Curriculum Is Not A Checklist: An Argument For Letting Go.

Ask any high school teacher, “How much time are you getting with your students these days?” and their answers will vary wildly. 

Some teachers, like those in Lambton Kent District School Board in Ontario, are face-to-face all day, every day with the same group of students for an entire week, rotating between two different cohorts bi-weekly for 4 quadmesters.

Others see their students on a rotating schedule of in-person and online instruction on a weekly, daily or half-day schedule. In Vancouver, BC many schools are using a “Copernican” schedule in which students have longer classes for some subjects during one half of the school day and shorter daily virtual periods during the second half of the day.

In the suburbs of Chicago, students are fully remote with synchronous face-to-face time with their teacher, determined sometimes by the District, sometimes by the school, and sometimes by the teacher. As I write this, the NYC Department of Education, the largest school district in North America, just announced that they are going back to fully remote instruction. 

And then there are those lucky teachers who have the wonderful challenge of trying to teach both students in-person and online at the same time, as the Toronto District School Board has indicated will be the norm moving forward after reaching capacity in their virtual classrooms.

I can tell you that there have been many times in the past five years of my career at Future Design School when I have missed the classroom. This moment in 2020 is not one of them. 

As teachers are heroically rising to the multitude of challenges placed in their path, they are also feeling the burden of the responsibility of preparing their students for the future. Teachers have always held a deep respect for this hefty responsibility, caring deeply about the content and skills for which they are charged with developing in their students. 


However, a survey conducted by the US Census Bureau in June 2020 found the average child spent less than 20 hours a week on any learning activities during remote learning, including an average of 8 hours learning on her own, and only 3.4 hours in direct contact with teachers. If it was difficult to "cover the curriculum” before the pandemic, how on earth would it be possible in half the time?

Teachers (and Administrators): I am here to tell you: let it go. You cannot possibly cover every single specific expectation / outcome as laid out in your curriculum/standards when your time with students is limited at best. 


I’ve worked with enough teachers over the past ten years to know that most teachers are rule followers. We want to do right by our students and we want to do well as a professional and so we follow the rules. We signed up for a profession where we knew exactly what the expectations of us were; exactly when and where we would be working. There was very little ambiguity in our lives. 

In this new world chock full of ambiguity, many teachers feel the stress of not only keeping themselves and their students safe, but also of dealing with a heck of a lot of uncertainty. The rules have changed (or disappeared altogether), which is hard for rule followers. Therefore, in order for you to take the advice that follows, I’m going to ask you to put on your renegade hat. And if you don’t have one, keep reading anyways as you’ll see that you’re not really going to be breaking any rules. Maybe just bending them a little. 

Step 1: Recognize that your curriculum is not a checklist, 

it’s a jumping off point.

How many of you have read the preamble of your curriculum document? You know, the part that includes things like the vision, goals and rationale of the standards, approaches to teaching and learning, and best practices for assessment?

Just like our students who skip to the questions at the back of the textbook chapter and scan the text for the correct answers rather than reading the entire chapter, many teachers skip right to the course expectations and start delivering the curriculum as if it were a checklist or a recipe. 

But, I would argue that the preamble is just as important as the expectations. In most cases, reading and following the guidelines laid out in the preamble empowers teachers to make decisions about the content to help best prepare our students to be critical thinkers, problem solvers; to direct their own learning and develop their own ideas. 

For example, in the THE ONTARIO CURRICULUM, GRADES 9 AND 10 | Canadian and World Studies under Instructional Approaches in Canadian and World Studies you will find:

“When students believe that these subjects simply represent a body of preordained knowledge about certain topics, they may question the relevance of their studies or may not approach their investigations with an open and inquiring mind. Students must be given opportunities to see that inquiry is not just about finding what others have found, and that they can use the inquiry process not only to uncover knowledge but also to construct understandings and develop their own positions on issues.” (page 39)

In order to achieve this goal of developing inquiring minds capable of constructing understanding, we cannot simply skip to the Grade 10 Canadian History and cover the content like a checklist. 

Similarly, in the United States, the Next Generation Science Standards call on teachers to take on the role of a guide helping students to uncover content through investigations, not as a content delivery person: 

“High-quality education standards allow educators to teach effectively, moving their practice toward how students learn best—in a hands-on, collaborative, and integrated environment rooted in inquiry and discovery. Teaching based on the NGSS calls for more student-centered learning that enables students to think on their own, problem solve, communicate, and collaborate—in addition to learning important scientific concepts”. (NGSS)

Step 2: Prioritize the expectations/standards

Do we need to teach students important content and skills to enable them to develop these higher order thinking skills? Yes. But, do we need to teach them, through direct instruction, all of the content, if it means powering through at such a pace that they mostly forget what they learned 10 days later? No. 

A fantastic exercise for every teacher would be to take a cue from Marie Kondo and make some decisions about what to keep, and what to move to the bottom of the priority list. 

Write each of your standards/ expectations on a separate sticky note. Find yourself a large table or wall to place them on, and begin an exercise of prioritization. 

Which content is critical for students to master? Which skills build upon each other? Where are the outliers? If you had to teach your course in half the time (as some of you are!), what would you cut out? Which parts really interest students and pique their curiosity? Organize your expectations into three buckets: Must/Critical, Should/Important, Could/Nice to have. 

But wait, aren’t I mandated to teach every single topic as outlined in the curriculum? Shouldn’t it all be in the Must/Critical column? Yes, and no. 


