The Importance of Content Knowledge and Curriculum
The daily instructional choices of teachers are increasingly being embraced as key levers for reducing educational disparities in schools. Using the Glossary of Education Reform definition, a curriculum should be understood broadly as:
- the knowledge and skills students are expected to learn
- mandated learning standards or learning objectives
- the units and lessons that teachers teach
- assignments and projects given to students
- the books, materials, videos, presentations, and readings used in a course
- tests, assessments, and other methods used to evaluate student learning
Peculiarly, in the U.S. there is a glaring reluctance to explicitly identify and closely monitor the curriculum and background knowledge taught to students in each grade level and subject. Part of the hesitation is likely rooted teachers’ desire for a certain degree of autonomy and freedom in their classroom.
However, there is another part of the content-knowledge-rich curriculum discussion which makes many educators rightfully uncomfortable. This is the question of who chooses what knowledge is taught? This is an important question that has been largely avoided because much curriculum discussion has been reduced to whether or not individual lessons or assessment items are aligned with sterilized and skill-focused standards.
So while schools have avoided going near the question of who chooses what knowledge is taught, it is becoming evermore clear that an answer has emerged regardless. Google, Pinterest, and Teachers Pay Teachers have become teachers’ go-to source for homegrown curricular materials and (below-grade) leveled texts which has resulted in a haphazard, fragmented, and ultimately inequitable curricula.
In this piece I argue for a renewed focus on an explicitly identified, critically-analyzed, multi-cultural, knowledge-rich curricula to supplement the current lens in the U.S. dominated by standards, mandated assessments, and highly variable student-facing work. This curriculum should not be made from scratch (no need to reinvent the wheel), but rather grounded in existing high-quality curriculum and modified and/or supplemented when necessary.
Steiner (2017) provides a clear rational for why curriculum deserves more attention in the report Curriculum Research: What We Know and Where We Need to Go:
- Curriculum is a critical factor in student academic success.
- Comprehensive, content-rich curriculum is a common feature of academically high-performing countries.
- The cumulative impact of high-quality curriculum can be significant and matters most to achievement in the upper grades.
- Because the preponderance of instructional materials is self-selected by individual teachers, most students are taught through idiosyncratic curricula that are not defined by school districts or states.
In summary, educationally top-performing countries across the globe indicate the importance of a high-quality, content-rich curriculum, yet in the U.S. we remain mostly focused on skills, rather than domain-specific content knowledge. The next section examines the worrisome trends of curricula fragmentation and disorganization.
Google, Pinterest, and TpT Fill the Vacuum
In the absence of meaningful discussion about the content knowledge and curriculum taught at each grade level, state and national standards have filled the vacuum, leading to a fragmentation of content knowledge and obsession with dubious transferable comprehension skills like “finding the main idea.” To teach to these skill-based standards, teachers might utilize a district-provided curriculum set, or they will turn to the internet.
It is clear where many daily curricular decisions that shape children’s educational lives are being made – Pinterest and Teachers Pay Teachers. Fast Company just named Teachers Pay Teachers the most innovative education company in the world in 2019 for “helping teachers improve their curricula.” More than 70% of teachers in the U.S., Canada, and Australia report using Teachers Pay Teachers.
A RAND Corporation survey found that self-developed or self-selected materials (Google, Pinterest, TPT) are the most popular online resources used by teachers, followed by district-provided materials. A report from the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University found that many 4th-8th grade teachers are dependent upon materials they develop themselves or those shared by other staff members at their schools. Eighty percent of ELA teachers and 72 percent of math teachers say they use such materials at least once a week.
In summary, teachers are spending unsustainable amounts of time outside school (an average of 7 hours weekly!) searching for, developing, and sharing curricular materials that greatly vary in quality, depth of knowledge, and sequence. While some may claim Pinterest and TpT help teachers in a pinch, the daily use and growing reliance on low-quality and poorly-sequenced curricula only exacerbates educational inequity for students desperately needing access to “the best stuff.”
Furthermore, before being uploaded to TpT or Pinterest, there has likely been little to no critical analysis regarding the diversity of thought or representation of various perspectives. What students are learning is often left up to a capitalistic free-for-all riding on individual teacher choice.
Taking Curriculum and Background Knowledge Seriously
Instead of the current reliance on ad-hoc, home-brewed materials, imagine teachers coming together to explicitly identify high-quality curricula, subject-specific vocabulary and key concepts to be covered in their respective grade levels.
Teachers would simultaneously build their own subject content knowledge while critically analyzing the curricular choices and materials utilized in each grade. And, curriculum could be revised and improved yearly. Let me be very clear – this curriculum would be deliberately designed to not be Eurocentric, and would represent a variety of perspectives, cultures, civilizations, and time periods.
Through this process, teachers would also identify cross-curricular connections, pinpointing high-value background knowledge that can be developed over time using a wide variety of literature. This practice of explicitly identifying and refining curriculum is not new and has been described and modeled brilliantly by the Reading Reconsidered team. The four key components of their ELA curriculum are:
- Knowledge Organizers: a concise table with all key vocabulary, concept knowledge, time-lines and maps that enables routine retrieval practice. Harry Fletcher-Wood has an excellent post here on creating knowledge organizers and Miss Sayers has an excellent series on how to use Knowledge Organizers here.
- Embedded Nonfiction: Frequent use of shorter, non-fiction texts to supplement novels.
- Embellishments: Artifacts (maps, pictures, videos) included to further understanding.
- Knowledge-based questioning: pre-planned questions reinforce content knowledge.
While some may still immediately cringe at the idea of a planned, knowledge-centered curriculum, Daniel Willingham reminds reading teachers in “School Time, Knowledge, and Reading Comprehension” that teaching background knowledge should be considered an integral part of teaching reading:
“Much of the difference among readers is due to how wide a range of knowledge they have. If you hand me a reading test and the text is on a subject I happen to know a bit about, I’ll do better than if it happens to be on a subject I know nothing about…teaching content is teaching reading.”
Furthermore, if educators aim to reduce and destroy persistent, systemic educational gaps in society, we must equip students with the knowledge that has traditionally only been reserved for the privileged and elite. Doug Lemov writes in Reading Reconsidered that teachers’ inclusion of challenging, grade-level text is the most important decision a teacher makes every day. While it is tempting to bend to student choice, YA fiction and graphic novels, these books are not sufficient to reverse educational disparities.
“The fact is that some books matter more than others, get discussed more than others, both in life and by other texts. Only those who already know those books can afford the luxury of dismissing this fact. Our purpose is not to suggest that every book students read has to be a classic in the traditional sense, but rather that students who use education to gain access to new opportunities are most likely to rely exclusively on school for the cultural knowledge that will serve them in that journey.”
I hope that in the future, no child will ever respond to the question “what are you learning in school?” with “how to find the main idea.” Rather, our students should be able to answer that question citing a wide variety of high-quality literature that has exponentially increased their background knowledge and ability to critically analyze the the world.
This curriculum will not magically come from Google, Pinterest, or Teachers Pay Teachers, nor will it happen overnight using a pre-packaged textbook set from a publisher. Rather, a deliberately-planned, content-knowledge-rich curriculum will be the result of years of preparation and revision with colleagues, and its benefits for students and teachers will only grow with time and effort invested.