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Common Core Big Idea 4: Map Backward From Intended Results

December 6, 2012
Image credit: iStockphoto

Editor's note: This is the fourth post in a five-part series which takes a look at five big ideas for implementation of the Common Core State Standards, authored by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins

The key to avoiding an overly discrete and fragmented curriculum is to design backward from complex performances that require content. A return to the linguistic roots of “curriculum” reveals the wisdom in this outcome-focused view. The Latin meaning of the term is a “course to be run.” This original connotation helpfully suggests that we should think of a curriculum as the pathway toward a destination. As mentioned above, our conception is that curriculum should be framed and developed in terms of worthy outputs; i.e., desired performances by the learner, not simply as a listing of content inputs.

This is not a new idea. Ralph Tyler made this very point more than 60 years ago (Tyler, 1949). He proposed a curriculum development method involving a matrix of content and process components that would guide teachers in meshing these two elements into effective performance-based learning. As Tyler points out, the “purpose of a statement of objectives is to indicate the kinds of changes in the student to be brought about… Hence it is clear that a statement of objectives in terms of content headings… is not a satisfactory basis for guiding the further development of the curriculum.” pp. 45-6. Indeed, the Mathematics Standards recommend just such an approach:

“The Standards for Mathematical Practice describe ways in which developing student practitioners of the discipline of mathematics increasingly ought to engage with the subject matter as they grow in mathematical maturity and expertise throughout the elementary, middle and high school years. Designers of curricula, assessments, and professional development should all attend to the need to connect the mathematical practices to mathematical content in mathematics instruction.” (p. 8)

Thus, the first question for curriculum writers is not: What will we teach and when should we teach it? Rather the initial question for curriculum development must be goal focused: Having learned key content, what will students be able to do with it?

Our long-standing contention applies unequivocally to the Common Core Standards as well as to other standards: The ultimate aim of a curriculum is independent transfer; i.e., for students to be able to employ their learning, autonomously and thoughtfully, to varied complex situations, inside and outside of school. Lacking the capacity to independently apply their learning, a student will be neither college nor workplace ready.

The ELA Standards make this point plainly in their characterization of the capacities of the literate individual:

“They demonstrate independence. Students can, without significant scaffolding, comprehend and evaluate complex texts across a range of types and disciplines, and they can construct effective arguments and convey intricate or multifaceted information… Students adapt their communication in relation to audience, task, purpose, and discipline. Likewise, students are able independently to discern a speaker’s key points, request clarification, and ask relevant questions... Without prompting, they demonstrate command of standard English and acquire and use a wide-ranging vocabulary. More broadly, they become self-directed learners, effectively seeking out and using resources to assist them, including teachers, peers, and print and digital reference materials.”

-- Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts

These points underscore a potential misunderstanding resulting from a superficial reading of the Standards documents (especially in Mathematics). One could simply parcel out lists of discrete grade-level standards and topics along a calendar while completely ignoring the long-term goal of transfer. A curriculum envisioned and enacted as a set of maps of content and skill coverage will simply not, by itself, develop a student’s increasingly autonomous capacity to use learned content effectively to address complex tasks and problems. Such traditional scope-and-sequencing of curriculum reinforces a “coverage” mentality and reveals a misconception; i.e., that teaching bits of content in a logical and specified order will somehow add up to the desired achievements called for in the Standards.

A related misconception is evident when teachers assume that the CCSS prescribe the instructional sequence and pacing. Not so! To assume that the layout of the documents imply an instructional chronology is as flawed as thinking that since a dictionary is helpfully organized from A to Z, that vocabulary should therefore be taught in alphabetical order. While the grade-level standards are certainly not arbitrary and reflect natural long-term “learning progressions,” a rigid sequence within each grade level was never intended. The authors of the Common Core Standards explicitly call attention to this misconception and warn against it:

“For example, just because topic A appears before topic B in the standards for a given grade, it does not necessarily mean that topic A must be taught before topic B. A teacher might prefer to teach topic B before topic A, or might choose to highlight connections by teaching topic A and topic B at the same time. Or, a teacher might prefer to teach a topic of his or her own choosing that leads, as a byproduct, to students reaching the standards for topics A and B.” (p. 10)

The implications of these points are critical not only for curriculum mapping but for the very nature of instructional practice. Consider this advice from a non-academic source -- the United States Soccer Coaches Federation. In Best Practices for Coaching Soccer in The U.S., the Federation recommends a change in the soccer “curriculum” of practice:

“When conducting training sessions, there needs to be a greater reliance on game oriented training that is player centered and enables players to explore and arrive at solutions while they play. This is in contrast to the ‘coach centered’ training that has been the mainstay of coaching methodology over the years. ‘Game centered training’ implies that the primary training environment is the game as opposed to training players in ‘drill’ type environments. This is not to say that there is not a time for a more ‘direct’ approach to coaching. At times, players need more guidance and direction as they are developing. However, if the goal is to develop creative players who have the abilities to solve problems, and interpret game situations by themselves, a ‘guided discovery’ approach needs to be employed.”

Best Practices for Coaching Soccer in The U.S. -- Appendix C pp. 62-64

We propose that this recommendation applies equally to teachers of academics as to coaches of soccer. In other words, if we want students to be able to apply their learning via autonomous performance, we need to design our curriculum backward from that goal. Metaphorically speaking, then, educators need to ask, what is the “game” we expect students to be able to play with skill and flexibility? In other words, we need clarity and consensus about the point of content learning -- independent transfer. Then, we can build the curriculum pathway backward with those worthy performances in mind.

To design a 12-K curriculum backward from the goal of autonomous transfer requires a deliberate and transparent plan for helping the student rely less and less on teacher hand-holding and scaffolds. After all, transfer is about independent performance in context. You can only be said to have fully understood and applied your learning if you can do it without someone telling you what to do. In the real world, no teacher is there to direct and remind you about which lesson to plug in here or what strategy fits there; transfer is about intelligently and effectively drawing from your repertoire, independently, to handle new situations on your own. Accordingly, we should see an increase, by design, in problem- and project-based learning, small-group inquiries, Socratic Seminars, and independent studies as learners progress through the curriculum across the grades.

Our point here is straightforward: if a curriculum simply marches through lists of content knowledge and skills without attending to the concomitant goal of cultivating independent performance, high-schoolers will remain as dependent on teacher directions and step-by-step guidance as fourth graders currently are. The resulting graduates will be unprepared for the demands of college and the workplace.

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