Yes - we need to ensure that our students are prepared for the future by covering all of the overall expectations, which generally also requires covering all of the specific expectations. But, too often teachers read the sample questions and examples as required in order to cover that specific expectation. 

Note that according to the curriculum documents:

 “Most specific expectations are accompanied by examples and “sample questions”, as requested by educators...Both are intended as suggestions for teachers rather than as exhaustive or mandatory lists. Teachers can choose to use the examples and sample questions that are appropriate for their classrooms, or they may develop their own approaches that reflect a similar level of complexity.” 

In other words, you do not need to cover every example or suggestion. Could you cover some expectations quickly, use flipped lessons, or give students choice and spend more time on those expectations that matter more? Absolutely.


Teachers all around the world should be envious of the BC Curriculum. The flexibility, open-endedness, and focus on competencies and big ideas is about as progressive as curriculum gets. 

So it's no surprise that the curriculum documents advise:

“Elaborations for the Curricular Competencies from Grades 10-12 are intended to support scientific inquiry and development of a deeper understanding of concepts. They offer suggested entry points by providing a variety of concept-based examples and sample inquiry questions.

The Content elaborations provide additional information that teachers may find useful in clarifying the learning standards.” (BC Science Curriculum)

The curriculum is not dictating that you teach every single elaboration in your subject area. Rather, elaborations are meant to be suggestions and helpful information. 


Ask yourself: would I rather cover all of the content in my curriculum at a very superficial level, rushing students through assessments that allow them to cram and forget, knowing that they will not really remember much of the content 2 months from now, let alone 10 years from now? Or would it be more beneficial to students to slow down, dig deeply into more complex content using an inquiry driven approach that allows them to grapple with new ideas, think critically about important subject-related topics, and develop long term understanding of key concepts?

Step 3: Develop Your Enduring Understandings

Starting with your highest priority sticky notes, group together expectations into themes. Are there some lower priority standards that can be tucked into a higher priority learning outcome? Are there multiple outcomes that fit together? 

Then, ask yourself: “What is it about this topic/skill that I want my students to remember 10 years from now?” 

For example, if your expectation is:

Next Generation Science Standard HS-LS2-5: Develop a model to illustrate the role of photosynthesis and cellular respiration in the cycling of carbon among the biosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, and geosphere. [Clarification Statement: Examples of models could include simulations and mathematical models.] [Assessment Boundary: Assessment does not include the specific chemical steps of photosynthesis and respiration.] 

The enduring understanding might be:

Photosynthesis is the most important chemical process on earth because it takes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turns it into oxygen for humans and animals to breathe, while also taking energy from the sun and converting it into energy that humans and animals use for nourishment. 

In some cases, like Ontario’s Canada and World Studies, this work has already been done for you in the curriculum document. In this case, your task would be to prioritize the specific expectations that fit under each overall expectation and narrow down to the most important topics to cover. 

In BC, your enduring understandings are likely the same as your Big Ideas. Your task is to look at the curricular competencies and content and make decisions about which of these concepts and skills deserve the most time, and which can be covered more briefly. 

Step 4: Turn Your Enduring Understandings into Essential Questions

Note that these essential questions are not easily answered. They are open-ended questions intended to develop students' understanding of the complexity of the topic, while also developing important transferable skills such as critical thinking, collaboration, communication and creativity. 

From your enduring understanding, craft questions that you can pose to students to launch their learning. For example, “How and why do organisms interact with their environment, and what are the effects of these interactions?” or “Why might different groups in Canada view the same event, trend, or development in different ways? Why might we view it differently now?”

Step 5: Pose Questions to Students, Orchestrate Connections

As students go about trying to answer the essential questions, you can orchestrate their learning so that they cover standards / expectations. This does not mean that you need to teach a full lesson on each of these topics, but rather orchestrate a learning experience whereby students uncover these understandings. 

For example, from the question, “How and why do organisms interact with their environment, and what are the effects of these interactions?” you might introduce the concept of photosynthesis, along with other ecosystem cycles and ask students to investigate how deforestation might impact each of these cycles. 

In order to do that, students will need to develop models of the carbon cycle (HS-LS2-5), evaluate the complex interactions in ecosystems (HS-LS2-6), and construct and revise an explanation of the flow of matter and energy in an ecosystem (HS-LS2-3.

Step 6: Slow Down and Let It Go

What happens if you get to the end of the quadmester, semester or year and students haven’t covered all of the expectations? Let it go. 

Chances are they are going to revisit the topics again in the future (most curricula spiral concepts across grade levels) and/or even if you would have covered it, it would have been cursory at best and students are likely to forget. But, if they walk out of your class with transferable skills and deep understanding of the most important enduring understandings you have helped them immensely to be prepared for future challenges. 

Looking for support in this moment of learning transition? Engage our experts to help develop a plan for your school’s specific needs. Our team is working with school leaders to develop robust blended and remote learning; helping design experiences that engage kids in deep experiential inquiry. 

Contact us at to talk about how we might collaborate and support your team. 

Written by Leslie McBeth Director of Special Projects, Future Design School. 

Leslie McBeth is an educator on a mission to answer the question: “How might we empower students to solve the world’s big problems?” Currently the Director of Special Projects at Future Design School, McBeth designs programs to empower educators to break down their classroom walls and engage students in future-ready learning experiences. She has worked with more than 6000 educators around the world from Australia to Sweden to California, leading workshops and speaking at events such as CIS Ontario’s Cohort 21, SXSWEdu, the Apple Teacher Conference and TEDx. Since 2016, she has been the Design Thinking Coach for the Google Certified Innovator program worldwide.

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