Intended Curriculum Versus “Real” Curriculum

In Chinese international schools, you can meet school leaders who describe their curriculum, and then see classrooms where that curriculum is not being followed closely.

If I ask the school leader about what I just saw, I often get a puzzled denial.

If I ask a school leader in the USA, though, I often get an exasperated, knowing acknowledgement. “Yep, such is life.”

So what is happening?

Stanford’s Larry Cuban explains in a 4 part framework.

…The official curriculum too often sails above the clouds loosely tethered to what happens in classrooms.

How can that be?

The answer is in the other layers of the curriculum structure.

Teachers, working alone in their rooms, make up the second layer. They decide what to teach and how to present it.

…In fact, researchers continually find that teachers in the same building will teach different versions of the same course while claiming that they are teaching to the state standards and to the prevailing desired pedagogy.

Thus, the intended curriculum and what teachers teach may overlap in the title of the course, key topics, and the same textbook, but can differ substantially in actual subject matter and daily lessons.

I suspect this is less true of Chinese teachers, but I do not know yet. However, I suspect it is EQUALLY true of Chinese teachers when you introduce a NEW curriculum. I’ve seen that in some of the innovative schools there where teachers did not buy-in to the new ways.

The taught curriculum overlaps with but differs significantly from what students take away from class. This is the third layer.

Broadly speaking, a number of Chinese educators are genuinely interested in this problem. It’s why they often describe American universities as being great because they promote independent thinking…it means students take away much more from class, even though fewer facts are lectured at kids. I think this is a promising trend.

…And what students learn does not exactly mirror what is in the tested curriculum. Here, then, is the fourth layer of curriculum…To the degree that teachers and students attend to such tests, portions of the intended and taught curricula merge. Furthermore, many of these tests seek to sort high achieving students from their lower-achieving peers.

There are, then, four curricular layers, not one unvarnished curriculum.

….But the official curriculum rests atop three other layers that assemble and distribute knowledge and skills in the age-graded school through pedagogy, assessment, and professional development: the taught, learned, and tested curricula.

While Larry writes about American science curriculum “standards” (the list of what kids should know) in his example, this 4 layer framework is useful for nonprofits and for-profits alike which distribute what I would call curriculum (specific daily “lessons”).

Larry adds:

I have omitted one important fact about this multi-layered curriculum. Previous reforms create the historical context for the multi-layered curriculum and influence the direction of contemporary reforms. This historical context is like a coral, a mass of skeletons from millions of animals built up that, over time, accumulates into reefs above and below the sea line. Its presence cannot be ignored neither by ships nor by inhabitants.

This coral reef, I believe, affects layers 2 and 3 the most.

Moreover, even being mindful of the other 3 layers isn’t enough. That’s why I wonder if the excellent Success For All program didn’t replicate in a large randomize trial, after it did in a small trial. In the small trial version, they put a premium on teacher buy-in, if I recall. In the large trial, there was enormous pressure to get this in more schools, so teacher buy-in was more limited.

My friend Robert Pondiscio yesterday wrote:

At the risk of heresy, I’d rather my child’s teacher were an ardent disciple of a curriculum or pedagogy I don’t like rather than make a forced march through one I prefer, but which has been imposed on her unwillingly.

Robert is a big advocate of Core Knowledge curriculum. But sometimes Layer 2 so distorts any curriculum, it’s better not to “force it.”

I would add: Teacher choice (which solves somewhat for Layer 2) can happen either during the hiring process (for example, you don’t choose an Icahn Charter School if you don’t want CK, or a Bridge school if you don’t want its curriculum), or happen at the individual classroom level (if your school has no way to solve for Layer 2, you’re better off letting them choose Layer 1).

That’s why I wrote this with Michael Horn.