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Monday, January 30, 2012

Foundations Series: "What is Learned Curriculum?"

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And we're back!!! Welcome to my curriculum alignment blog. I'm particularly excited about this post. What, what was that? Why am I so particularly excited about this post you ask? Well let me tell you why. My last few blog posts in the Foundations Series have dealt with three areas of curriculum, intended, enacted, and assessed, that are often part of alignment discussions. While each of these areas, and how tightly they are aligned with each other, is an important part of successful schools, it is the Learned Curriculum that is the actual goal of the schooling process.

Let's take a step back and set the stage for this discussion. As I have indicated in the previous Foundation Series posts, the framework I use to discuss curriculum alignment is based on the work of Andy Porter. Here is a visual depiction of that framework:

Porter, in his article on curriculum assessment (i.e., collecting and using data on different aspects of curriculum, including alignment), does not actually define the learned curriculum or dig into it. I think, however, we can come up with a pretty decent idea about what the learned curriculum is. In this framework, I define the learned curriculum, sometimes referred to as the achieved curriculum, as:

the knowledge and skills acquired by students during the schooling process.

(c) Brad Niebling, Midwest Instructional
Leadership Council
There you have it. I told you we could do it! But notice what is and is not a part of this definition. Absent from this definition are how the learning relates to the intended curriculum, attributing the learning to teachers or anything they said or assigned (part of the enacted curriculum), or that students actually demonstrated the knowledge and skills they acquired and/or a score/grade (the assessed curriculum). So, students might acquire knowledge and skills as a part of the schooling process (i.e., learn), but it may not be tied to any of the other three curricular components in framework. Let's examine each one of these components and how they could or should relate to the learned curriculum.

The Intended and Learned Curriculum

Briefly, the intended curriculum is what students are supposed to learn. In this framework, the learned curriculum can take the form of content standards, curriculum frameworks, curriculum maps, textbooks and related materials, to name a few. In well-functioning systems, the intended curriculum as actually written down, and staff have professional conversations to develop a common understanding of what contents of the intended curriculum mean.

(c) Brad Niebling, Midwest Instructional
Leadership Council
As I have detailed previously, we don't always do a great job focusing on a common intended curriculum, much less integrate that into the enacted or assessed curricula. I would say we spend even less time relating student learning back to the intended curriculum. To be fair, it's not like this sort of thing is often addressed in training programs, nor is it really expected in our schools. Here is an important question to consider: how can we determine if there is any relationship between something like the Common Core State Standards and student learning if we don't explicitly analyze the alignment between the intended and learned curriculum? I realize we can do some very general correlational work, but in my mind this is short of where we need to be.

I believe that organizing student learning according to the intended curriculum can greatly enhance our understanding of student strengths and weaknesses. There are likely several methods and tools out there to do this. For example, I believe standards-based assessment and reporting has a lot of promise to assist us with linking the intended and learned curricula. Iowa is starting to explore competency-based education as a system as well. I think having a structure such as these can greatly enhance teachers' ability to organize student learning around the intended curriculum.

The Enacted and Learned Curriculum

The enacted curriculum is what students get the chance to learn, as well as how that "what" is delivered. Recall, when it comes to curriculum alignment, we are only talking about the "what" of enacted curriculum. Also note, the enacted curriculum isn't necessarily just what teachers say and do. Students own engagement, reflection, research, and other activities can constitute part of the enacted curriculum if it's related to the schooling process.

(c) Brad Niebling, Midwest Instructional
Leadership Council
Regardless of whether or not the enacted curriculum is tightly aligned with the intended curriculum, we still want to know if students are learning the things they have an opportunity to learn. Otherwise, whats the point of school? Why would teachers even show up? I'm guessing almost all teachers want to know if what they are teaching is being learned. Historically, we haven't typically explored the nature of this alignment, or lack thereof. Instead, some curriculum is enacted, another assessed, and what is learned is rarely checked back against what was taught. In my opinion, that occurs because teachers don't have good, easy-to-get enacted curriculum data to examine.

