Tag Archives: curriculum design

Pondering Teachers as Curriculum Designers

A few weeks ago I posed the following question:

Is it the job of teachers to design their own curriculum?

I only had one taker, @Mr_Kunkel. Here’s what he had to say:

If there was just one really good curriculum I would say sure. There isn’t. The problem with mass marketed curriculum is that it never meets the diverse needs of all classrooms. I have never found a textbook that was great. They all try too hard to do too much.

I think the power of what we do here on the interwebs, the MTBoS, is that we crowd source the curriculum. We are all capable of coming up with some good lessons. I think the curriculum of the future will be a good indexing of all these lessons that teachers are creating. Some how it would be great to combine them and track them by CCSS. Some people are trying that using their virtual filing cabinets. Actually, a really good virtual filling cabinet would be my ideal curriculum. Forget the books.

I knew I wanted to revisit this topic, but every day I kept putting it off, mostly because I’m still not entirely sure what my own answer is to the question.

While I kept pondering, some of the folks I follow on Twitter serendipitously took up this topic a few days ago. Here’s what they had to say:




And then today I came across (and participated in) this conversation that hit on the issue from a slightly different angle:




It’s nice to see others struggle with some of the same things I do with regards to this issue.

It seems clear that curriculum materials are wanted and needed, whether they are written by publishers or other educators. Many consider them a valuable resource. As @crstn85 points out, “a good book has logical order/units.” Someone has laid the groundwork for the teachers. They’re not starting completely from scratch.

We then get into the gray area of the “implemented curriculum” as @mpershan puts it. What is changing from the written curriculum as the teachers prepare their lesson plans and teach the lesson to their students?

From what I’ve read, the teachers I follow on Twitter couldn’t fathom using curriculum materials as they are written. I don’t disagree with them, but I am curious how many teachers do put full faith in their curriculum materials and use them verbatim. I also wonder if any districts require this.

I’m reminded of Response to Intervention. One of its key tenets is fidelity of instruction. If you have fidelity then it means teachers are “consistently and accurately applying a research-based curriculum.” One implication of this is that teachers need to avoid contamination or pollution, meaning they don’t pull together materials from a variety of instructional resources. In order for RtI to succeed, teachers need to get with the program and stick with the program.

I’d like to add a second question that is of particular interest to me, how much effort is it taking for teachers, individually and collectively, to adapt the materials they are using? As I wrote in the second Twitter discussion, I feel that numerous wheels are being reinvented in numerous classrooms across the country. I felt this within my own school district. No need to even think about the rest of the state or country.

For example, I taught 4th grade in Texas. This is one of the two years that students learn Texas history. The other year is 7th grade. This is important to note because most of the instructional and resource materials available outside of our state-adopted textbook were often written for 7th graders, not 4th graders.

The teachers across my district all had the same social studies standards, and yet each 4th grade team in each school was reinventing the wheel on a weekly basis designing lessons to teach those standards. When I would talk to these teachers at trainings, I would hear about the different types of lessons going on in different schools. It frustrated me because it felt really inefficient that we were planning in such isolation.

My last district had 33 schools. It seems ludicrous to think that the 4th grade teams across the district were creating 33 campus-specific lesson plans for teaching the exact same social studies standards. And I can assure you that these lesson plans were across the spectrum in terms of quality.

Now extend this idea to the entire state of Texas. We have roughly 4,000 elementary schools in this state. Assuming that all of the teachers on a given 4th grade team plan together, which I can guarantee you they don’t, that means there are potentially 4,000 or more different lesson plans being written each week to teach the exact same social studies standards.

Let’s say it takes 1 hour to plan a week’s worth of social studies lessons. That means 4,000 man hours are being spent each week to cover the same standards. A school year’s worth (36 weeks) of lesson plans at one school may be 36 hours of work, but with everyone reinventing the wheel at their own campus, this jumps to 144,000 man hours. That’s a huge jump!

I know I’m making some assumptions here, and my numbers are not precise, but that doesn’t change the fact that when a lot of people duplicate effort like this, it adds up. My motto as a teacher, which I was able to live up to with varying degrees of success, was work smarter, not harder. This redundant time spent lesson planning sounds very much like the latter.

One idea that comes to mind to save time is to do what @j_lanier recommends: put together a crack team of great teachers together, give them time to write, and you will get great instructional materials. Districts have done this. Even the state of Texas has done this. And it has failed.

The state of Texas failed pretty spectacularly in fact. Several years ago, districts across the state started adopting a program called CSCOPE. The idea was to give teachers sets of exemplar lessons for teaching all of their content. However, it was also meant to become a bank of lessons. I’m not sure of the logistics, but the idea was that as other wonderful lessons were written, they could be added to the CSCOPE library. Teachers could then pick and choose which great lesson to use in their classroom.

