The Future of Curriculum: An interview with Brian Pick

Left to right: LearnZillion CEO and Co-Founder Eric Westendorf and Brian Pick

This is the latest installment in a series of interviews we’re calling The Future of Curriculum.
LearnZillion CEO Eric Westendorf is sitting down with education thought leaders from across the country to discuss how technology will continue to shape education.

In this episode, he chats with Brian Pick, Chief of Teaching and Learning for the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). In his time at DCPS, Brian has led the development and rollout of the DCPS Teaching and Learning Framework, spearheaded DCPS’ Race to the Top application process, and led the implementation of the Common Core State Standards. In recognition of his achievements, he was awarded the 2012 National Curriculum Leadership Award by the Council of Great City Schools.


A selection of Brian Pick’s insights on where the future of curriculum is leading DCPS are excerpted below:

An elegantly adaptable approach to the future of curriculum

For several years, DCPS has tried to create a common vocabulary around how we as a district — teachers, students, principals, and central office staff — think about our curriculum strategy.

Imagine a line from 1 to 8.

 

There’s a tight looseness to this line. All the way to the left you give teachers the standards and train teachers in a backwards design model, where they’re really curriculum creators and implementers. They’re deciding on the units of study. They’re deciding on the order of them and ultimately the lessons that they’re going to teach.

All the way on the right you have scripted 180 days of lessons. There are programs on the market you can purchase that have those, and you can provide those to teachers and say, “This is the scope and sequence and scripted lessons for 180 days.”

We at DCPS are somewhere in the middle. We’ve tried things like assessments at the beginning and end of the year that show growth (2 on the line). We’ve tried interim assessments that are paced to a scope and sequence (3 on the line). We’ve now really latched onto the idea of providing units of study for every grade and every subject that are tied to those interims (4 on the line). But you could also have exemplary lessons (5 on the line). You could have daily lesson banks (6 on the line), and you could have planning calendars (7 on the line). We have decided to have units of study that are common across the district. That’s where we’re tight.

Then we are loose at the daily lessons and the planning calendars for most subjects and grade levels.

The idea is that teachers know their students best.

They know the curriculum. They need to elegantly adapt to meet the needs of their students, knowing where they’re coming from and where they need to go to meet their own style as a teacher and to bring out the science and art of teaching. Their role is to make the curriculum come alive, to really internalize and own it, and to do extraordinary things with it. We do not want the curriculum to become a straitjacket but we do want it to create a floor of common experience, hopefully with no ceiling.

What creating a floor of common experience can look like

The idea for Cornerstones came, really, from our [former] Chancellor Kaya Henderson, who said “Even with our units of study, I can go from classroom to classroom, from first grade to class to first grade class, or biology class to biology class, and see vastly different engagement, really, in front of students. What task are they engaged in?”

The creation of these tasks with our own teachers, who helped curate, create, share, and champion the tasks, created a common language. The Cornerstones answered the question: what is a high-quality biology lesson? What does a high-quality seventh grade math lesson look like? What is the content, the student engagement, and the product that is produced?

Essentially, a Cornerstone is a learning experience. They’re high-quality, engaging academic tasks, learning experiences, that are embedded into the units of study.

We use them at scale as a lever to improve the quality of teaching and the depth of what students are experiencing. All the Cornerstones have rigorous, meaningful, and hopefully authentic content that’s tied to that unit of study.

Most of them have a student-focused learning model such as Paideia Seminar, inquiry math problems, close readings. They’re all ways for kids to do the cognitive work. And then all Cornerstones have some student work product, whether it’s a performance, or a written piece, or a digital piece — students are producing something as part of the Cornerstone.

The concept of creating a floor without creating a ceiling is definitely the most difficult of our academic agreements to fulfill. But when it happens, you see extraordinary things happening with kids.

Teachers are running with assignments and doing even more than we thought of to engage their students in the learning and the lesson.

The impact of Cornerstones on students and teachers

For students, there is rigor, excitement, and a joy to many of these learning activities.

Whether it’s third graders learning about laws, democracy, and elections just in time for this year’s election, or whether it’s physics students building a solar cooker, or seventh graders doing a lesson around ratio to figure out the height of a giant, or our second graders learning to ride bicycles in P.E. class, there is a real joy to the learning happening for students.

For teachers, they appreciate working in content-specific cohorts around the content pedagogy of what they’re about to teach.

You certainly need to know quite a bit about fractions to teach fourth grade. You need to know what two-thirds times three-fourths is and how to draw a picture, how to do a rectangular model of that. And you need to know good pedagogy. You need to know how to manage a classroom. But it is a mix of the two: the content pedagogy of teaching fractions to fourth graders that [Cornerstones] allows teachers to work on with their peers. [They can now] have content-specific pedagogical conversations like “What are the misunderstandings that are going to happen?” and “What is the arc of learning that I want to take my students through?”

And linked to that is the intellectual satisfaction that teachers are having by diving into high-quality text and high-quality tasks.

Really doing the intellectual preparation for lessons is a little different than traditional lesson planning. They are getting ready to teach by intellectually preparing for the text that they’re going to teach.

Why choose to go deep into the content?

First, you have to understand that our curriculum is knowledge-rich. It’s content-rich. Even in the ELA curriculum, we have units of study that include quite a bit of science and social studies: the solar system; rocks and minerals; Civil Rights Movement; people, laws, and democracy; plants.

Going deep is actually building teachers’ knowledge, and thus students’ knowledge, of these topics. The Common Core ELA standards demand that you build a systematic, knowledge-rich curriculum. You’re going to build skills, but why not do that through the building of knowledge?

We have our students for 15 years. I think we have a duty to build a rich, knowledge-based curriculum.

The future of curriculum

Let me talk about three buckets, kind of Magic 8-Ball stuff that I see happening:

  • The first is the renewed interest on curriculum in general in districts. There was a large focus for some time on human capital, or the teacher effectiveness work, and that is tremendously important work. I will be the first to say that an extraordinary teacher is the most important in a classroom, and a great curriculum can help that teacher do just wonderful things with their kids.
But there is a renewed focus, I believe, on the importance and the potential of having a coherent, high-quality curriculum as a baseline to support the difficult job of teaching. I’m excited about that movement.
  • The second piece is this balance between modular options in curriculum [and] the importance of having full-course curricula that makes sense over the course of a year. I think you’re going to see more and more smart thinking around how you help teachers take pieces and chunks of curricula, whether they’re at the unit or lesson level, and put them together into a coherent, full-course experience for a student.
  • Finally, there’s a tremendous amount of potential in leveraging technology, not just in the sharing of high-quality curriculum materials, but also in the implementation of them. One piece that we are very focused on in the next couple of years here at D.C. Public Schools: most of our curriculum right now is teacher-facing, and it’s teacher-facing in an educative way, designed to help a teacher get better at the practice of teaching. I think through technology we will also have a renewed focus on student-facing curriculum, where students can log in and essentially see a course, see the assignments and [understand]: What is this course about? What are the units of study? How am I successful at completing this course? [This will] really empower them to own and have some agency around their progress through the curriculum.

Brian Pick is the Chief of Teaching and Learning for the District of Columbia Public Schools.

Eric Westendorf is the CEO and Co-Founder at LearnZillion.