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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Guest Blog: Managing an Overcrowded Curriculum

Betty Ray

Director of Programming and Innovation @Edutopia

We were particularly excited about this week's #edchat on the topic of how to manage standards and an overloaded curriculum. Brian J. Nichols (@bjnichols), principal of Hidenwood Elementary School, in Newport News, Virginia, provides a great big picture as well as practical perspective.

-- Betty Ray, Community Manager (@EdutopiaBetty), and Elana Leoni, Online Membership Coordinator (@elanaleoni)

I joined #edchat on Tuesday night ready to discuss issues related to the number of standards that have to be met in an overcrowded curriculum. Edchat is truly an ADHD person's paradise, as ideas came from all over the world about the problems with -- and, more importantly, solutions to -- an overcrowded curriculum.

As an elementary school principal, I see this issue firsthand each and every day as we fight the battle of the number hours in a day versus the number of standards to be taught. The fastest hour on Twitter attempted to find a solution to this problem, and, from my perspective, several themes emerged:

Preparedness

We are preparing students for an uncertain workforce that will require a certain set of skills with technologies that haven't even been developed. Our current standards are measured by multiple-choice tests that are largely reflective of a student being able to recite facts and apply some knowledge.

Success in the future workforce is going to be largely dependent on the ability to create new ideas, synthesize information, and problem solve with people from all over the globe. Choosing between four answer choices and shading in bubbles hardly lines up with what we know students need to be successful in life.

What Is Essential?

Many authors, researchers, and bloggers have summarized that it is statistically impossible to effectively teach all of the required standards in grades K-12. I talk to teachers on a daily basis about the struggles to "fit it all in" or "cover" the required material.

I've always been in favor of being able to do a few things well than a lot of things poorly. Our standards are set up so that kids learn a lot of things at basic level or not at all.

The most effective teachers do more than cover the material that will be tested at the end of the quarter, year, etc. These professionals are masters of determining the essential knowledge, skills, and questions that students need for success. Several people referenced this type of approach to curriculum.

@lhiltbr: Our curricular frameworks should be created with backward design and include "the big ideas" and essential questions.

@daylynn: Content that is connected to authentic learning, answers the essential ?, and draws connections between eras is needed.

@Mr_Lister: An overwhelming curriculum leads to moving topics before students have mastery, and that's a dangerous scenario.

A hot topic of debate during this hour came in the form of this question by @mbteach: Is there any subject/content area that people think can be dropped?

My immediate response was anything that could be Googled. That may seem like a simple response, but honestly, when was the last time you picked up a dictionary, atlas, thesaurus, etc.? This question brought forth a wide variety of answers and the final theme of this post.

Integration

Many people were very quick to point out that the problem with time constraints and the number of standards is that we tend to teach subjects in isolation. This happens to be something I'm very passionate about, so I was quick to join this portion of the conversation.

@bjnichols: Nothing in life happens in isolation, but we are forced to teach subjects that way. Integration is the best current solution.

@cybraryman1: Instead of dropping, why not combine some subjects.

Project-based learning is a method we are experimenting with as a way to integrate content, teach for a deeper understanding, and prepare students for their future. Students spend their time working on something they are passionate about while teachers seamlessly integrate all subject areas. Students have a much deeper understanding of essential knowledge while incorporating collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity.

In summary, #edchat did what it always does best: It leaves my brain hurting with questions about how to improve my practices as a leader while ensuring success for all students. The answer to an overcrowded curriculum involves determining what is essential, integrating content, and making sure students are prepared for more than multiple choice tests.

The power to change a broken system and an overcrowded curriculum begins with us. It starts with moving from islands of isolation to peninsulas of potential. It started on Tuesday at 7 p.m. EST on #edchat. We are all connected, and our power is limitless. Twitter, #edchat and my PLN teach me that lesson every day.

Check out the rest of the #edchat transcript. If you have never participated in an #edchat conversation, please join us on Twitter every Tuesday at 12 p.m. EST/6 p.m. CET or at 7 p.m. EST/1 a.m. CET.

Brian Nichols has served as a classroom teacher, instructional specialist, assistant principal, and principal. His schools have received numerous awards and have been recognized for closing the achieving gap. He has served as the principal of both a No Child Left Behind Blue Ribbon School and a State Title I Distinguished School. He is principal of Hidenwood Elementary School, in Newport News, Virginia, which has been recognized for its achievements related to 21st-century learning and leading.

Betty Ray

Director of Programming and Innovation @Edutopia
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Jeff Myers's picture

There are some great thoughts here. I agree that it is a necessity for the teacher to focus on standards of the curriculum that seem most important to them in the midst of time constraints. Therefore, it seems quite important that teachers think more about what is really important for students to learn. We are the professionals in our content areas and must organize our instruction in such a way that effectively communicates what is truly important to our students.
Rather than drop or combine content areas, shouldn't we be focusing on more effective methods for bringing different content area teachers together who teach the same students to make learning more relevant and cross-curricular? I find the academy system works well in this respect for a number of reasons. First, students choose a path that interests them and seems relevant to what they would like to pursue. Second, professional teachers, each masters in their content area, come together and plan collaboratively for their group of students, and focus their content area instruction around the theme of the academy. This helps manage the overcrowded curriculum and meets the need to connect the various facets of learning opportunities students face each day.

Russell Dysart's picture

As a new teacher, it is difficult to know always know what is essential in teaching the standards. It is easy to feel overwhelmed. I like this article.

Jill Aspinwall's picture

I agree. I have only been teaching for 3 years and I find it very hard to fit in all that I am required to do as well as finding the best ways to teach the curriculum. I think that the definition of "essential" should be based on the classroom. I know what my kids know and what they don't know. I wish there was more time to talk to other grades levels above and below my own, to align what we are teaching so that we are not wasting our time or the students time.

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