Unfortunately, this aspect of the program never materialized. There was no choice, just the one set of lessons. Teachers were handed their CSCOPE curriculum, and they were told to teach it the way it was written. These were well written lessons, so why change them? This backfired big time, and in 2013 CSCOPE was eliminated.

So the state level may not be the best place to create and distribute quality lessons. Maybe it should be done district by district? Making 1,000 sets of lesson plans sounds like a lot (this is about how many school districts there are in Texas), but it’s significantly better than the 4,000 sets I was describing earlier. The benefit here is that districts can tailor the lessons a bit more to the needs of their population of students.

At this point I can really only speak to my experience, but I have seen this backfire as well. As I said, my last school district only had 33 elementary schools, a far, far cry from 4,000. The district provided scope and sequences and lesson plans for all subjects, and yet teachers were still resistant to using them. The instructional materials still felt like they were coming from “on high” and didn’t reflect the realities within our own classrooms, even though the people who wrote the materials were skilled teachers from our own district.

So I guess we’re back to the idea of writing lessons plans school by school and teacher by teacher. And then what it comes down to is the amount of time each teacher has to gather materials (textbooks, workbooks, lesson plans found on blogs, etc.), review those materials, and craft lesson plans that meet the needs of their students. And we all know how much free time teachers have to do this.

And it’s not just about time actually. It’s also about how resourceful the teacher is in locating quality materials and how strong the teacher is at making important pedagogical decisions when picking and choosing and tying it all together. This definitely leads to variability in the quality of the resulting lessons. Which leads us back to wondering if teachers really should be curriculum designers.

And maybe there just isn’t a right answer to this question. I feel like I’ve talked in circles and I’m no closer to having a clear idea of what I think the answer is. If you’ve made it this far in my post, thank you for following me down the rabbit hole. The great thing about having this blog is that I can revisit topics again. This is clearly a topic that demands more attention, and maybe next time I’ll be one or two steps closer to an answer.


Where The Rubber Meets The Road

The past few days, I shared site visit notes from four years ago when I visited classrooms using our digital math curriculum. It was an eye opening experience. One of the biggest things I took away from it was that despite all the careful planning on our part, including numerous debates over the math content itself as well as numerous review cycles to hone the pedagogical flow of each lesson, teachers weren’t necessarily using our lessons as intended.

In some respects that’s fine. We weren’t writing a bible, but a suggested flow for how a teacher and her students could work through the material each day. I’m a-ok when teachers go “off book” because they have a better vision for working with their particular class. However, it was frustrating to sit through some of the observations because what I was seeing “off book” wasn’t effective instruction.

I want to elaborate by focusing on one specific area today: the intended flow of one of our lessons vs. the actual flow I witnessed in several classrooms. Here’s the typical (intended) flow for one of our math lessons:

Engage (5-10 minutes) – The purpose of the Engage activity is self-evident in its name. It is a whole-class activity to grab students’ attention and get them started thinking about the math concept of the day before sending them off to work in the Explore activity. Its motto: Keep it short and simple.

Explore (15-20 minutes) – In this activity, the students work alone, in pairs, or in groups to explore the day’s math content. There is no expectation of mastery during this activity. We want students to be learning as they are working through the activity. If they are in a state of learning, then it is not reasonable to expect them to master it at the exact same moment. I like to think of the Explore activity as a shared experience that the class is able to draw upon in the next phase.

Summarize (10-15 minutes) – As you can tell from the names of our activities, they’re somewhat self explanatory. After students have worked through the Explore activity, the class comes back together to debrief and summarize what was learned about the math concepts in the day’s lesson.

Now, here’s how this flow played out in numerous classrooms:

Engage (15-30 minutes) – The class is presented with a scenario, usually through an animation, and then the teacher leads the students through a discussion. (And now this is where it goes “off book”.) As they are discussing, she starts doing a direct teach of all of the content in the lesson to prepare the students to be successful during the Explore activity. During this time, the teacher is doing a lot of talking, going way “off script” of what is actually presented in the activity on the computer. She asks questions as she talks, but the students are quiet and not very engaged. They often look bored.

Explore (15-20 minutes) – The students finally have the opportunity to get their hands on the content on the computer. Their eyes light up! The teacher may have given away some of the big reveals or “a-ha” moments that students were supposed to uncover on their own during this activity. However, the students were so bored and inattentive during the direct teach, that this is still an engaging activity for most of them.

Summarize (5 minutes, if lucky?) – If the teacher has any time left at the end of the lesson, because she spent so much time up front teaching all of the content, she will pull the students back together for a quick summary. During this discussion, the students are very talkative and engaged. Too bad there’s so little time left at this point in the class.

So let’s debrief a bit about this. The reason we intend for the Engage activity to be short and simple is twofold. First, the students are eager to get on the computer. They know they are going to work on the computer in pretty much every one of our lessons, and so as soon as the lesson starts, the teacher has a limited window of attention before the kids get bored because she made them wait too long.

