Eric Westendorf
Eric Westendorf is the co-founder and CEO of LearnZillion.
Feb 1

The Future of Curriculum: An Interview with Dr. Maureen McMahon

Left to right: LearnZillion CEO and Co-Founder Eric Westendorf; Deputy Superintendent for Academics & Strategic Initiatives for Anne Arundel County Public Schools Dr. Maureen McMahon.

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 Dr. Maureen McMahon, Deputy Superintendent for Academics & Strategic Initiatives for Anne Arundel County Public Schools. McMahon has focused on student-centered interdisciplinary teaching and learning, the meaningful infusion of technologies into the STEM learning environment, online and blended learning, and cross-disciplinary teacher preparation.

A selection of Dr. McMahon insights on the future of curriculum for her district are excerpted below.


How curriculum fits into the district’s strategy

I think the old model of curriculum was the What. It was the stuff we’d give teachers to eventually give students. We’ve started thinking about it as the Why and the How. If you take something like chemistry, a beginning level chemistry student isn’t going to learn something so much different than what was learned 20 years ago.

The question is: how do you make that relevant? We think about curriculum as ways to engage students: to open doors, to stretch their thinking, and to realize what comes next for them.

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Professional development

You’re changing not only what you give [teachers] but the very culture. When they moved from being a learner to being a teacher, they were still looking for the What. You need the resources to think about how to address the How…you need to think about who they are….It really stretches us to think about PD to be something different.

It’s true that PD needs to be long-term. But it also has a time element to it. We have to plan for change on the part of an adult and the time it takes to push that adult while allowing them time to test and pilot.

Curriculum design

Curriculum implementation takes longer than ever before. We’re asking [teachers] to change their philosophy.

Right now we have re-engineered environmental science for ninth graders. If you’re looking for the text, it doesn’t exist. The course is now designed in 9 week modules. It’s more hands-on and student centered than ever. And the course expects [teachers] to do field experiences.

They need to figure out how to plan for [the field experiences] in these modules. [Through them,] students get the opportunity to see and meet scientists in the community. Maybe students get to go to a Ted Talk. Or maybe they go to one of the watershed areas and parks and engage in something that is related to what they’re learning in the classroom. Now it’s a regular part of the curriculum.

Managing the curriculum

Technology does help us. We work in the cloud when we’re co-creating these various curriculum elements. Our LMS happens to be Blackboard. The notion is that as [the curriculum] moves from the cloud, it moves into the LMS. Then it gets edited in the LMS, first internally and [then] with the group of teachers that will be using any one curriculum, and eventually it goes public.

Even [the curruiculum] has an infrastructure and a timeline from development all the way through implementation. We have feedback loops along the way from our teachers using it in the classroom.

Teachers volunteer to be part of the team that builds the curriculum. Then there are folks that work on vetting the curriculum. They give it a few runs, exercise it a bit.

Biggest challenges

I think the biggest challenge is convincing people that they have the permission to do things differently. Many of our educators feel this heavy burden of what they must cover; that there are rules to every step of the game. There’s a fear about changing. Even when we move that out of the way, there is this belief that they need permission to explore and think about teaching differently. There’s a disbelief for a period of time.

Along with that is the notion that the system has to change too. We have to think about scheduling differently, approaching students differently, and grouping them differently. Some of the challenges are about system structures. We’ve been engaging our leaders in systems-thinking. We realize that you can’t act on just one part of the system and get great change. Everything has to be looked at as a system. 

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