The diploma reads, “Curriculum and Instruction.” Two words often tied together with an ampersand. It wasn’t until much later, during a job interview, that I ever considered why both words came bundled together.
Her eyes moved to the next question: “What is the difference between ‘curriculum’ and ‘instruction’?”
I stumbled, “That’s a great question…” Face turning red, reaching for thoughts that swirled without form.
For the next five minutes I vomited up nomenclature and ed-speak, smatterings of “assessment” and “delivery” and “pedagogy” all blurring together. After the interview, I was embarrassed–how did I finish a masters degree in a field I can’t even define? When I was done cycling through the “shame and blame game,” I created a simple working definition:
Curriculum = What
Instruction = How
There is nothing revolutionary about this definition, but it does benefit from its simplicity–curriculum is what you are teaching and instruction is how you teach it. The simplicity is the Occam’s razor to slice through the gummed up discourse and confusion surrounding much of education.
You see, at NuMinds, we believe in the power of the impassioned educator–we use the term Inspirator. When an Inspirator is fully alive, getting his or her “teach on,” it’s amazing to watch. Whether joining the students on the rug for reading time or positioned behind a lecturn, an Inspirator uses her eyes, voice, and gestures to move about the room. The simple shift in inflection, the gleam of excitement–all adding to the magic.
Unfortunately, in the pursuit of standardization, the education system gums up the path to inspiration. Teachers are required to write lesson plans using scripted templates, log every phone call, use the required textbooks, forego planning in order to attend meetings or monitor the cafeteria. Teachers are expected to be on the “same page” as the rest of the team–even when the same “lock step” isn’t feasible . Test data is analyzed with a focus on wrong answers, with little consideration for the individual student.
What does every teacher (including the best Inspirator) really need? Ready for the razor? The answer is access to flexible curriculum and support with instruction.
Provide teachers with access to curriculum (the what)
- Engaging questions a teacher can ask his or her students;
- Resources (passages, videos, websites) a teacher can pick-and-choose from;
- Short problems used to practice applying knowledge and making manageable mistakes,
- Projects that are relevant, challenging, and adaptable based on student’s interests.
- Assessments that demand critical thinking,
Support teachers with instruction (the how)
- How to spark curiosity and engagement;
- How to know what needs to be taught directly versus what the students can learn best by trying themselves;
- How to monitor learning to make sure the students are getting it;
- How to provide feedback and encouragement that supports growth;
- How to get to know students and form relationships;
- How to foster creativity;
- How to support students working in a group;
- How to encourage students to become aware of their own behavior and choices;
- How to help students take ownership of their own learning.
These are not some idealized lists or lofty goals, nor are they a panacea for all ills in education; instead, the what and the how serve more as a litmus test to know if our efforts are truly supporting a teacher and the work she does in her classroom.
As a curriculum writer and a trainer for teachers, I use this list with every lesson and training we create. When creating curriculum, we need to know if the content is aligned, providing a clear pathway to learning, and at the same time, is it flexible enough for a teacher to adapt as needed? If one rowdy kid in the third row acts up, if the video isn’t as interesting as anticipated, if technology fails, or if the teacher uncovers a handful of students have learning gaps–is the curriculum flexible enough to bend to these unique demands?
Every teacher training we create must focus on the how by sharing strategies, ideas and examples, while always recognizing that there is not one right way. Effective instruction varies by grade level, class, or even time of day; so our training must reinforce the value of coaching–real time feedback on actual performance.
If I could turn back the clock and sit in that interview again, I would quickly use what and how to explain the difference between curriculum and instruction. And then, instead of babbling, those next five minutes would unpack exactly what teachers need in order to do their job and thrive–access to flexible curriculum and support on how to deliver. I would end my interview response by saying, “Anything else is a distraction.”