Curriculum Design: Rethinking Teaching & Learning Amid the Pandemic
In the best of circumstances, a school designs and delivers a curriculum that matches its mission and the needs of its students. Teachers and administrators work together to identify what students need to learn most and how they might learn it. Teachers organize learning objectives, activities, and assessments to advance this larger vision for their courses. Such beliefs underlie every curriculum, whether the school overtly examines them.
At University Prep (WA), we know that students did not fully satisfy last year’s intended learning objectives. As part of our hybrid learning program, we slashed instructional time in order to manage long days on Zoom and on-campus days with small groups of students rotating through their schedules. Teachers reduced homework and relaxed deadlines. Some adjusted lessons on the fly to study the pandemic as it unfolded. Some students met these reduced expectations, while others had a much harder time. Teachers and school leaders became aware of the potential impacts of these changes as did students and families. Together, we wondered, how would students stay on track with their studies, or would the pandemic leave a permanent mark on their education?
In the past few months, educators have had a brief opportunity to catch their breath and consider the effects of the global pandemic on academic learning. We started asking questions about how the new health and safety measures had affected students, and in what ways had the pandemic impacted their emotional well-being? We wondered how this school year would be different for students. And how might we adjust the curriculum in response. So, last spring, we began to consider what instructional approaches would best support students moving forward.
Creating a New Instructional Approach
As I gathered studies and articles to share with our Instructional Leadership Team, one report stood out from the rest. “Addressing Unfinished Learning After COVID-19 School Closures,” published by the Council of the Great City Schools in June 2020, used the term “unfinished learning” to describe the effects of last year on students. We preferred this to “learning loss,” as it framed the challenge from a growth perspective rather than as a deficit. Grounded in public education systems, the report echoed many of the ways in which we at UPrep characterize learning, students, and curriculum in grades six through 12.
The report framed the issue this way:
While the scale of the challenge (owing to the shared nature of the educational disruption) may be novel, unfinished learning is nothing new. Addressing skill gaps, incomplete learning, and misconceptions is a necessary and natural part of the teaching (and learning) process, although it is one with which educators have traditionally struggled. All too often, unfinished learning leads to remediation or pull-out interventions that serve to further isolate students and impede their access to rigorous, engaging grade-level content—this is how something as natural as unfinished learning leads to intractable achievement and opportunity gaps.
In contrast with other reports we read, the Council advised against rewinding instruction to last year, increasing standardized testing for diagnostic reasons, or dramatically revising the school calendar. The authors instead recommended an approach to adjusting curriculum that resonated with long-held values at UPrep: teacher expertise is our greatest resource; instruction should center on how students learn; some students have more access to resources than others, particularly during a pandemic. The UPrep Instructional Leadership Team added our thoughts to their recommendations, and I presented the following approach to the faculty and staff during closing meetings in the spring of 2021, and, in the fall, to the Parent Guardian Association during a meeting and to the full community through our weekly email sent to families of students. Our revised instructional approach, which we began implementing in the fall, includes the following:
Teach at grade level so that students continue to study challenging material and gain the opportunity to catch up. Don’t teach whole units not covered last year.
Identify gaps in prerequisite skills and knowledge when students don’t have what they need to engage in learning a topic.
Stop and pivot to provide the right instruction needed for students to learn in the moment. Slow down when needed to lead students to better results overall.
Catch students up by the end of the course. Set an appropriately long timeframe for students to reach the skill levels you expect in this grade.
Increase mental health support. While students may present better, they are not entirely well, and we are still in a pandemic.
Teach student skills. They haven’t had enough practice engaging in class, taking notes, preparing for tests, and organizing their lives. Actively teach these when needed.
We continued to speak with department heads and teachers after sharing these recommendations, most teachers felt that these recommendations aligned with their perspectives on students and learning. Sticking with the planned curriculum meant avoiding a huge redesign of the instructional plan. Stopping to remediate gaps when needed kept students at the center of the learning process and allowed for an equitable experience for all students. Support from leadership to slow down the pace of instruction mitigated fears that teachers and students might feel pressured to go faster.
Focusing on Skills, Not Content
The start of the 2021–2022 school year validated our approach. Counselors reported that students were not nearly back to their best. In grade level meetings (6-12), teachers widely reported that students felt behind in many ways and found themselves explicitly teaching what most students in prior years already knew, such as how to work in groups or organize a paper. English Teacher Kim Gonzales commented:
One of my main goals is being super transparent about what student skills are, when they’re being used, and when it would be useful to do something. For example, “You might want to read along while I read aloud,” or “You need to refer to this particular rubric or set of criteria when you’re looking at your draft to make sure you have everything you need.”
Notably, the gaps that teachers found most important were in skills, including notetaking, collaboration, and writing, not content. This validated a direction we began to pursue years ago, that students retained skills longer and found more practical value in them. Specific content may have been useful as a vehicle for study and growth but ultimately mattered less in the long run.
We also discovered an exception for every generalization we had made about this year. Some students were less eager to return to school, because they had thrived at home the prior year, free from long commutes, social stresses, or microaggressions. While teachers deeply appreciated seeing their students in person, they found it harder to support students individually and privately in person than on Zoom.
Families expressed big feelings of relief and gratitude when we shared this approach at our Parent Guardian Association meeting and in the weekly community email. Families are concerned for their students’ academic progress under COVID, yet they don’t want students to catch up at the expense of their emotional well-being.
Since our teachers work extremely hard and hold themselves and their students to high expectations, some have had difficulty taking the leap of faith and the long view required to fully adopt these recommendations. Slowing down to catch up has felt counterintuitive to some. Yet, those teachers who have embraced this approach have found success in their students’ results.
As the pandemic continues, we will continue to partner with our community to understand how students respond to curriculum adjustments, approach grade level expectations, and handle the twists and turns that for certain lie ahead.