Watering-Up the Curriculum

To accommodate the needs of students with mild disabilities, most educators are familiar with the idea of altering the curriculum to make it less complex and easier to learn, or reducing the amount of information students are expected to learn. The basic idea is that if the content is less complex and students do not have to learn as much, they will be more successful. Unfortunately, many common accommodations water-down, or dumb-down the curriculum and promote thoughtless learning.

Often, what all students (not just those who are less-capable) need, is not a curriculum where the expectations for learning have been significantly reduced, but rather instruction that is considerably more robust - or thoughtful. This kind of instruction focuses on ways of teaching that help students make sense of what it is they are expected to learn. In short, the better they understand the subject-matter and relate it to their own background knowledge and experience, the better they will learn and remember it. These instructional techniques focus on ways to reduce the information processing demands needed to understand complex subjects, while at the same time, develop in students effective thinking skills and learning strategies. A large body of research shows that the more robust the instruction, the more students learn, and the more in-depth students' understanding becomes of the subject-matter. These should be the goals of a watered-up classroom:

  • More emphasis on students constructing knowledge

    The focus is on enabling students to construct understandings of content subjects. The role of the teacher shifts from being primary information providers to being facilitators as students' understanding of the subject-matter become more sophisticated and they develop deep-knowledge structures and make many connections between ideas; in short, students develop ‘sophisticated relational understandings' of the subject-matter.

  • More depth, less superficial coverage

    Teachers focus on facilitating a thorough understanding of big ideas of the curriculum.

  • More emphasis on developing relational understanding and knowledge connections

    The focus is on how big ideas relate to each other and influence things; great emphasis on helping students relate new information to their background knowledge and experience.

  • More student elaboration

    Watered-up classrooms are noisy because students are frequently discussing, debating, weighing, and clarifying ideas as they elaborate. Watered-up classrooms are also colorful because student-constructed products depicting their elaborations or understanding of content are everywhere!

  • More emphasis on the redundancy of archetype concepts, patterns and strategies

    A key focus in watered-up classrooms is enabling students to recognize how some concepts, patterns and strategies are manifested throughout many dimensions of life, and how to use these as tools to enhance their own comprehension of complex ideas and ability to communicate them to others.

  • More reflection and risk-taking

    Students spend a lot of time thinking about the content and how it relates to their world; less emphasis on memorizing and more on helping students develop their own increasingly sophisticated understanding.

  • More social support for achievement

    Achievement in ALL students is stressed and reinforced. The nature of tasks and projects in watered-up classrooms is challenging to students while allowing them to achieve commensurate with innate abilities and talents.

  • More emphasis on developing habits of the mind, thinking skills and learning strategies

    Cognitive skills are highly valued and are an overt part of the curriculum. They are explicitly taught and continuously practiced, and evaluated.

  • More emphasis on developing a sense of "personal potency"

    The classroom environment is designed to foster in ALL students, regardless of ability, decision-making skills and a sense of being in control of what happens to them, having influence on others and being valued and needed. More emphasis on developing social responsibility and collaboration skills among students Social skills and values also are explicitly taught and continuously practiced, evaluated and graded.

From Using Graphic Organizers to Make Sense of the Curriculum (p. 6) by E. S. Ellis. Tuscaloosa, AL: Masterminds. Copyright 1999 by Edwin S. Ellis. Reprinted with permission.