Curriculum Pacing – are we focused on coverage or learning?
The high school where I work is gearing up for our WASC (Western Association of Schools and Colleges) accreditation in the late spring. This process gives us the opportunity to have some much needed dialogue about the Why, How, and What in terms of student learning. We are in the emerging stage of the PLC process and are still working toward a common understanding in many areas. In addition to these meetings, most of my day is spent working with teenagers who are stressed out. Among the many things they say to me, one really sticks out in regards to our PLC process…their anxiety level rises dramatically when a teacher communicates that there is only a short amount of time they can dedicate to a particular concept because they have to cover too much material.
During one of our WASC meetings, an 11th grade student was commenting on the high levels of stress they were dealing with. When I asked if there was something specific, they shared with me this comment (paraphrased) by a teacher: “Even though you haven’t learned this yet, we can only spend 2 days on it, and we will NOT be able to come back to it because there are too many other things we need to cover before the semester is over.” The next day, I was in a meeting with another teacher who was expressing frustration at the fact that they had to cover so much more material before the semester ends with no time to properly review.
My job as a Support Counselor is to help students be able to manage their stress in healthy and productive ways; and as a PLC Associate, I can’t help but think about how different our school will be once we master a shift of practice from teaching to one of learning. This is not an indictment of my school; rather, I think most teachers across our nation feel as though they are rushing through their curriculum to some unseen finish line.
Reviewing the literature on Mindset research and applying it to the PLC process, it becomes crystal clear that we need to shift our thinking from Teaching to Learning. We can do this by starting with the question of “why”. Why is it necessary to get through this curriculum by a certain date? What is more important – getting through a specific amount of curriculum regardless of what is learned or learning the material before we move on?
One of the first things I recommend to all schools starting their PLC journey is to first make a commitment to focus on learning. This sounds very simple, but “old habits die hard” and this can be very complicated. Many teachers are well-meaning and very much want students to learn at high levels, but often feel very constrained by the amount of curriculum that needs to be covered. Lucky for us, the PLC journey is incredibly astute and has already figured out how to help succeed in this endeavor.
An easy way for all teachers to start this process, besides simply fighting over Essential Question #1 (What do we want the students to be able to know and do?), is to put the curriculum into three major categories (Wiggins and McTighe 1998):
1. Enduring understanding
2. Important to know
3. Worth being familiar with
These three categories, coupled with your state and district guidelines, can help focus teacher dialogue so that student learning becomes that primary focus. Ensuring students learn at high levels is not just a “pie in the sky” idea, it is done through a continued, unrelenting focus on closing the gap between implemented curriculum (what is taught) and attained curriculum (what is learned). This gap between implemented and attained is what my 11th grade student was talking about when they shared how stressed out they were. I have found that when teachers coordinate curriculum, they are merely pacing out a timeline of coverage. When using the three categories mentioned above, teachers are able to dialogue and decide what goes into category 1, 2 or 3. This shift moves a teacher’s thinking from “I taught it, they didn’t learn it” to “if they didn’t learn it, I didn’t teach it”. This shift can often help us refocus from a timeline of coverage to a focus on essential learning. A focus on the essential learning is how we help all students learn at high levels.