However, if we want to be able to link enacted curriculum, at least the part delivered, structured, or otherwise observed by the teacher, to the learned curriculum, we need data on both, and the extent to which they are aligned. This can be particularly useful in those cases that there are intended-learned alignment data available, and you are trying to troubleshoot why students are struggling to learn particular aspects of the intended curriculum.

The Assessed and Learned Curriculum

The assessed curriculum is a system of processes and tools that are used to determine the extent to which students are acquiring or have acquired knowledge and skills (Niebling, et al., 2008). Ideally, the assessed curriculum is tightly aligned with the intended and enacted curricula. In my experience, I've seen a lot of assumptions around the assessed curriculum, mainly that it is aligned to anything.

(c) Brad Niebling, Midwest Instructional
Leadership Council
Large-scale accountability and research assessments often have reliable and valid alignment data, typically between the intended and assessed curricula. I have seen little-to-no alignment data for most assessments that can be bought on the market. Some do, some don't. Unfortunately, I don't see alignment data from district- or teacher-created assessments. I think this is due to multiple factors. First, doing rigorous alignment work is not the norm in our schools Second, I don't find many teachers who have collectively examined the intended curriculum well enough to construct tightly aligned assessments. I'm not necessarily blaming teachers for this, it's just my observation.

Without tight alignment of the assessed curriculum to either the intended or enacted curricula, we have no way of determining if a student's learning has anything to do with the schooling process (i.e., the learned curriculum). The assessed curriculum, in many ways, is really the bridge between intended/enacted and the learned curricula.

Practical Implications

I believe that there are at least three major, practical implications to the information I just shared. Here they are, in no particular order:
  1. School is about learning: School is about many things, not just academic achievement. That debate is for another blog post. If we can agree that student achievement/learning is central to the purpose of school, then I assume that we want to know if the things they are learning are related to anything we are supposed to teach or what they get an opportunity to learn. If so, then it makes sense to think about learning in a curricular context.
  2. It's really a pyramid, not a triangle: In a well-functioning system, the intended, enacted, and assessed curricula are all tightly aligned. The purpose of this tight alignment is not really and end unto itself, but rather a means to an end, mainly that students learn. 
  3. Troubleshoot when needed: If student learning is not where it needs to be, especially when viewed as a system, how do we know why that is the case? Having alignment data among the intended, enacted, and assessed curricula can provide information on, for example, a lack of sufficient opportunity to learn that coincides with specific areas in which groups of students are struggling.
Final Thoughts on Curriculum...For Now

Over the last 6 months, I have laid out my ideas about how to define/describe the concept of curriculum. Hopefully it's been at least somewhat practical. Here are a few summary points I'd like to make before moving on to the next part of the Foundation Series, again in no particular order:
  1. Curriculum IS NOT just textbooks!
  2. Curriculum is not a single "thing." No matter how you frame it, it's important to look at it from several angles because in practice, it's complicated.
  3. Curriculum is what students are supposed to learn, what they get the opportunity to learn, what gets assessed, and what is actually learned.
  4. Ultimately, it's all about the learned curriculum. The other three areas need to be coordinated to facilitate and enhance student learning.
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Next, I'll be turning my attention to the next part of the curriculum alignment world, namely alignment. I love alignment! Make sure to tune in next month, when I start with the question "What is Alignment?" In the following months, I will be taking on the alignment topics of Directionality, Dimensions, and Level of Analysis before I pull it all back together. 

Not sure what those things are or why you should care about them? Then check back in next month! And keep checking back to this blog, and follow me on Twitter. Soon I will be posting a blog on the curriculum alignment implications of Iowa Governor Branstad's education legislative recommendations, and I might even chime in on the hot topic of 3rd grade retention. Sparks are flying! Thanks for taking the time to read my blog, and definitely post your thoughts or reflections in the comment section below. Tell your friends!