As curriculum leads, it is challenging to design units that cover as much as possible in a year, and that are also engaging, differentiated, inclusive of social-emotional learning or character development skills, and responsive to what’s happening in the world. The pandemic has intensified this challenge with calls to teach more content than usual and prioritize students’ social and emotional health. As a high school teacher with students whose reading levels were often 5-10 years behind grade level, I’ve designed curriculum for both approaches, and the results indicated one approach works far better than the other.
Why take the “less is more” approach to curriculum?
By designing curriculum with less content to cover, students were able to spend time repeatedly practicing core skills, using feedback to thoughtfully revise their work, and they recalled content multiple units later. Students were able to take the unit in unique directions, using class time to pursue areas of interest related to the unit, and sharing their findings with the class as relative experts in the topic. We also had the flexibility to nurture our humanity. I recall one day we paused and took an entire day to respond to a current event that made it challenging for students to focus on the lesson as written. In my experience, a curriculum that takes a “less is more” approach actually generates longer-lasting, deeper learning and at the same time also offers the flexibility students need to be emotionally and socially well.
Additionally, a “less is more” curriculum enables teachers to use the full range of their teaching abilities. It facilitates responsive pedagogy and demonstrates trust in teachers to know what their students need at the moment. There are challenges to doing this well, but if you follow the tips I share below, you may find yourself experiencing more joy in the design process, using your creative brain more often, and feeling energized by positive teacher and student feedback.
How can you set up systems and policies to incentivize school teams to value "less is more"? How can leaders ensure this is the way an entire school, department, or grade works?
4 Units A Year
Reputable curriculum creators like EngageNY and EL Education subscribe to the 4-units-a-year model. Each unit should cover a broad theme or enduring content understanding that is central to the discipline. It should also be focused on justice. To pivot from an 8, 9, or 10-unit curriculum to just 4 units requires a mindset shift. To help you with this, I find it helpful to start with a blank slate for each course rather than adapting the existing curriculum. (Don’t worry, you can always pull material back in later!) Ask: If students learn nothing else, what are the 4 most essential concepts students need to learn from this course?
Establish a Course-Long Rubric
I create a course-long rubric for all assignments that focus on 4-8 priority standards. Other standards will be taught, but these are the most important. Giving students repeated opportunities to practice, receive narrative feedback on their first try at an assessment, and revise and resubmit helps ensure our grading practices are justice-aligned as well. It’s helpful to identify discipline-specific priority standards as a department for horizontal alignment. Once this is done, it can also be helpful to align standards-based language and mastery criteria with grade teams, so students are hearing the same language and expectations in each of their classes. This may mean you run a whole staff PD workshop or pop into department meetings to facilitate the selection and alignment of priority standards.
Repeat 3-5 Protocols
EL Education writes about purposeful protocols, stating, “Teachers are often most successful when they choose three to five protocols that anchor their instruction and focus on these.” This saves teachers time creating lots of new activities, but it also reinforces the protocols for students, which allows them to focus on the content rather than remembering the steps to a new protocol. EL Education lists several purposes for protocols. My favorites are discussion, text-based, and critique (I call this peer feedback). You can build at least one protocol for each of your main purposes into the curriculum. I like to repeat the same protocols in a pattern over the course of a unit and repeat this “unit arc” for each of my units. I reuse the arc's activities and fill in the new content. You can find an example of a unit arc in my free Backwards Planning Template.
Dedicate Space for Current Events
One of the benefits of a “less is more” curriculum is the flexibility that’s embedded into each unit. To maximize student engagement and ownership (and to enable teachers to bring in their passions and expertise), I suggest earmarking specific days in the unit arc for current events. This way, teachers can respond to events in the world without “pressing pause” on the curriculum. I always curate resources for use in lessons as I go about my day. If I listen to a great podcast on an issue related to a theme from class, I add it to a Google Doc and use an excerpt when the next current event day comes around. As part of your curriculum, share your Google Doc of current event resources with the teacher(s) who will be teaching the course. Enable editing so anyone can add to it. This saves teachers a lot of time when preparing for a current events lesson. Resource hubs like Newsela for text-based resources and Listenwise for audio-based resources are also great places to go for student-friendly, differentiated, current event summaries. You can recommend these resources to teachers for use during scheduled current event days.
Ensure Principals’ Evaluation Criteria Aligns With the Curriculum Design
The best curriculum in the world without evaluations that value a less is more approach can only go so far. If we want teachers to use our new “less is more” curricula, the evaluation criteria has to incentivize teachers to make the change. Student-centered questions principals can ask while visiting a teacher’s class can include:
- How often and with what depth are students discussing the material? Are students leading class discussions?
- Do they have opportunities to take on the role of content expert and present information to their peers?
- What are students creating? Do student work products reflect creativity, innovative applications of course content, and ownership?
- How are students experiencing the class? Do students report feeling safe, excited to learn, and a sense of belonging? Do they feel they are treated with dignity?
- Do students have a voice in what and how they learn?
- And when evaluating teacher moves, principals can focus on the question: Are teachers taking informed risks to promote student voice and deepen students’ learning?
Publicly Celebrate the Wins
When you design a unit that results in a surge of student engagement, celebrate the win! When a teacher thanks you for designing a curriculum that honors her/his/their teaching abilities, take a moment to enjoy the feeling. Help teachers celebrate the successful implementation of a “less is more” curriculum by inviting them to post on a virtual teacher message board or share a win in staff meetings. I’ve seen the less is more approach result in deep student-led discussions, curriculum designers working fewer hours, and more teacher joy. All of these outcomes should be celebrated.
Students, teachers, and curriculum leads benefit from a less is more approach. Designing a curriculum that capitalizes on this idea is a powerful way to decrease teacher burnout and amplify student achievement. Ready to get started right now? Explore some of our strategies in the BetterLesson Lab to help you integrate current events with Newsela, select your student-centered discussion protocols, and lay the groundwork for supportive observations.
Lindsay Lyons is an instructional coach who works with teachers and school leaders to inspire educational innovation for racial and gender justice, design curricula grounded in student voice, and build capacity for shared leadership. Lindsay taught in NYC public schools, holds a Ph.D. in Leadership and Change, and is the founder of the educational blog and podcast, Time for Teachership.
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