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De-silo-fication: Curriculum and Active, Student-Centered Learning

Recently, I read an excellent post by Doug Lemov that introduced “de-silo-fication”: the idea that we should re-couple things which are sometimes considered discretely, but are best considered in tandem.

He was talking about de-silo-ing behavior management techniques and academic techniques. Yet the de-silo-fication principle perfectly fit one of my pet peeves: the silo-fication of curriculum and the quest to bring student-centered learning, hands-on learning, student discourse, and student-driven inquiry into classrooms.

Educators are seeking more active learning. A shift from teacher talk to student talk in classrooms, because “the person doing the talking is doing the learning.” And most of them are looking everywhere but curriculum… even though some curricula now offer the easiest, most elegant way to bring these practices into schools. 

My proposal to de-silo curriculum and student-centered learning won’t make sense to you if you haven’t looked at the curriculum landscape recently. Trust me, I know that curricula of the textbooks-and-basal variety have historically been rubbish at teeing up these instructional goals.

But curriculum has changed, and so must our mindsets.

Folks speak of a “curriculum renaissance” because we’ve seen the emergence of curricula designed around instructional goals like promoting the Five Practices in math or promoting discourse and debate, while incorporating rich performance tasks that cue PBL, in English language arts.

They incorporate routines and protocols for each lesson that help teachers understand and slay these instructional approaches. The routines and protocols are the secret sauce; I plan to write more about them.

If we de-silo, we open ourselves to new ways to accomplish our goals. Also… we want active learning and student discourse happening during Tier 1 ELA and math instruction the most – right??

Earlier this year, I wrote a blog for Open Up Resources that’s on point. I’m re-publishing it here, because the educator voices tell the story best.

Read on, friends.

Last week, I joined leaders from one hundred of the most pioneering districts in the country at the Digital Promise League of Innovative Schools convening, always a fantastic event. These districts have a reputation for innovation with ed tech, but I’ve come to know them as innovators in many other arenas, from parent engagement to professional learning.

They embrace innovative instruction, for sure. Members promote student engagement and active learning in workstreams around makerspaces, real-world learning, and project-based learning.

Now, I see purposefully-developed curriculum as the most effective catalyst for engagement and hands-on learning across a school system. Yet I’ve come to realize that not all districts see the world that way.

As the League of Innovative Schools convening closed, I had a conversation that captured the issue perfectly:

G, a curriculum director, sat down next to me for lunch. I’d been discussing curriculum with another district leader.

Some of the first words out of G’s mouth: “I hate big-boxed curriculum.”

“Oh yeah? Tell me more,” I said.

“Well, they all seem to just move kids through skills,” said G. She went on to list the common complaints about traditional curriculum: not engaging enough, low-quality texts in ELA, the need to supplement the heck out of most of them, and more. G’s district had been developing its own curriculum with aligned PD, because they truly valued the role of instructional materials in teacher success, and they didn’t believe the curriculum market had anything to offer them that was as good as what they could build themselves.

I started telling her a bit about the Open Up Resources curricula—how both of our K–5 ELA curricula are designed around whole texts, so kids are reading awesome, engaging books:


I talked about EL Education K–5 Language Arts, and the way its activities and instructional routines foster significant engagement and loads of student discourse:



Kids do meaningful tasks, and grapple with real-world problems, as part of the curriculum – here, authoring plans to build a Magnificent Thing after reading the text The Most Magnificent Thing:



The curriculum is designed around text sets with science and social studies themes, both to build content knowledge about the world and because those topics are super-engaging.



Of course, good curriculum must also excel at foundational literacy skill development, and help kids grow as readers and writers. In fact, I’d just visited Juab School District, where the superintendent described awesome gains in the first year with the curriculum:



G seemed intrigued. I turned to talking about our math curriculum, saying, “Open Up Resources 6–8 Math was developed by Illustrative Mathematics, which was founded by standards author Bill McCallum. If you’ve been developing your own materials, you must be using practice items and tasks from Illustrative Mathematics?”

“We LOVE Illustrative Math!,” said G.

I explained how the curriculum is problem-based, and designed around 2-4 activities per lesson, many of which are done collaboratively, in pairs or groups.



I described my favorite lessons with real-world problems, like the fractions lesson in which kids mix colored water in different ratios, a beautiful way to foster conceptual understanding:



… and the lesson in which they mix powdered drinks in different ratios:




The curriculum is designed around the Five Practices, and especially the imperative to get kids talking about the math! (Just listen to this video.)



Students push each others’ mathematical thinking, and the teacher serves as a facilitator of math learning:



Now G was excited. “We need to talk about this! I want to look at these materials!”

Her really game-changing comment: “I wouldn’t develop materials myself if there was something excellent out there.”

Her ‘Aha’ moment: someone had developed the kinds of materials she was building herself… and was giving them away for free!

My big takeaway from this conversation with G, and similar ones with districts around the country: many educators were underwhelmed by the curriculum options available a few years ago, and they’ve stopped looking to curriculum providers for materials that promote active learning. Really, it makes sense. Why would you go looking for curriculum that scaffolds active learning today if it wasn’t available to you before?

(Also, many educators are still discovering nonprofit curriculum reviewer EdReports – G hadn’t heard of it – so they don’t know that excellence is now easy to find.)

Today’s new breed of curriculum is not ‘just content.’ These excellent curricula are instructional catalysts that actively promote the 4 C’s and deeper learning, while also supporting superb literacy and math instruction.

These are stories we need to be sharing to ensure that today’s curriculum landscape is properly understood.

Originally published as Let’s Change the Conversation About Curriculum on the Open Up Resources blog.



The more I look at the highly-rated curricula in K–12, the more I find these stories.

You can find K–5 ELA curricula built around excellent trade books in three of the curricula cited by Sue Pimentel, lead author of the CCSS in literacy, who recently wrote about the renaissance in K–12 ELA.

You can find socratic seminars prompting rich discourse by ALL students in Wit & Wisdom from Great Minds:


You find cool activities springing from the study of rich topics in Core Knowledge from Amplify:


And kids becoming scientists with Core Knowledge from Amplify:


And Kindergarten Zooligists with ARC Core from American Reading Company:


If these stories surprise you, it is time to change the way you think about curriculum and its potential to bring awesomeness into classrooms. The curricula vary in their use of these strategies, so you have variety along with improved choices.

Let’s de-silo, y’all.

Published inK–12 EducationLiteracyMath

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