All of the recent discussion about curriculum and the Common Core Standards seems to me to miss the most basic point: we still do not know how to write curriculum to make it useful for all teachers and effective at causing Mission and other educational goals (including Standards).

Since curriculum is a genre of writing, we can consider the two essential questions at the core of writing: What is the purpose? and Who is the audience? The 2nd question seems easy to me: a curriculum, first and foremost, is written for teachers in order to help them do something that for now we can just vaguely call plan learning. While there are secondary audiences that have a stake in curriculum (parents, Board members, students) they are not the primary audience because they are not the intended primary and regular users of the document.

But what, then, is the purpose of curriculum?It has something to do with planning learning, as noted above. Why, then, are so few curricula even consulted by teachers?This silliness has been going on for decades: curriculum is “written” but few pay attention to it; it is almost a pro forma exercise. So it cannot hurt to assertively pursue this essential question and initial vague answer. What kind of a document would be useful to teachers who were not present when it was written?

Just pondering those questions should be sobering. It becomes clear pretty quickly that most educators have not thought about or thought through the questions in depth and detail BEFORE a curriculum gets written – including (especially) those who charge others to write curriculum and those who do the writing. Whatever more specific purpose related to planning curriculum is meant to address, the following questions are critical, and should be formally addressed and answered before the next round of curriculum-writing in your school or district:

  • What is an ideal, teacher-friendly document for planning learning?  
  • What kind of information would be most useful to teacher-planners? 
  • What kind of framing of information would be most helpful in making teaching effective? 
  • What criteria, therefore, should we use to assess the writing of curriculum and the finished product?

Start with the last question. If there is no explicit purpose to the curriculum then curriculum writers do not know what to do to produce the best possible document for their colleagues. And if, in addition, there are no criteria by which the draft and final documents are to be assessed, then how will anyone ever know whether the writers are on the right track?

In fact, the ugly truth is that the document is now considered “done” when the writers of it are satisfied with what they have done – hardly a professional stance. Where are the local rubrics for judging the curriculum? How often is the draft document sent out for review by all teachers and assessed against such rubrics? This almost never happens in schools; it is a dirty little secret of how unprofessionally we handle a core chore. Good Lord, we demand more rigor of 6th grade writers when we give them rubrics and samples for their essays! Why don’t we do the same for curriculum?

Without a clear purpose and set of criteria for judging curriculum we fall back on the worst possible framework and process: curriculum written against discrete content (inputs) instead of complex performance (output); the curriculum writers simply plug in activities and assessments with which they are familiar under content headings. In my previous blog post I reminded readers that Ralph Tyler highlighted this foolish error over 60 years ago and we still fail to heed the lesson. He famoulsy argued for a matrix in the initial stages of planning: key content across the top, and key learner outcomes down the side: the job of curriculum writers is to fill the cells and then fashion their answers into a full curriculum. Here’s an example I made using the Common Core content and practice standards:  Tyler Example Wiggins.   To download this example and 2 others like it click Tyler Examples.

Such a process obligates you to get beyond just marching through content in a curriculum; it forces you to say – how and where will we require students to use content well? You can download

Here’s a simple example of how foolish almost all current curriculum writing is. Take learning to drive. Imagine that we have first written a multi-page list of all the discrete skills and knowledge we want drivers to have. Now imagine that the curriculum is a march through these skills and facts. Few would learn to drive well from such a curriculum. Rather than designing the curriculum backward from safe, smart, and responsive driving on real roads – the aim of the learning – we have ensured that the key transfer goal will never be achieved since we just cover discrete content out of context. Yet, this is what almost all curricula currently do. They are fatally flawed from the very beginning – no matter how rich the content convered – because the curriculum focuses on inputs not outputs.

So what is a good aim for curriculum? And what are sensible criteria? Let me propose a simple goal for now: the curriculum should help teachers plan effectively in order to achieve the highest possible performance results with all learners over the course of a year and a program. A curriculum is a plan for achieving results; it is not a plan for how to tour the content (as if school were like the old movie If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium.) Like driving  – or soccer, drawing, and writing – it should be designed backward from successful complex performance, i.e. the USING of content, not just the content itself.

By what criteria should we judge the document? Here are a few obvious ones: the document is –

  • useful and user-friendly for all teachers
  • designed backward from the most important performances in which core content is to be used (i.e. the key assessments are written into the curriculum)
  • clear about which activities and assessments are optional and which are required
  • clear about what is ‘best practice’ for causing such a desired long-term result

There is much more to say, of course, but I trust that this makes clear that until and unless we think through what a genuine curriculum is, then all our talk about Standards is a bit of a waste of time.