What Does It Mean for a Curriculum to Be Coherent?

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.

Catching up

The site was down for a few hours today because of a malware attack, but I think we have it fixed now.

I took the opportunity to catch up on comments in the forums; I was way behind! Thanks to all those who responded to readers’ questions. I will try to stay more on top of it. One of the things that has been keeping me busy is our work on grades 6–8 curriculum for Open Up Resources. It is being piloted this year, so that link is still password protected, but stay tuned!

Also, I am close to finishing up the Quantity Progression, the last one not yet done.

The confusion over Appendix A

A number of people have gotten in touch with me recently about Appendix A, so I wanted to clarify something about its role. States who adopted the standards did not thereby adopt Appendix A. The high school standards were intentionally not arranged into courses in order to allow flexibility in designing high school courses, and many states and curriculum writers have taken advantage of that flexibility. There was a thread about this on my blog 3 years ago, and there is a forum on the topic here.

Appendix A was provided as a proof of concept, showing one possible way of arranging the high school standards into courses. Indeed, on page 2 of the appendix it says:

The pathways and courses are models, not mandates. They illustrate possible approaches to organizing the content of the CCSS into coherent and rigorous courses that lead to college and career readiness. States and districts are not expected to adopt these courses as is; rather, they are encouraged to use these pathways and courses as a starting point for developing their own.

States will of course be constrained by their assessments. But Smarter Balanced consortium does not have end of course assessments in high school, leaving states and districts free to arrange high school as they choose. And although PARCC does have end of course assessments, they do not follow Appendix A exactly. See the footnote on page 39 of the PARCC Model Content Framework , which says

Note that the courses outlined in the Model Content Frameworks were informed by, but are not identical to, previous drafts of this document and Appendix A of the Common Core State Standards.

Furthermore, there are plenty of states not using either the PARCC of SMARTER Balanced assessments.

I hope this helps clear things up.

New Draft of NBT Progression

Here the almost final draft of the Progression on Number and Operations in Base Ten, K–5. It incorporates many changes in response to comments here on this blog and elsewhere.

In addition to numerous small edits and corrections, and some redrawn figures, here are some of the more significant changes:

  • The sidenote with glossary entry for algorithm was moved to first instance of “algorithm” together with some text on notation for standard algorithm (this piece is a revision of a paragraph that was in the main body of the previous version).
  • Section on Strategies and Algorithm: The 2 old paragraphs were deleted and 3 new paragraphs were inserted. Reason: the new paragraphs give an overview of the organization of the NBT standards for strategies and algorithms explaining that students see efficient, accurate, and generalizable methods from the beginning of their work with calculation and that there is a progression from strategies to algorithms: for addition and subtraction (with whole numbers in K to Grade 4; and generalization to decimals in Grades 4 to 6), for multiplication (Grades 3 to 5) and division (Grades 3 to 6) with whole numbers, then decimals.
  • The balance of emphasis on “special strategy” vs “general method” in the earlier progression has been shifted in this draft in the direction of general methods..
  • Mathematical practices section was revised to focus more on the centrality of the SMPs, illustrating progression from strategy to algorithm and following the structure of the sections on computations, and strategy and algorithm.

As usual, please comment in NBT thread in the Forums.