Developing an Understanding-Based Curriculum  

May 30, 2014
What is understanding, and how does it differ from knowledge? If the goal of education is for students to achieve a deep level of understanding rather than to simply gain knowledge, then what should follow for curriculum? These questions were the springboard for my learning at the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) Advanced Curriculum Institute, which Dallas Lewandowski and I recently had the privilege of attending. This training was facilitated by Dr. Grant Wiggins and Dr. Jay McTighe, and we attended as a part of our research, training, and preparations for leading the ESU 10 Regional Consortium for Curriculum Development.

I saw many connections between the content of the Institute and the work of the Regional Consortium. One of our goals is to align curricula to the new Nebraska College and Career Ready Language Arts Standards. During the training, it was made clear that standards are important, but they should not be the long term goals. The long term goals should require students to make meaning in the face of ambiguity, to successfully transfer knowledge and skills in new and realistic contexts. Wiggins asked, “If students are bored and clueless about the goal, how are the standards going to help? The design question that drives planning for instruction should be, ‘How will the kids engage in the standards in a meaningful way?’” In reality, the goal of alignment in order to comply with Rule 10 is merely a convenient byproduct of the other Regional Consortium goals of leveraging the knowledge and expertise of area teachers in a way that will encourage the use of research-based, effective, and engaging instructional strategies.

As we consider how to best achieve the above goals, I am reminded of Wiggins and McTighe’s assertion that curriculum reform is just as complicated as physically renovating the entire building. They proposed the following questions when considering a curriculum redesign:

  •What is your biggest problem in regard to curriculum?
  •What do you hope students will take with them after each course is over?
  •How do we break free from habits that hold us back?
  •How do we make a curriculum document that people will use when, historically, the vast majority of people have not used curriculum documents?
  •Why don’t people read the curriculum?
  •How do we write a curriculum that it’s sufficiently rich and differentiated that teachers of any skill and experience level could find it to be of value?
  •How do we write curriculum that balances professional autonomy with the need for a consistent structure and framework?

Through this consortium, we want to work with local administrators and teachers to find answers to the above questions and to create a curriculum that meets the needs of all students and teachers. As Wiggins shared on the second day of the Institute, “if the curriculum is terrible, the effectiveness of even the best teacher will be hindered. A coherent curriculum is not a list of ‘stuff to cover.’ Curriculum should help teachers deal with the diversity of student needs they must address.” I am excited to work with ESU 10 administrators and teachers to define what they want their curriculum to be and do, and to help them make that vision a reality.