Second, the lesson is engaging for a teacher differently than it is for a student. A teacher will watch one of our opening movies and immediately see what content is being taught that day. This triggers her prior knowledge of the content and she’s ready to get started telling the students all about it.

And this is exactly what happened in many of the classes I observed. The teacher had all of this content in mind right as the lesson began, and she couldn’t help but share it all with the students before they got started on their work. A discussion that should have lasted 5-10 minutes easily became a 20-30 minute direct teach.

Now look at it from the student’s perspective. The students just watched a movie about a brother and sister building a clubhouse. They might see some math in there, but they also might be thinking stuff like, “Wow, I wish I could build a clubhouse,” or “I like my clubhouse,” or, “It was so funny when Robin had to wear the chicken suit because she was wrong.” What they are thinking about and what the teaching is thinking about are generally on two very different levels and drawing on two very different pools of prior knowledge.

This has quite an impact on the dynamic in the room. The teacher is direct teaching everything at the beginning of the lesson, trying to convey her pool of knowledge to the students so that they can be successful when she sets them loose on the computers. The students, on the other hand, are passively listening to her. From my observations, they are quiet and don’t really have a lot to contribute because frankly, they don’t know much about what the teacher is talking about.

Contrast this with the Summarize activity. As I said before, our goal is for the class to use the shared experience of the Explore activity to debrief and summarize the day’s learning. This works because the students finally have a personal experience with the math content that they can draw from to engage in a discussion with the teacher and their classmates. And this is exactly what happens. Those quiet students who were doodling in their notebooks during the direct teach, all of a sudden have observations to share and questions to ask. Unfortunately, when the teacher monopolizes so much class time to do a direct teach for 30 minutes, this rich discussion tends to get cut.

So we end with the question of why does this happen? My team, as far as I can tell, clearly spelled out what we think should be happening in each lesson, but that isn’t stopping teachers from doing what they think should be happening in each lesson. My guess is that many of these teachers were used to using the direct teach model long before they encountered our curriculum. And regardless of anything they were told by the lesson materials or our instructional coaches, they went with what they were used to do doing.

In the past, they probably couldn’t fathom talking for a few minutes and sending their students off to complete a set of practice problems. So even though our Explore activity is not a practice set – it is time that the students are learning as they engage with the concepts – the teachers viewed it as an activity they needed to prepare the students for. And in order for students to be ready, the teacher had a lot of front loading of content to accomplish.

This comes back to my question from the other day about whether teachers should be curriculum designers. I think I’ll wait and share my thoughts on that tomorrow since this post is already lengthy and I’m past due to go to bed.



I started this post by writing about how I felt bad that I haven’t written on this blog in a while. Then I remembered that I hate posts like that. My blog is here anytime I need it, and with everything else going on in my life the past few months, I just didn’t need it that much.

Now I do.

And thanks to @sophgermain starting a 30 day blogging challenge, I got the motivation to get going again. I’m not sure if I’ll succeed at #MTBoS30, but the idea was motivating enough to get me blogging tonight.

One thing I’d like to blog more about over the next 30 days is the job I do. I’ve written a little bit about my job since starting this blog, but for various reasons I always tried to keep my MathTwitterBlogoSphere life separate from my curriculum development life. I’m not entirely sure why, but now I’d like to change that. I see a lot of teachers benefiting from reflecting on their teaching on a regular basis (sometimes daily!), and I hope that I can gain my own insights by reflecting more directly on my work. I also hope it can give a small window into the world of curriculum design for those who are unfamiliar.

So for anyone stumbling on my blog today: Hello! My name is Brian and I am a senior content developer at McGraw-Hill Education. I work on a team developing the t2k math curriculum. I’ve been with MHE for a year and some change, but I actually started working on this curriculum back in 2009 as an employee of a company called Time To Know.

Looking back over the past 5 years, it’s hard to believe that when I started this job, iPads didn’t even exist! The educational landscape has changed so much in such a short amount of time. I remember my last year in the classroom, our school was just getting SMART boards. I never got one in my classroom *frown*, but I was over the moon with my document camera. That thing was amazing!

The reason I mention iPads specifically is because back in 2009 our curriculum was developed in Flash, and that really shot us in the foot when tablets started flooding the market. Over the past couple of years, Time To Know has rebuilt their entire Digital Teaching Platform so that it works on multiple devices – quite an impressive feat.

Now that they have completed their big task, I have the daunting task of leading a team converting our entire grade 4 and 5 curriculum into this new system. It’s quite an undertaking, but at the same time, it’s like visiting an old friend. When I first started at Time To Know, the math team was about halfway through writing grade 4, and grade 5 was the first full year of curriculum I helped write.

In some ways it’s exciting to see these lessons again, and in other ways there’s that awkwardness of revisiting pedagogical decisions I made just as I was starting the job. While the lessons have gone through some upgrades since I first wrote them, I can’t help but think of ways I want to make them even better.