Rinse, Wash, Wash Again, Repeat

I recently engaged in a Twitter educhat in which we were asked to share our big “aha” from this year. For me, it was undoubtedly the reduction in the number of content standards I teach and assess.

Heading into the summer our principal suggested the book “Focus – Elevating the Essentials to Radically Improve Student Learning“. There was one line in there that just lept of the page – “We should reduce the content contained in most standards documents by about 50 percent”. I was shocked, I mean I already have eliminated a number of standards from the “typical” Algebra 1 curriculum, but how would I reduce it by 50%?

For this school year, instructional time was reduced due to the scheduling changes made because of the pandemic. I figured this was a good time to give it a try. With less face-to-face time I felt it was a good opportunity to de-emphasize covering every piece of content. The goal would be to focus on the depth of the content areas I would choose to emphasize – something I had been wanting to do.

My approach was to first start with a list of all the content standards I typically teach and count them up. Fortunately, I already had a list of these. I had 92 different content standards on my list.

Rather than go for the full 50% cut in one swoop, I started by grouping everything into 4 or 5 main “modules” that would guide my overall curriculum. Once I had done that I went through the list and determined which content standards were absolutely essential in targeting those macro-level modules. In my first attempt, I got down to about 55, pretty close to 50% and was pleasantly surprised.

Being so close to the 50% threshold, I thought, OK I’ll make another pass at it. I had now removed the reins of being beholden to hitting all these content markers. I began to feel much more comfortable removing other content. During this second pass a picture of what my new trimmed-down curriculum emerged.

Let me give an example. Previously my curriculum included “Students are able to generate a table of values to graph an absolute value equation”. Rather than target this standard, I put more emphasis on the broader module about “graphing functions”. During this module, I went into more depth about functions, tables, and inputs and outputs. We examined what a function is and what it means to input x values into a function and what those y output values represent.

Having gone into more depth into the process of generating values from a table, I was able to give them an absolute value function and they graphed it with no problem. They had accessed the depth of understanding about what a function is and how it can be used to represent a variety of mathematical operations so there was no need to cover absolute functions separately. By breaking down the learning to the fundamental skills, students demonstrated that they were much more versatile and adaptable to a variety of mathematical situations.

Moving forward I would like to explore the use of modules more deeply. Rather than presenting everything in a fixed linear fashion, I would like to structure the learning around modules that can be circled back to throughout the year. For example as I prep for the next lesson on quadratic equations I am more confident in referring to the work on both linear and exponential functions that we previously covered. This will allow students to make connections across the curriculum.

This work is by no means perfect. In fact, seeing how bloated our curriculum is has forced me to rethink the type of content I am delivering and how I will design the learning experiences for students. My hope is that by focusing the curriculum on the core concepts that we can explore more real-world applications of the mathematical concepts we are covering.

If you are considering trimming down your curriculum I highly suggest you give it a try. Follow these short four steps:

  1. List all the content that you deliver in a given school year (Rinse)
  2. Go through and keep only the core content items that are essential for students in the next course sequence in your subject (Wash)
  3. Remove any final content that students could understand by applying the learning from the core content pieces you identified in step 2 (Wash again)
  4. Implement it into your classroom and revise as needed (Repeat)

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