Al Cuoco and I have been thinking about this question and have developed some ideas. I want to write about the first and most obvious one today, the principle of logical sequencing. I’ll write about others in the weeks to come.
Remember the distinction between standards and curriculum. While standards might remain fixed—a mountain we aim to help our students climb—different curricula designed to achieve those standards might make different choices about how to get there. Whatever the choices, a coherent curriculum, focused on how to get students up the mountain, would make sense of the journey and single out key landmarks and stretches of trail—a long path through the woods, or a steep climb up a ridge.
By the same token, mathematics has its landscape. CCSSM pays attention to this landscape by laying out pathways, or progressions, that span across grade levels and between topics, so that a third grade teacher understands why she is teaching a particular topic, because it will help students with some other topic in the next grade and build on what they already know.
This leads us to the first property of a coherent curriculum: it makes clear a logical sequence of mathematical concepts.
Consider, for example, the concepts of similarity and congruence. It is quite common in school curricula for similarity to be introduced before congruence. This comes out of an informal notion of similarity as meaning “same shape” and congruence as meaning “same shape and same size.” However, the fact that the informal phrase for similarity is a part of the informal phrase for congruence is deceptive about the mathematical precedence of the concepts. For what does it mean for two shapes to be the same shape (that is, to be similar)? It means that you can scale one of them so that the resulting shape is both the same size and the same shape as the other (that is, congruent). Thus the concept of similarity depends on the concept of congruence, not the other way around. This suggests that the latter should be introduced first.
This is not to say you can never teach topics out of order; after all, it is a common narrative device to start a story at the end and then go back to the beginning, and it is reasonable to suppose that a corresponding pedagogical device might be useful in certain situations. But the curriculum should be designed so that the learner is made aware of the prolepsis. (Really, I just wrote this blog post so I could use that word.)
Although the progressions help identify the logical sequencing of topics, there is more work to do on that when you are writing curriculum. For example, the standards separate the domain of Number and Operations in Base Ten and the domain of Operations and Algebraic Thinking, in order to clearly identify these two important threads leading to algebra. But these two threads are logically interwoven, and it would not make sense to teach all the NBT standards in a grade level separately from all the OA standards.
In the next few blog posts, I will talk about three other aspects of coherent curriculum: the evolution from particulars to deeper structures, using deep structures to make connections between topics, and coherence of mathematical practice.