The kids' routines were turned upside down

This list is long of all the reasons why when the 20/21 school year starts, teachers are going to have to address more than just the academic needs of their students and their families.

This knowledge is critical and primary. As Dawn Serra said, "There is no timestamp on trauma. There isn't a formula that you can insert yourself into to get from horror to healed." Healing from the traumas from COVID-19 takes time. And, this time is time that may take away from the academic standards (because, who cares about academics when you are overwhelmed by what life has thrown your way). Our students, their families, and our teachers will need time to heal. What's more our students and their families will need our teachers to help with that process and that also takes time.

So where will this time come from? If the State Education Departments do not revise the destination, then individual districts/schools/teachers will make these revisions. Alternatively, individual districts/schools/teachers will put the pedal to the metal and plow through as they frantically rush to get there at the expense of relationships and student need (both academically and emotionally).

None of this takes into account the possibility that we will not be in session for the 20/21 school year in person like we have always been. If the 20/21 school year is at all virtual or some hybrid, instructional delivery will not be at its best--not because people aren't trying their best, but because this is all so new. If a virtual or hybrid instructional model is what's in store for 20/21, that's all the more reason to have a revision of the standards. Kids who didn't make it to Chicago last year en masse are not going to have an easier time this year making it to Denver. Let's acknowledge that and get a revised destination from our State Education Departments. Let's approach the need for educational clarity and revision in the same way we are doing for our physical needs. This isn't asking for an escape hatch; it's asking for a realistic plan.


[1] NOTE: I strongly agree with Marzano’s research on a guaranteed and viable curriculum I would also add that curriculum needs to be contextual. In other words, though a curriculum could be both guaranteed and viable, if the contextual constraints (time, human or other resources) cannot support the curriculum, it doesn’t matter if it’s the best curriculum ever because its implementation in that context is not the best ever.

[i] Marzano, R. J. (2003). What works in schools: translating research into action. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.


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