The best learning happens when every piece of a curriculum is designed to work together.
Imagine you’re walking through a famous building.
Tall columns and oblong floors surround you on the classic Roman-style west side. As you walk south, the architecture suddenly switches to a Gothic style, and the columns give way to sharply pointed arches, vaulted ceilings, and flying buttresses. Then, suddenly, you’re surrounded by boxy, minimalist modernist architecture. The concrete structure lacks ornamentation, a considerable departure from the leering gargoyles you’ve just passed.
Disoriented, you pause and ask yourself, “Is this a notable landmark or a carnival funhouse?!” In fact, you’re not even sure how the building is standing upright.
Clearly, this hypothetical building was cobbled together by multiple architects, and it begs a few questions for educators: Have you ever thought about how your curriculum is architected? Did the instructional designers have an aligned approach? Are your students disoriented in your curriculum the way you would be in this building?
Coherence Is the First Step to Greatness
Great architects have a unifying vision for what they want to achieve, and they design their spaces accordingly. And you, as the curriculum architect, have a similar choice when selecting and implementing your content. Will you patch together a haphazard array of lessons, activities, online platforms, and assessments, or will you provide a beautifully coherent learning program where every component of the educational experience is designed to work together flawlessly?
Your students will have a more positive and effective learning experience when your curriculum is coherent. Here are four specific benefits of using coherent learning programs:
1. A Coherent Curriculum Emphasizes Connectedness
“Why are we learning this?” Sound familiar? I heard it plenty of times when I was teaching middle school social studies. I’m sure you’ve heard it too. When students don’t understand how classroom content is connected to what they did in class yesterday or what they’ll be doing in the future, they don’t fully put their minds to work. Curricular coherence helps fix that.
The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics has it right when they say that “a curriculum is more than a collection of activities.” Rather, it’s a series of highly-organized elements that thoughtfully build off each other and prepare students for what’s coming next.
A coherent curriculum often incorporates a spiral design, where something students learned previously repeatedly surfaces in newly-contextualized ways. When students are asked to solve math problems, for example, on a review sheet that has nothing to do with the rest of the lesson, it reinforces the false notion that math is boring, disconnected and irrelevant. But with spiral design, students can see previously-mastered concepts reintroduced and reapplied to what they’re currently learning. This not only reinforces what they’ve learned in context; it also helps them see that math is useful and applicable in many situations. With some support, they might even reflect on what they’ve learned and anticipate future lessons.
2. Consistency Makes Learning Easier
When topics and lessons share a consistent structure, students don’t have to keep adjusting to new approaches. This frees up time and energy for building skills, cultivating creativity, and practicing critical thinking rather than trying to adapt to new learning structures.
Plus, when students engage in content designed in a familiar format, they’ll be more invested in the learning process and more confident that they can handle challenges. From this confidence comes true mental and emotional resilience and enables them to take on more difficult challenges, something that’s critical for building SEL competencies. We want our students to have meaningful learning experiences, of course, and be fully engaged in their learning.
3. Curricular Coherence Facilitates Teacher Collaboration and Support
I recently heard about fantastic teacher professional learning happening at Schmucker Middle School in Indiana, where they began implementing a coherent math program across the whole district for the first time. With all teachers using the same learning program, they were able to establish professional learning communities where teachers could meet regularly to support each other, collaborate, and troubleshoot.
Schmucker Middle School is one example of many that shows us that when teachers are provided high-quality, intentionally-designed teaching and learning materials, they will spend less time planning, gathering resources, and grading, and more time connecting with each other and facilitating student learning. And when teachers know where the program is headed and how all the pieces connect, they can deliberately let students guide more of their own learning. This is good for engaging learners and building classroom communities.
4. Research-Driven Coherence Utilizes The Science of Learning
Although every district has to decide what to prioritize when choosing tools to help them establish program coherence, the best programs are deeply rooted in the science of learning. For a program to be not only coherent but effective in accelerating learning, cognitive scientists, instructional designers, and engineers should work together daily to better understand how our brains learn best. That’s precisely how our team at Carnegie Learning develops our blended core math solution. We’re continuously improving our textbooks and software as we conduct new research to ensure that each student gets the right learning experience tailored specifically to them.
During my years in the classroom, I repeatedly saw that personalized learning yielded the best outcomes, but with twenty students in a class, I couldn’t provide differentiated instruction for everyone. Thanks to advancements in educational technology and the science of learning, what I dreamed of doing twenty years ago is now possible!
Does Your Content Have One Architect?
Let’s approach learning the way great architects approach their designs: with careful planning and flawless execution. To do this, we need to make the right investment in coherent instructional design. So I encourage you to ask yourself, “Does the content we’re using have just one architect?” If not, your students may be wondering how the windows, roof, and doors of their educational experience fit together.
Peter is an educator with over 20 years of strategy, education and product development experience. He led the redesign of a university, built new educational programs, designed content and taught middle school. At Carnegie Learning, Peter shapes our organizational and product strategy and ensures that we continue to develop leading-edge products and services that help all students learn.Explore more related to this author
Let’s approach learning the way great architects approach their designs: with careful planning and flawless execution. To do this, we need to make the right investment in coherent instructional design.
Peter LaCasse, Carnegie Learning Chief Strategy Officer