Curriculum Development: Start with Questions (Instead of Standards)

Boredom is a product of ignorance; the more we know about something, the more interesting it becomes.

Kieran Egan

If you could teach your students anything you wanted tomorrow, what would it be? No standards need to be considered. Principals are giving you free rein. What might you learn with your kids?

I would select controlled burns. Why? Because there was one this evening not too far from our home.

My kids had so many questions as we got closer and closer to the “big fire by the high school”. 

  • Why are they burning the oak savanna?
  • I see firefighters by the burn, but they’re not putting it out. Do they want it to burn?
  • Is this safe, so close to our house?

A few of our neighbors, two guys working on a house project, came out and asked me why they chose this evening (they know I am a school administrator). “It’s pretty windy out; was this the best night?” I shrugged my shoulders, not having an answer.

These questions could be an entry event into larger topics of study such as the life cycle or the concept of “change”. Yet our typical approach to preparing for instruction is to first look at the standards, try to determine what students should know and be able to do, and then develop learning targets in kid-friendly language so they know what we will be doing.

While I won’t argue against standards, I believe their role in education has been overemphasized. Kids don’t come to school to achieve mastery in them; they want to become smarter while experiencing joy in the process of learning. By leading with standards, we can turn students off from learning in the process. 

Instead, let’s get more observant about the world around us. We don’t have to look far. Maybe there is not a controlled burn down the street, but I bet there is some history or geography around the corner. How can we look at the ordinary in new and extraordinary ways?

A Preferred Approach

Instead of standards, what if we were to start curriculum development by leading with questions around a subject of focus? The object or idea itself should somehow capture students’ interests and cause them to become curious.

For example, a former art teacher brought in a small loom and placed it on a table. “Kids, let’s gather around and take a look at what I brought in,” she invited. “What are you wondering?” The students had many questions, generally wanting to know what it was and what it did. This evocative object was a springboard for a unit on sewing. Content and skills addressed included mathematics, technology, fine motor skills, and following directions, areas covered well by the standards (and the latter two approved by anyone who has spent a reasonable amount of time with five-year-olds).

Questions anticipated by the teacher (essential and guided) and subsequently developed by the students are mirrored by the big ideas of a unit of study. They complement one another as they share a common theme, concept, or issue. As an example, if an essential question for the previously mentioned unit was “What is technology?”, an associated big idea might be “Technology helps people do tasks more easily.” Future instruction would expand on these ideas and inquiries, going deeper into the content and developing skills and strategies to better understand our world.

Maybe the hardest part of this approach for educators is not having all the answers. There is comfort in planning for the next five days. Yet the unfortunate trade-off might be in student engagement. So there has to be a balance between knowing what’s coming and being open to the unexpected.

Exercise: Update Your Consensus Map

Revisit your discipline’s yearlong plan for instruction and reframe them in more interesting ways. This consensus map should list the topics of the units of study which often summarize the major content and performance standards. Everyone in your grade level or department agrees on what should be taught. Consider what our 5th grade team developed when they collaborated on this exercise.

Topic/Strand Theme Title
Citizenship Citizenship/Community Our Place in the World
Political Science Rights & Responsibilities Voices and Choices
Geography Culture/Geography Oh the Places You’ll Go
Diversity Tolerance & Equal Rights A World Without Borders

As you go from left to right, you can see how they thought about their instructional plans in new ways. They haven’t changed the content as much as altered how their students might perceive the curriculum. By combining these topic revisions with big ideas and essential questions, the rest of the unit maps will more likely flow toward learning that is deemed lifeworthy by all learners.