A guide to assessing the quality of school curricula
If you’ve never read a curriculum document before, it can be difficult to interpret never mind assess its quality.
Below are some guiding questions you can use when reading a curriculum. Before starting, you may wish to focus on one grade, think about a child of that age, and imagine specific examples for each question. For example, if you are looking at Grade 2 Social Studies, a student will be around 7 years old. Can they use a simple map of their neighbourhood to get from the school to the new Splashpark (skill)? Can they explain the difference between a need and a want (understanding)? Are they curious about the world and kind to others (values and attitudes)? I’ll explain more about different kinds of learning outcomes below. For now, choose a question that resonates with you and start there. If you don’t answer every question, don’t worry about it. Answer what you can.
Where can you find information to help you answer these questions? Some curricula have an Introduction that outlines the overall goals of the curriculum. You will also need to look in the curriculum at the learning outcomes themselves. It’s best to look at the actual document that teachers will be using as opposed to brief summaries or overviews that leave out a lot of important information.
The first two questions help you get a general sense of the content of the curriculum.
What and whose knowledge is included? Another way to think about this is to ask whose voices and perspectives are included and whose are left out? Whose voices and perspectives are elevated as the most important knowledge to which all other information is compared? Think in terms of our diverse population including visible minorities, Indigenous peoples, LGBTQ+ members of society, and so on.
Is the content age- and developmentally-appropriate for children aged 5 – 12? In other words, based on your knowledge of your or other people’s children, it is realistic for children of this age to learn the content included in the curriculum? Would they be able to make meaning of the content (beyond rote memorization)? Could they make meaningful connections between the content and their own lives?
The next three questions are more technical than the others, but they get at the central features of a Social Studies curriculum:
Turning specifically to Social Studies, what aspects of Social Studies are included? A typical Social Studies curriculum includes a balance of content drawn from disciplines such as history, civics, geography, archeology, sociology, economics, political science, etc. Is one of these given more attention than the others? Are some of the disciplines missing? This explanation provides more background on this topic if you want to know more about internationally-renowned professional standards for social studies curriculum.
Staying with the different aspects of Social Studies for a moment, look at the content that is included under the disciplines listed in Question 3. Is the content purely information (facts, dates, places, names) or does it include knowledge of the discipline itself? In history, this would be content such as having students learn how to evaluate primary source evidence like diaries or photographs and learning how to write accurate stories about the past.
This chart from page 13 of the Ontario Social Studies curriculum provides helpful examples of other types of disciplinary thinking in Social Studies. Ideally, a social studies curriculum brings together the knowledge, thinking tools, and concepts from history, civics, geography, archeology, sociology, economics, political science, etc.
The Ontario Curriculum: Social Studies K to 6, History and Geography 7 and 8 (Revised 2018), p. 13.
What type of learning outcomes are included? Learning outcomes are statements of what students should be able to know, do, and understand by the end of the grade they are in and usually start with a verb. In other words, describing what students are able to actively demonstrate about their learning.
Typically, a Social Studies curriculum includes different types of learning outcomes. Be wary of relying on column titles alone. Look at the actual statements of what students should be able to know, do, and understand by the end of their grade and ask if they will lead to:
- Knowledge & Understanding – It may be helpful to think of this as the “what” of the curriculum. What are students expected to know and understand by the end of Grade X? Do they just have to memorize the content, or do they actually have to think about its meaning? For example, “I can describe the ways Francophone peoples and communities in Alberta have changed over time and I can explain reasons why these changes took place.”
- Values & Attitudes – Think of this as the “heart” of the curriculum. How does the curriculum help students develop their own values and beliefs about an issue or topic? For example, “I can demonstrate respect for the rights, opinions and perspectives of others.”
- Skills & Processes (or Procedures) – These learning outcomes focus on how students apply their learning and develop and practice skills needed to participate in society. A skill (or process) is usually introduced at a simple level and then, with practice and application, the student becomes more proficient over time. Just think about playing a musical instrument. Did you start with playing great classical works or is it more likely that you started with something like “Hot Cross Buns”? The same method for teaching skills applies in Social Studies. Start small, provide lots of practice that gets more complex over time, and provide students with opportunities to apply the skill in new situations. Does the curriculum encourage students to use their own reasoning, thinking, and skills to find solutions to real-world problems? For example, “I can use the scale on a map of Canada to measure the distances between places.”
NOTE: Be careful not to confuse learning outcomes with classroom activities. Students usually work toward mastery of learning outcomes throughout a semester or even the entire school year whereas a classroom activity might take 15-20 minutes on one day to complete. Here’s an example to illustrate the difference:
Learning Outcome: I can use the scale on a map of Canada to measure the distances between places.
Classroom Activity: Over the course of the school year, a teacher may ask students to calculate how far it is from their home to their school, determine which is the fastest route to a Provincial Park on a long weekend, and plan a summer road trip for their family – all in order to help students develop competency with this one skill.
A last point on outcomes: Look to see if there is a balance of the three different types of outcomes in the curriculum.
The final three questions help you think about the overall goals of the curriculum. In other words, what will be the end result?
What should students be able to do with this knowledge, understanding, attitudes, and skills? How will they show you? Will they have memorized lists of information, or will they have developed a deep understanding of major concepts, themes, and ideas that will help them understand the people in their community, province, country, and world and the successes, celebrations, issues, and problems that make up our daily lives? If your/a child asks you, “Why am I learning this?” does the curriculum help you explain why learning Social Studies matters?
If your child experiences this curriculum from K-6, what kind of person/citizen will emerge at the end of grade 6? What knowledge, skills, and attributes does a citizen of the future need? At the end of the day, what kind of society do we want our children to be able to create?
Will this curriculum lead us to the goals you identified in Question 7? Now that you’ve unpacked the different parts of the curriculum what is your overall assessment of its quality?
You don’t have to do this work alone. Ask a friend to join you (even if it has to be over Zoom), make some popcorn, and take it one step at a time.
P.S. Although these questions were written with Social Studies in mind, you can probably ask similar questions about other subject areas.
 I am indebted to Dr. Kathy Robinson for helping me think through these questions.