Horizontal planning: minimising content to maximise understanding

The old idiom “less is more” has so many different applications, but 2020 certainly gives it new meaning. By the first couple of weeks of remote learning back in the spring, I realised what a truism that statement is in relation to curriculum. Despite the many challenges that lay ahead, coverage was not one of them. Having a concept-based curriculum never felt like such a privilege; we had the ability to adapt our curriculum to meet the sudden demands of remote learning and consider our students’ wellbeing. For some, this might be a challenge, but we seized on the opportunity to make our curriculum work for our students. I’m not saying it all worked perfectly, but I don’t think anyone in my department feels that our students fell behind during lockdown (despite what many politicians may lead the public to believe).

I plunged ahead with my Diploma syllabus, teaching the same number of texts but strategically cutting content within each unit of study, often taking a whole-text approach as opposed to the more guided approach I would normally take in the physical classroom. We cut content in our MYP units as well, where we have a bit more freedom because we are not bound by a syllabus. The result was an opportunity to explore the concepts in more depth, using the content as a tool for developing conceptual understanding, rather than as an end point. But shouldn’t this be the norm, not the exception? These “exceptional circumstances” we have found ourselves in this year should be an opportunity for schools and systems to really reconsider what is “essential content”.

I believe that curriculum is a living organism; an authentic, live curriculum should never be “complete”. Luckily, my departmental colleagues are on the same page and are always looking for ways to adapt our curriculum to meet the needs of our students and reflect our local and global contexts. Our scope and sequence has gone through many permutations over the years. At one point, we were teaching 5-6 units per year in each grade. It always felt like a race to the finish line, and inevitably we never actually managed to get through everything. So last year we reduced the number of units per grade to 4. This seemed like the right number because it meant we could focus a unit on each major genre (fiction, non-fiction, drama, poetry) — except, this plan was flawed from the start because the units were very text-focused; the conceptual elements became a bit of a bolt-on.

This year, we have scaled back again to 3 units per grade. That’s roughly one per term, with room built in to allow for flexibility if a unit runs shorter or longer than expected –and time for meaningful IDUs to take place. We also have more time to promote independent reading and embed opportunities for student choice within the curriculum. In most grades, we have not had to cut too much content; we have simply repurposed it through a more conceptual lens. And the conceptual focus has allowed us to bring in lots of different text types to support the statement of inquiry, which better prepares students for the DP Language & Literature course. Here is a peek at our Grade 9 (MYP 4) curriculum:

Cutting down to 3 units has presented challenges in terms of assessment. Previously, we sort of naturally developed 2 creative and 2 analytical tasks across the year (one summative task per unit) to ensure that we hit each criterion strand twice. Now, we have to approach assessment in a more holistic (less linear) manner. So we might have a unit which includes more than one summative task, or we might create a task which includes both analytical and creative elements. It’s a work in progress, and although it does require more intellectual weightlifting on the part of us as teachers, the opportunities it provides our students to develop critical, conceptual thinking is worth the extra effort.

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