Covering the Curriculum

“I am so frustrated because the teacher went over three things today in class even though she knew that most of us didn’t learn the first one!”
–My Daughter

A Quick Exercise

What does curriculum mean to you? Please take some time and make a list of words that immediately come to mind when you think of curriculum…

As you look at your list of words I am going to ask you to put them into one of two categories. The first category is “Learner-centered” and the second one is “Adult convenience”. Here are the definitions of each category.

Learner-centered: The heart of Learner-centeredness is the Learner and the learning experience. Creating learning experiences for learners that are relevant, engaging, and meet the learning needs of the Learner, may seem to be obvious. The ramifications of placing the learner and the learning experience at the center of everything the school does is a radical act. When filtering all decisions based on the Learner being at the center, barriers for growth and opportunity for the student fall by the wayside. The Learner and the learning experience become the focal point, not the rules and regulations that govern the current system. All decisions by the school board, administration and teachers are filtered through the lens of radical learner centeredness.
Adult Convenience: Otherwise known as a command and control structure. Rules and regulations are the focal points of a learning system driven by adult convenience (i.e. in high school a school cannot “offer” a class if there are too few learners signed up). Learning is something that happens to kids because of the command structure put into place by adults. In some ways, the learners are an afterthought.

Your Results

In which category did most of your words end up? Are you surprised by the result, or is it as you expected? What can you change about your practice that will place more of your thinking in the learner-centered category?
Did this exercise help shift your thinking about curriculum? Is your view of curriculum aligned with a learner-centered mentality or an adult convenience mentality?

3 Negative Results of “Covering” Curriculum

How many times have you heard an educator say, “I have to cover the curriculum”? Usually, they say this when they are confronted by someone asking them why they are moving so fast through the material. “Covering” topics is not teaching and it certainly is disassociated from learning. The idea of covering the curriculum has an insidious impact on educators, their practice and the system of education.
What “covering” curriculum does to educators:

  1. Creates compliance zombies. The structure of the system determines the function of the jobs in the system. If the job of a teacher is to follow the curriculum map and if they are evaluated on how well they follow the map, then actual learning becomes a secondary concern. The number one priority is getting to the end of the curriculum map. A teacher’s role is to deliver an approved content…period. Not to assure learning, but to cover topics. The art of teaching occurs at the intersection of the teacher’s knowledge and expertise and the learner’s dreams, hopes, and aspirations for learning. Structurally speaking, we are getting out of education exactly what the structure and system demand…cover the curriculum!
  2. Inhibits innovation. As a superintendent, I always enjoyed my time when I would go out and walk through classes and meet the Learners and the teachers. In the second week of school at a school district where I had just started to work as a superintendent, I noticed as I walked through the elementary schools that all of the teachers were teaching exactly the same lesson…right down to echoing the same instructions to the class. When I asked one of the principals about this, they told me that the entire district made sure that all of the grade level teachers were teaching the same thing on the same day in every classroom. This was done to assure the reading and math programs were implemented with “fidelity”. I was aghast. “implementing with fidelity” to me means de-professionalizing teachers and not allowing them to use their experience and expertise. I had the district stop the practice on the spot. Teachers hold the key to innovation. Handcuffing them with silliness about covering an approved curriculum and having them parrot predesigned talking points to assure “fidelity” is nonsense.
  3. Creates cynicism. If the goal is to “cover” material then if the learner does not learn, then it is not the teacher’s responsibility. Responsibility is relegated to the curriculum office, or the textbook company or the central office, or the school board, or the State, or to an ephemeral “someone” who made the decision that the material must be covered in this way at this time. Allow the teachers to express their gifts as educators and actually assure learners are learning!

The Antidote to Covering Curriculum

Believe it or not, I do believe curriculum is a necessity for schools…it just cannot be the center of the schooling experience. The curriculum must be reimagined to support the learner and help teachers. There will always be a requirement for courses and what students need to learn. We live in an era where both sides of the political divide (conservatives and liberals) have no problem with legislating what is taught in schools. Our job as educators is to prevent the worst impulses of curriculum designers and adapt the requirements to be more about the learner. Deconstructing curriculum into learning progressions that allow learners to progress through required learning at their own pace is a great start.

The quote that started this blog post exemplifies the dangers when covering the curriculum becomes the goal of teachers. The “covering curriculum mentality” seeps into teachers and learners suffer. It is paramount that educators resist the urge toward adult convenience when implementing curriculum and stay focused on the learner and their learning.

About Tom Butler, Ph.D.

I believe that public education is for the public good and that education should be uncompromisingly learner-centered. The New Learning Ecosystem points us away from the old model of education that does not serve kids well. All educators regardless of where they work can help lead and contribute to the New Learning Ecosystem.
View all posts by Tom Butler, Ph.D. →

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