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Is that lesson delicious? Why a curriculum is like a cookbook

by Michael B. Ripski, Ph.D.

Recently, I made pecan pie. In the cooking magazine where I found the recipe, the pie looked delectable. After quickly assembling the ingredients, I put the pie plate in the oven and waited with mouth-watering anticipation for the kitchen timer to ding.

But when I finally pulled it from the oven, the pie was soupy and too sweet. Those who have spent time in the kitchen know the feeling of culinary disappointment. Good recipes don’t always turn out tasty.

The same holds true of teaching: a good curriculum doesn’t necessarily lead to great instruction. Like that pecan pie, a curriculum needs to be studied, practiced, and adapted.  

Many schools in states that have adopted Common Core State Standards are for the first time this year using a formalized curriculum. Previously, educators had been pulling together an assortment of lessons from various books and internet resources. It wasn’t working.

What is rigor in math?

Here in Louisiana, many schools are using the Eureka math series for their mathematics classrooms. Having a curriculum to match new, more rigorous standards came as a welcome resource to many teachers. What a relief, we thought, when curricula arrived.

But teachers soon struggled with the new guides. Like cooks trying out unfamiliar recipes, they had difficulty using their new curriculum effectively. Many teachers had the same questions: What am I really trying to accomplish with this set of lessons? What decisions do I need to make during the unit? What should I keep and what should I take out of this lesson?  

In order to empower teachers to answer these questions, school leaders should set aside time to help their teachers do three things:

  1. Fully understand the standards in a curriculum unit or module. In math, this means determining the focus standards for a unit, conducting a close read of those standards side by side with sample questions, and describing how the standards of focus connect to previously taught concepts or skills. As a check on this goal, teachers should be able to summarize in their own words what each major standard in a unit requires of students.   

  2. Take the end-of-unit test and tag the questions to standards. In order to understand the end goal for students, teachers answer and show their work for each question. Then, they identify which standard(s) the question is assessing. It’s a straightforward, but critical exercise to build teachers’ muscle memory so that they identify and link standards with how they’re assessed.

    This isn’t about teaching to the test; it’s about using assessments as a tool to understand standards more deeply. As they say, if you aren’t clear about where you’re going, you’ll probably end up someplace else.

  3. Practice, internalize, and adapt daily lessons. Teachers complete the problem they want students to master by the end of the class (e.g., the exit ticket), then identify the most important skill or concept in the lesson and the primary way the lesson’s activities or strategies build that understanding. Holding that in mind, teachers anticipate student challenges and determine what needs to be cut or changed. Finally, teachers practice the lesson in collaborative planning time with their colleagues.

Example of Goal 1: Teacher’s annotation of standards

At a dinner party next week, my guests will enjoy an apple pie that I’m confident will be delicious. It’s a recipe I’ve already tried on for size and know that it’s best made with a bit more butter, a little less sugar, and cooked for 5 minutes longer than the recipe calls for.

For teachers who have taken time to understand the standards underlying their curriculum and practiced their lessons, I know their teaching will be just as tasty.

Michael Ripski is ANet's vice president of people and culture. 


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