3 Simple Strategies For Smarter Curriculum Mapping

What Are 3 Simple Strategies For Smarter Curriculum Mapping?

by Terry Heick

The school year isn’t a series of sprints, but the way you forge your curriculum can make it feel that way.

The most common way of structuring how you teach is by first assembling standards into units, then those units into lessons. You may use a backward-design process (popularized by UbD and Grant Wiggins), where you start with what you want the students to understand, then decide what can act as evidence of that understanding, then finally design an assessment that provides the best opportunity to uncover what students know.

This is an entirely rational response to the huge workload of surveying, harvesting, bundling, and distributing the breadth of academic standards in your content area. This is especially true if that content area is English-Language Arts, which has no less than six separate sets of standards in Common Core menu. That means dozens and dozens of standards ranging in complexity from “spell correctly” to “Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text. (Include at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist.)”

Organizing makes sense. Sequencing is a type of organization—thus Scopes and Sequences and Curriculum Maps based on given academic standards. These documents function in a lot of ways, primarily in ensuring all of the content gets covered, and creating the possibility of a common experience for teachers so that data and instructional resources can be shared.

See also How To Create A Forward-Leaning Curriculum

The Problem

The challenge comes when that organization creates artificial barriers and awkward pathways through content. In pursuit of “getting through it all,” it’s easy to encourage bad thinking habits, and worse, provide misleading data about what students actually understand.

Imagine for a moment each of your units. Whether you use genre-based units (a “poetry” unit, an “linear equations” unit, etc.), thematic units (where learning experiences are planned around themes and thematic questions), project-based learning, or some mix of these approaches and others, not all content is equally important.

So how can you keep from making these kinds of mistakes in your curriculum map? Or revise the one you were handed 3 days before school started?

1. Prioritize

Recently, the concept of “power standards” has surfaced, recognition that not all academic standards are created equal. Some standards are naturally more interesting than others, more enduring than others, more complex, or can be leveraged to aggregate other standards and related content together. For example, in English-Language Arts, a standard involving explicit and implicit themes might be considered a power standard due to its ability to involve other standards or content, including author purpose, audience awareness, tone, text structure, theme vs thesis, and others.

2. Use Spiraling

It makes sense then that if certain content is ‘more important’—for any number of reasons—that content should be ‘spiraled.’ We’ll get more into spiraling in a separate post, but essentially spiraling in curriculum is the process of embedding critical content throughout the year. This usually means that at the beginning of the year, this content is delivered at lower levels of Bloom’s taxonomy.

See also Curriculum Planning Tips For Any Grade Level Or Content Area

So if we take the aforementioned example of ‘theme,’ in August theme will be defined, examples will be given, and early analysis will occur. By mid-year, students will be analyzing themes of simple texts more closely, and begin analyzing the themes of more complex texts (and digital media), and by March, students will be analyzing complex themes of complex texts.

3. Diversify Assessment Forms

The process of responding to the personalized learning needs of your students likely begins with assessment. Even if you don’t differentiate the content, processes, or products of learning, simply altering how you assess understanding can go a long way towards truly personalized learning for students.

Whether you simply offer students choice in assessment forms—multiple-choice versus concept-mapping, short response versus student conferencing, an exit slip versus a journal entry—the more variety and choice you can build into assessment, the better you can protect students from the problematic curriculum mapping practices than can sabotage student academic performance.

Testing is not engaging, but assessment can be.


In seeking to cover all of the content, do all that you can to avoid the phenomenon of sprinting through unit after unit. The content that will serve both you and students most powerfully likely needs to be prioritized and spiraled throughout the academic year.

If you can also diversify assessment in your classroom—offering student voice, choice, and the ability for students to prove what they understand—and the depth at which they understand—in a variety of ways, the better the chance you are able to meaningfully respond to the personalized learning needs of your students.

Image attribution flickr user woodleywonderworks; 3 Simple Strategies For Smarter Curriculum Mapping