The positive impact of reducing content overload

Overload is a mismatch between capacity and load usually caused by review of curricula due to pressure from interest groups and the needs of the changing environment (National Council for Curriculum Assessment, 2010). The result has been an increase in the number of subjects taught in schools without increase in time (Australia Primary Principals Association, 2014). Schools can be overwhelmed with an increasingly long list of learning objectives for students in an ever-wider range of subjects, now including content such as digital abilities, wellness, sustainability, equity and more. The impact of the pandemic has made the need to prioritize learning objectives even more of an imperative.

Overburdening teachers leads to mistrust, unhappy work environments and increased cases of burnout as success criteria is unclear. Certainly, students are not provided the best opportunities for learning under these conditions. 

Schools may try to use time more wisely (ex. On-the-spot assessment/feedback), reduce teacher paperwork load or even reduce teacher to student ratios to alleviate overload.

To be truly effective, a deep and thorough examination of manageability is needed using prioritization and increased teacher and student agency.

Firstly, it is important to see the entirety of the curricular program from a student’s point of view. Class teachers in a Primary School setting, for example, will have a certain number of subjects to teach, each with their accompanying outcomes. These may include language and literacy, mathematics, science, social studies and more. Students may have single-subject lessons such as music and PE where further outcomes need to be achieved. During the first pandemic lockdown, my school was able to use some of the time available to consolidate outcomes from all subjects for each grade onto spreadsheets. What became obvious was that the amount of content to be learned in one school year was far too great for any one student’s brain and that prioritization and alignment was necessary.

Curriculum leaders and teachers need to work together to clarify which degree of essentiality each outcome has. We ask ourselves: ‘Is this an essential concept, model or principle that students must know? Is this complementing knowledge that expands and brings details to the ‘must know’ elements? Is this special knowledge that can be mentioned or that students can pursue if interested? In this way, ‘core outcomes’ and ‘more outcomes’ are established. Here we have clarified intentionally that not all students will learn the same things without feeling pressure as a result. All students will work to learn the ‘core’, which will be clearly articulated to students, teachers and parents. Students will learn different parts of the ‘more’  – some more and some less – and we will be OK with that. In this way, our programme will not only be organically differentiated from the start, allowing for deeper learning that is appropriate for individual students whilst retaining essential vertical articulation but also allowing for new ways of approaching the overall curricular program. 

For example, with clarity around core outcomes, it becomes possible to consider changes to the overall timetable that would allow for more voice, choice and ownership in a particular area. At the Vienna International School, Visual Art, Music and Drama lessons were blocked in Grades 4 and 5. This means that all 88 Grade 4 students and the four teachers allocated to these subjects have Creative Arts at the same time in the timetable. Instead of each class always going to each subject for an allocated time (weekly or biweekly), this blocking allows some students to spend more time going deeper into the current Unit of Inquiry in one subject area, at least at certain points in the year, based on their Core and More learning.

In addition, once core content in each subject is established, it becomes a manageable task to see how they fit together and can more easily be assessed and also to find further ways to put the learning into the hands of the students themselves.

For more about aligning core content to 21st Century Skills in a transdisciplinary way and further developing student agency, watch for future blog posts from Core & More Education!

References

Australia Primary Principals Association (APPA), The Overcrowded Primary Curriculum: a way forward: Recommendations from the Australia Primary Principals Association, 2014.

National Council for Curriculum Assessment (NCCA), Curriculum Overload in Primary Schools: An Overview of National and International Experiences, 2010.

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