Research / Curriculum Design

Redesigning Curriculum for a Network of Schools

Increasing usability and teacher satisfaction by creating structure

Overview

I was hired in 2016 as a Math Curriculum Designer for a network of schools in Atlanta and worked on a team with other subject-area designers. When joining the team, a large percentage of the curriculum was already developed and teachers were using it as their primary resource.

The Challenge

Teachers were frustrated with the curriculum, and many stated that they did not want to use it as their main resource. They voiced their concerns to school leaders and the curriculum team.

My Role

I discovered why teachers were frustrated, then re-designed the math curriculum structure, and wrote the 3rd-8th grade content. Many of the systems I created for the math curriculum were adopted network-wide.

Scope
Curriculum Re-design
Duration
2 years
tools
Google Drive
METHODS
Research, IA, Curriculum Writing, UI

Research

Understanding teachers' viewpoints

I interviewed 30+ teachers who were in various grade levels and school locations. I was looking to discover:

  • why teachers did not want to use the curriculum  
  • what math teachers needed to feel the curriculum was usable 
  • if issues were global or local
  • if issues were grade-level specific

After synthesizing, I discovered the following key insights: 

Clarifying the problem

I found that most of the issues were global. Teachers spent too much time locating resources in Google Drive and did not find the lesson plan structure and content usable. Many teachers felt overwhelmed, and the disorganization added to their frustration.

Who am I designing for? 

The main groups of people using the curriculum were teachers, leaders/coaches, and special education teachers. Although I did not conduct formal research with leaders and special education teachers, I talked with them to discover how they use the curriculum.

The Big Picture

What is the structure?

To understand the curriculum as a whole, I investigated the structure and determined what to include at each level. This process helped me define each part of the curriculum and ensured the final product would be easy to navigate. 

Thinking about the structure also helped me generate ideas, such as:

  • Math Overview - a document where teachers can easily access any math unit would reduce the amount of time teachers spend searching for items in Google Drive
  • Feedback - feedback documents for each unit would give curriculum users an easy way to give feedback
  • Standards Explained - a document explaining the standards for specific units would help curriculum users understand the content they need to teach 

Scope and Sequence

The year at a glance

Using resources from the state and teacher feedback, I worked with my team to create a document that displayed the sequence of the units and how long each would last. This document helped curriculum users see an overview of the year and understand how the content progresses. For example, a 5th-grade math and science teacher would know:

  • math starts with a place value unit lasting 4 weeks
  • science begins with a natural disasters unit lasting 3 weeks
  • what students learned previously and what they will learn in the future

To differentiate subject areas, we correlated each subject to a color. For example, math would always use blue as its primary color.

You can view the Scope and Sequence document here.

Math Overview

Access to every math unit from one document

To prevent teachers from searching for content in Google Drive, I created a document where teachers could access links to all math units and important documents such as the Scope and Sequence. I found inspiration from Craigslist, as it displays a lot of information and links but is easy to navigate.

You can view the Math Overview document here.

Pacing Calendars

Unpacking a unit's content was difficult & finding a lesson took many steps 

Teachers had a hard time understanding how the content progressed throughout a unit, and finding units and lessons in Google Drive was time-consuming.

The solution? Access to all unit information in a visual format

I created a pacing calendar with all information needed for a unit. The calendar made information visual and helped teachers understand the flow of the content and how the lessons connect. Each pacing calendar included:

  • links to lesson plans (organized in groups, by topic)
  • links to lesson materials 
  • easy access to assessments
  • the focus standard for each lesson
  • links to important resources such as unit overviews, standards explained documents, and feedback documents

The curriculum team quickly adopted the pacing calendar as it was well-received by math teachers and leaders. Having access to all of the resources in one document made the content more usable and gave curriculum designers a model to follow. 

I also made sure that the naming conventions for every document were consistent system-wide. You can view the Pacing Calendar here.

Lesson Plans

Defining the structure of lesson plans

Using the research, I prioritized the information teachers needed to see in each lesson plan. Each lesson included:

  • standards
  • objectives
  • a description
  • timeline and materials
  • detailed lesson instructions
  • assessments, homework, and resources

Defining the flow and structure of math lessons

There was no structure to the lessons, so teachers had to de-code each lesson plan, which was time-consuming and led to frustration. Using teacher and leader feedback, I created a plan for what each math lesson would include.

  • Warm Up - to review and practice concepts and create structure for students 
  • Lesson - explanation of how to teach a concept
  • Practice - students explore the concepts they just learned
  • Exit Ticket - a way for teachers to get feedback on student understanding 
  • Supplemental Resources - resources for differentiation to help teachers and special education teachers meet the needs of individual students

To help teachers understand the structure, I included a timeline at the top of each lesson plan. The timeline acted as an overview, showing how long a teacher should spend on each part and the related materials they would need.

Writing the curriculum + including engaging resources

I wrote the 3rd-8th grade content and managed revisions for kindergarten, 1st, and 2nd grades. I included problem-based learning activities and engaging practice resources in the lessons, practice, and supplemental resources. For example, in this lesson, students are asked to estimate the number of sticky notes it would take to cover a filing cabinet to explore the concept of surface area.

You can view the Lesson Plan here.

Outcomes

An increase in teacher and leader satisfaction

People who used the curriculum stated that it was much easier to navigate and find the resources they needed. Also, the consistent lesson plan structure helped teachers focus on the lesson's content instead of spending time unpacking each lesson. Overall, there was: 

  • a substantial decrease in the number of complaints surrounding the math curriculum.
  • a reduction in the amount of time teachers spent navigating Google Drive.
  • improvement in the overall structure and usability.
  • improvement in the quality of lesson content.

What I worked on next

After the initial release of the curriculum, I continued to talk to curriculum users and make improvements such as:

  • working on smaller usability issues.
  • figuring out the best scope and sequence for each grade level based on teacher feedback.
  • discovering the needs of each grade level and differentiating the math lesson structure.
  • incorporating more supplementary materials and resources for differentiation.

What I Learned

Creating a solid foundation before designing is beneficial 🚀

When I first arrived, we were continually making structural changes to the curriculum, and found ourselves going around in circles. I saw how important it was to stop, think about the big picture, and make sure the team is on the same page before designing. Doing this prevents foundational issues that become major issues later and are difficult to change. This also creates a system where updates and features can easily be incorporated. 

A year later, I was so happy when I came across Object-Oriented UX – this would have been so helpful when I was working on this project. OOUX is an Information Architecture process that helps you understand all of the moving parts of a system and how they relate. Now, I love incorporating OOUX into my design process.

The importance of minimizing assumptions 🔎

I had previously worked as a teacher, so I easily empathized with their needs, but I found it important to (partially) remove this lens and design without assumptions. Completing research helped me understand teachers' needs and struggles, and many findings were different than I expected.

Continuing to improve collaboration skills 🤝

Through designing the curriculum, I gained valuable experience working on a team. I learned how to state my ideas clearly, be open to new ideas, and see the benefits of working together to solve problems collectively. I also improved my management skills by overseeing curriculum consultants, facilitating presentations to leaders, and working closely with outside software vendors.