Thoughts on Curricula

March 17, 2019

From their very first math lesson, children start building a tower of mathematical knowledge that remains under construction until the end of their schooling.  The height that tower one-day reaches depends on their foundational strength - a fusion of aptitude, work ethic, instructional quality, and the sequence in which they learn topics.  Of these four ingredients, only the latter can remain consistent from year to year and classroom to classroom.  Thus, a strong curriculum is vital to any successful math program.

Great mathematics curricula flow like novels, with concepts that build on one another sequentially.  To comprehend and appreciate the unfolding plot, it’s vital for students to understand the foundations leading up to the content they’re learning.  Each mastered lesson, chapter, and unit helps them better understand those that follow.  Therefore, the methodology and sequence with which topics are taught and learned are crucial to maximizing student success.

Producing a quality curriculum requires teams of mathematicians and highly skilled teachers working collaboratively for many years.  This approach produced great results for Singapore’s renowned national curriculum and – more recently – Great Minds/Eureka Math, which authored the first curriculum written exclusively to address Common Core Standards

Both starkly contrast traditional U.S. texts, which often conjure memories of heavy books covered in brown paper bags.  Those encyclopedic texts are the unfortunate consequence of our country’s geographical makeup.  Prior to the Common Core, each state maintained a different set of mathematical standards.  For marketing purposes, companies such as Holt, Houghton Mifflin, and Glencoe created curricula that met every state’s demands.  To accomplish this, they hired dozens of ghost authors to write individual chapters.  The resulting product was a disjointed patchwork of 40-50 chapters per grade level, consisting of lessons and units that lacked connectivity and longitudinal coherence.

Although single-authorship curricula have produced more logical, beautiful math learning, its implementation is often challenging.  Because of their intricate design, each lesson becomes high stakes learning.  Good lesson planning, along with exemplary student attendance and attentiveness, are necessary to realize the program’s potential.

Some independent schools write curricula to reflect their mission, allowing administrators and teachers to imprint shared values in the content their students learn.  Although well-intentioned, this practice normally leads to poor outcomes.  With few exceptions, overtaxing a staff that lacks the time and training to produce a quality product supersedes the benefits of drafting original curricula.  In any successful school, educators carefully select the books, field trips, projects, etc. that their students experience.  However, the best learning occurs when the aforementioned complement a published curriculum. Teachers shouldn’t be asked to write curriculum.  The few who possess enough content knowledge to do so usually lack the time, skill, and training to produce a coherent program.