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For curriculum planning, begin with the end in mind

The key question is: What should students know and be able to do in each content area by the time they graduate?

Image via Wikimedia Commons

By Ken Wackes April 2017

Begin with the end in mind,” was the late Stephen Covey’s admonition in his bestseller, 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. “Picture your own funeral,” he said, “and then ask yourself, ‘What do I want people to remember me for?’ and then go live your life accordingly.”

That makes sense. When we begin a trip what do we enter into the GPS? The end point—the destination. Along the way the GPS even talks to us, informing us of turns to take, landmarks to watch for, even where the next gas station will be. For the GPS to work we have to begin with the end in mind.

A friend of mine is a master furniture maker. He painstakingly works out on paper every detail of a new piece of furniture. Then he makes templates to follow for each part of the chair, table, or entertainment center. He then makes certain he has the correct amount and kind of wood needed. And all of this before he cuts the first piece of wood! He begins with the end in mind.

I was thinking of Covey while exploring the excellent material on the website of the Eberly Center at Carnegie Melon University.

But let me backtrack. I have heard Peer Review Team members bemoan teachers at host schools who think the curriculum is contained in the table of contents of a particular textbook or in the preface of a teaching packet produced by Prentice Hall, A Beka, or BJU Press. But when asked what the summative learner outcomes are, they respond with a blank stare. Others adopt in toto the summative learner outcomes that accompany their textbook series.

A good place to begin with upgrading or refreshing the skill set of teachers is to explore the power of Covey’s principle, “Begin with the end in mind.” For example, fast forward to the Eberly Center of Carnegie Melon University and the article “Articulate Your Learning Objectives.” The article suggests the very first step to take in developing a particular curriculum is to “articulate the knowledge and skills you want students to acquire by the end of the course.”

Here’s how:

“Alignment among three main course components ensures an internally consistent structure. Alignment is when the:

  • Learning objectives articulate the knowledge and skills you want students to acquire by the end of the course
  • Assessments allow the instructor to check the degree to which the students are meeting the learning objectives
  • Instructional strategies are chosen to foster student learning towards meeting the objectives

“When these components are not aligned, students might rightfully complain that the test did not have anything to do with what was covered in class, or instructors might feel that even though students are earning a passing grade, they haven’t really mastered the material at the desired level.

“Aligning these three components is a dynamic process, since a change in one necessarily affects the other two.”


In other words, build the curriculum from the back and then move to the front—begin with the end in mind.

  • A curriculum does not exist unless there are clearly stated, measurable Summative Learning Objectives or Learner Outcomes.
  • Each lesson plan and each unit has its own unique set of Formative Learning Objectives or Learner Outcomes.
  • Each of these is attached to a specific end of unit or end of course Summative Learning Objective.
  • Each Learning Objective, whether formative or summative, has a set of rubrics which define how well a student has shown mastery.
  • Following the principle of “Beginning with the end in mind,” (1) all Summative Learning Objectives are determined before instruction ever begins, at every grade level and in every content area; (2) the same is true for all Formative Learning Objectives—each has a link to one of the predetermined Summative Objectives.

This is what CSF intends when SESIP Standard 4.1 states: “The school develops and implements a curriculum based on clearly-defined learner outcomes.” The host school selects its own format and coding method to indicate how formative objectives and formative assessments are linked with end of course summative learning objectives.

My father was a building contractor of custom houses. For every house, blueprints were made for every area of construction: the concrete slab, plumbing, electrical, windows, roof and wall structures, external landscaping, elevation drawings of the exterior. The blueprints were submitted to the City of Fort Lauderdale building department for approval. And all of this before one shovel of dirt was dug or one nail hammered. They began with the end in mind.

In building a curriculum, to begin with the end in mind is at first confusing to those who view curricula vertically—bottom to top. But it is more effective to build a curriculum vertically from top to bottom, or, horizontally, from back to front. The key question that has to be asked from the finish line of every content area, Pre-K to Grade 12, is, “What should students know and be able to do in each content area by the time they graduate?”

An equally important question is, “How does what I do today and this quarter contribute to the big picture?” When teachers and instructional leaders initially collaborate to determine what these end standards will be, and then work from the standards methodically towards the front, they invariably discover some serious disconnects between what will be expected of students at each stage of development and what they are currently being taught.

They usually discover 1) gaps in what is taught, as well as 2) unnecessary duplication in what is taught. Concerning the former, the lack of vertical continuity and coherence within the curriculum is a major block to quality education. For example, if an English language standard states that all high school students will read at a university level, what reading strategies are employed at every grade level prior to high school in order to make the standard a reality? Concerning the latter, Dr. Richard Mannat, retired Director of the School Improvement Model Center at Iowa State University, discovered nationwide a startling fact: students in elementary and middle schools already know or have mastered 50% of what they would be taught in the first nine weeks of their next grade level.

When teachers collaboratively ask questions such as, “Do all students write research papers in high school?” or, “What prerequisite knowledge and skills are necessary for success in AP history courses?,” or, “When do we make certain that XYZ skills are taught in English language?” they begin to see how what they teach fits into the big picture. They also see what happens down the road if someone fails to teach their component of the big picture.

To build a coherent curriculum devoid of gaps and unnecessary duplication, several major questions have to be addressed by the instructional leaders of the school.

1. How will teachers be trained in crafting Standards, Instructional Objectives, and Learner Outcomes with Rubrics? Who will conduct the training? What time will be given to the training? One school contracted with a teaching university and devoted one week at the close of the school year and a week prior to school opening, and one-day workshops each quarter.

2. How much time will be given for teachers to work collaboratively on the curriculum? Giving them an afternoon here and there is not sufficient. Whole days and blocks of whole days are necessary. Some schools have given teachers a full week at the end of the school year in addition to one day per quarter.

3. What content areas in the curriculum will the faculty work on first? One school designed a three-year plan. During year one the faculty K5 to 12 worked collaboratively on English language and mathematics. They developed Standards, Instructional Objectives, Learner Outcomes with Rubrics, identified gaps and needless repitition. During year two they continued to refine their work. Meanwhile other teams began work on history/social studies, science, and Bible. In year three faculty teams worked on Fine Arts, Physical Education/Health and Foreign Languages.

4. What resources will be needed? Will teachers be paid supplements in addition to their salaries?

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