People Over Programs: How To Create An Adaptable Curriculum That Works For Every Student

Here is a big mistake I made for many years: I thought I knew what was best for students, for communities, and for organizations. Not all the time, and not in every situation, but often I believed I had a good feeling of what was best in learning experiences.

Because of my limited experience, I had a limited worldview. Even as that experience has grown over time, I still don’t know what is best for every student.

And that is ok.

That, actually, should be our starting point for creating a curriculum.

Yes, we have standards. Yes, we still have to deal with those standardized tests and college admissions processes that are outdated and not supported by research. Yes, we want each and every student to have a quality education experience. Yes, we want students to gain the fundamental skills and knowledge they need to be successful in and out of our schools.

But curriculum needs to be adaptable. It needs to be flexible. It needs to support the idea that our students need windows, mirrors, and sliding doors in their lessons, activities, resources, and assessments. The curriculum needs to be malleable and resilient.

If the entire school has to shift to remote learning, the curriculum should support that shift. If an individual classroom or student needs to go hybrid, the curriculum should not be any less worthy than if they were fully in-person.

How though, you may be asking, can we do this? How is this possible in the ever-changing landscape of K-12 education?

Let’s start with a first step. A simple step in making this a reality is to focus on the people, not the programs when designing a curriculum and ultimately learning experiences.

I remember when Lyn Hilt wrote: It’s people, not programs.

Isn’t this the truth? How often do schools, teachers, and administrators buy into a program or tool, thinking (hoping, praying) it will be the golden ticket to improved reading scores, or math fact fluency, or a more positive school climate? Too often.

Too often.

Those programs were not adaptable last March. The people were.

Those textbooks were not flexible last March. The teachers were.

Those assessments were not resilient last March. The educators were.

Now, a year removed from the start of everything changing in education, we are at a crossroads. Many schools are back in-person, many are in a hybrid/concurrent/parallel situation with some students at home and some in school, and some are still remote.

Whatever happens in the next few months, or next few years, one thing remains true: We will have to be adaptable, as we always are, as educators.

When we look at our current outdated curricula will we start with the people or the programs? When we look at our assessments and performance task redesigns, will we start with the people or the programs? When we talk about what worked, what didn’t, and what we want to keep, cut, and create…will we start with our students, our communities, our teachers, our people…or the programs?

You can look at all the research you want, but the people in education already know what the research is going to tell you because we live it and see it every day.

We know the culture of testing doesn’t create or lead to more achievement. It is why there has been a groundswell of educators creating and using performance tasks for years.

We know many of our texts, resources, and materials are outdated and not relevant to our students. It is why there has been a movement around OER and teacher-created resources that work for our kids.

We know the curriculum can’t be static, and not all standards are important, and the human and social side of learning is what we have to focus on first before the content is ever relevant.

We’ve been doing the work. You’ve been doing the work. The people have been doing the work.

In order to create an adaptable curriculum that works for every student, we have to start with our people. Listen to our students and community. Build it from the ground up, and invest the time and energy into developing something that works. If we choose to rely on a program instead of using resources, materials, and programs to support our people, then we’ll always be playing from behind.

When the curriculum is developed by your teachers for your community of learners, then it (I know it sounds crazy) works for your students.

This is hard work. Most of us are just trying to stay afloat right now in education. We’ve seen many of these issues that have been present for a very long time bubble to the surface even more during the pandemic.

It takes time to develop an adaptable curriculum. It takes time to develop meaningful performance tasks. It can’t be solved by buying a program or singular resource. And, as ASCD points out, the most notable successes occur in schools and districts whose teachers build their own admittedly imperfect curriculum.

Maybe we have to go slow to go far right now. Maybe it will take longer for the people to do the work under the current circumstances, but the alternative just won’t work.

Give me people over programs every single day. It’s not even a debate.

Thank you to all of the people who have worked their tails off this past year, and every year. The people are what make me so proud to be an educator.

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