Five Steps to Building Better Curriculum
by Nicole Dyson, Founder & CEO, Future Anything
As we approach the close of Term 4, it’s that time when we have one eye on the current year, and the other looking head to the next.
For most of us, most of the time, we’re sitting in the ‘now’; focussed on teaching content, distracted by never-ending inboxes and aware of impending marking and reporting deadlines.
And yet, in the slivers of space and time that sit in the in-between, we begin to look up at the potential of the ‘next’.
Every New Year, brings with it the promise of more, and with that, we attach our hopes and dreams of better.
However, hope is not a strategy. Like an arrow searching for its target, we need to arrive by our own intentional and deliberate design.
And, to do so, we need to step off the treadmill of ‘now’ long enough to allocate the space and energy to dreaming, designing and delivering the ‘next’.
Building Better Curriculum Step 1 : Deliberate
As educators, we (theoretically) appreciate the importance of critical reflection. And yet, practically, it is one of the things that we often fail to allocate time and space to.
The first step to designing better curriculum is to carve out the space and time for teaching teams to meet together and deliberate over the following key reflective questions.
- What does great teaching and learning look like in our classrooms?
- What curriculum/ learning experiences worked this year?
- What curriculum/ learning experiences didn’t work this year?
- What curriculum/ learning experiences would you do differently?
From here, we can begin to triage our curriculum, ascertaining which units of work are in most dire need of attention, and then prioritise the re-design of those priority units that are also most urgently required.
Once we’ve ascertained the most important and urgent unit of the curriculum in need of re-design, we need to go back to the foundations of the curriculum and unpack the specific learning intentions of the unit by asking the following questions.
By the time students finish the unit…
- What do they need to know and do? These are the learning objectives, and will likely be tied to your achievement standards.
- What skills should they have developed? These are the General Capabilities, 21st Century Skills, or Future Capabilities that underpin all future focussed curriculum.
Ideally, these objectives should be written on post-it notes with a new objective on a new Post-It note. More on this later.
Building Better Curriculum Step 2: Dream
Here at Future Anything, we believe that engagement comes when young people see the purpose for learning. The best units of work are curriculum aligned and reflect the real world back to the student. They nudge students to dream about their future selves; using curriculum as a mirror to reflect back who they are, and what they like, love, and hate in a way that empowers them with the self-awareness to navigate choice and opportunity.
Where we have the flexibility in the assessment instrument we employ, we should set the conditions for creativity (see our previous blog on this here) and ideate potential projects (assessment tasks) that could be completed by students that would satisfy the required learning objectives and link the learning to life.
…design a world in Minecraft?
…develop a three-part podcast series?
…pitch to the local councillor on a proposed change?
…create a ‘Humans of New York’-esque porfolio of your local school community?
…deliver your own Mental Health Expo empowering your school community with strategies and systems to be healthier and happier?
The tighter the connection between the learning and life, the greater the engagement.
Transform your task into a mission through the design of a Driving Question using the Tubric.
Building Better Curriculum Step 3: Discover
Schools are a microcosm of modern society. Their diverse stakeholder groups- students, alumni, teachers, caregivers and local community- provide a rich resource bank that are often overlooked in the curriculum design process.
We all do what we do because at some point in our lives we met someone who, or experienced something which, challenged our understanding of who we are, and inspired us to reimagine who we could be.
So, with our end (the project) in sight, how can we deepen the sense of discovery and wonder for students by amplifying authentic voices, spaces and experiences?
- Who are the authentic voices that would amplify this learning?
- Where are the authentic spaces that would amplify this learning?
- What are the authentic experiences that would amplify this learning?
Like above, collect your shortlisted options on Post-It notes.
Building Better Curriculum Step 4: Design
In my opinion, curriculum design is one of the most underappreciated and over-estimated skills in education. In fact, you can be an experienced Head of Curriculum in a well-established school and never have to write a single piece of curriculum from scratch; a well-resourced bank of ‘ghosts of curriculum past’ instead providing ample opportunity for upcycling.
Our default behaviour is always to work with what we have, rather than start from the beginning and build anew. This is why, when you hand back a draft to a student with the recommendation to pick another topic, their stubborn reluctance to start again will see them cut and paste their way to good enough.
But, what if good enough isn’t enough?
It’s critical that, at least at this stage of the design process, your curriculum starts with a physical blank canvas.
Grab some butcher’s paper and draw up the following table. The number of weeks and lessons should align with the unit you’re designing. E.g. The below unit is a term long unit (10 weeks) with three lessons per week.
|Week||Lesson 1||Lesson 2||Lesson 3|
Remember those Post-It notes we collected earlier? It’s time to bring them back.
Firstly, work through the learning objectives post-it notes, chronologically placing them in the weeks and lessons that they are best aligned to. Don’t forget to consider calendar disruptions, reporting timelines, and time required for students to work on and present their assessment task. These unavoidable elements should be indicated on the physical overview to account for a realistic representation of time available.
Secondly, place the post-it notes with authentic people, places, and experiences within the unit overvew. If we don’t carve out time at this early stage of planning for these critical learning junctures, we won’t magically find the time later.
Thirdly, layer suggested learning experiences over the top that will deliver the identified learning objectives. At this stage, you may refer to previous unit overviews to draw in activities, templates and resources that you identified in the Deliberate phase that went well.
There is power in doing this activity as a physical rather than a digital task. As a collaborative task, post-it notes can be moved easily and quickly. The ‘flow’ of the whole unit can be seen at a glance by the whole team, making it easily apparent if the unit is a possible or impossible endeavour from a time and resourcing point of view.
Finally, place the physical artefact in your staffroom for a week with some post it notes nearby for colleagues to add what they like, what they wish was different and what resources they could add to support.
Following this feedback, build the assessment instruments and flesh out the unit overview, but ensure you leave space for the learning to breathe.
Keep the intention tight, and the unit light. The magic happens where the light gets in.
Building Better Curriculum Step 5: Deliver
This is the fun part. Deliver the unit.
But, in doing so, we also need to consider how we know if what we’re doing is working.
Could you provide a digital space for students and teachers to provide feedback on the unit in real-time?
In order for the arrow to get closer and closer to the bullseye, we need to be constantly calibrating every influence; making small deliberate shifts in focus and direction as a result of feedback.
The Big Question for School Leaders.
Finally, in the same vein that we started, building better curriculum doesn’t happen by accident. It’s the result of teaching teams being provided with the creative space, time, and support to step out of the ‘now’ and into the ‘next’.
As fatigued teachers hurtle closer and closer to the end of the year, school leaders should be asking one simple question of their teaching teams.
“To deliver great teaching and learning next year, what space, support or skills do you need?”
Then, the key ingredient henceforth is permission.
The permission to dream a different way. Permission to be daring, and to dabble with the new and the unknown. Permission to fail and succeed, and everything in between.
Because good enough is not enough anymore.
Future Anything offers a portfolio of Teacher Professional Development workshops that help school leaders and teaching teams develop authentic and impactful curriculum.
Using our evidence-based frameworks, we work with teams to embed a practical and contextual cross-curriculum approach to building 21st Century Skills, Entrepreneurship, and/or Project-Based Learning. We’re passionate about creating learning that links to life in alignment with your school community’s needs and vision.
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About the author: Nicole Dyson
As a teacher in the USA, UK and Australia as well as a Head of Department and Head of Year at some of Queensland’s top-performing public schools, Nicole has repeatedly led the design and implementation of whole-school changes to support future ready learning; placing young people at the forefront of co-designing contextually relevant learning experiences.