How Content-Rich Curriculum Builds Mathematicians, Writers, Scientists and Historians
Quick — what is the Pythagorean Theorem?
If you answered a2 + b2 = c2 that’s not exactly correct; that’s the formula we use to apply the theorem. The Pythagorean Theorem is a concept describing the relationship between the two shorter sides (legs) of a right triangle and the hypotenuse. Once a student understands the concept, the formula becomes a part of this understanding – and they more deeply comprehend that formulas are just one tool in their mathematical toolbox.
Deep understanding is one key aspect of what is called content-rich curriculum. When we say “content” here, we’re referring to subjects like math, English Language Arts, science, social studies, and more. This in-depth approach to teaching works to ensure that students master the concepts and principles of each content area, understand how each subject applies in the real world, and develop positive beliefs about themselves as mathematicians, scientists, writers, and more.
Creating content-rich classrooms requires content-rich teacher preparation. This preparation should allow educators to hone their own conceptual knowledge, understand how to effectively use pedagogical techniques and thinking strategies in the context of their content area, and explore their own beliefs about their abilities and identities in relation to the content. This in-depth teacher preparation needs to come from content specialists — teachers with deep experience in their content area, who can help their new colleagues explore all the aspects of the subject they all love.
Embedding content-rich curriculum at Relay
Relay Graduate School of Education knows the importance of a content-rich curriculum. Over the past four years, Relay has been researching and refining our teacher preparation curriculum to model a deeply content-rich approach. We reorganized our faculty and advising model so that our students take far more of their course load in content-specific courses, taught by content-area experts. We are rolling out this new model at four of our locations this year, spending time to refine and learn what works best for our instructors and students.
Before, teachers learned a plethora of pedagogical techniques that included routines like turn and talks, and instructional methods like modeling your thinking or inquiry in mixed content groupings. But this left it up to teachers to figure out how to apply these techniques in their specific content areas. Now we teach exactly how a think aloud for example may be used slightly differently in a math classroom than an ELA classroom or how specific math routines like compare and connect can support student discourse about a math task. Moreover, this focus on content allows us to dive deeply into mathematical, literary, scientific, and historical ways of thinking. We empower teachers, and therefore their students, to see these thinking patterns and skills in everyday life, all around us. We show our students that math is life. The processes and thinking you do in a math class such as understanding quantities, looking for patterns or figuring out how to solve a problem when you are missing information are transferable skills and the opportunity to leverage those skills is everywhere.
Integrating our identities with academic content
This shift in instruction also places greater focus on students’ — and teachers’ — identities and how their life history influences the way they present their subject matter. For example, some teachers may have had negative experiences as students and developed a negative math identity (like thinking “I’m just not a math person”) that remains unchanged. Others may have experienced a teacher or class where they felt supported, and turned that negative experience around. Similarly teachers who excelled at the subject from a young age might project love and joy for the subject or find it hard to understand why a student is struggling. We help teachers mine their experience to identify what or who helped them gain confidence, or the ways they overcame struggle, so they can replicate those moments for students. This helps teachers identify how they became empowered in their own subject areas and how they might empower their students.
Identity work and unpacking experiences is integral to being a good content teacher. Growing up as a Latina, I rarely saw math teachers who looked like me. Despite the fact I was a strong mathematician, I often felt that I didn’t belong in STEM centered spaces, from secondary school all the way through my graduate programs. My experience was something that I internalized and then projected onto my students. In my second year of teaching, my principal once pointed something out to me: I was calling on more boys than girls (by an alarming ratio), unconsciously replicating some of the same biased patterns about girls and math that I had internalized. Recognizing this was possible even for me, someone who believed strongly in the power of doing things differently, is why I’m so passionate about ensuring that teachers reflect on their math experiences, examine their own biases and fears, learn strategies to manage and reduce those biases, and think about how to create vibrant and inclusive math classrooms. This is true for every subject area.
Helping other teachers do this work is exactly why I joined Relay. As a faculty member, I work with teachers everyday to ensure they have the knowledge, skills, and mindsets needed to create safe and inclusive math spaces where all students have the opportunity to engage in rigorous, grade level mathematics.
Through a content-rich curriculum, we help teachers create classrooms where kids see themselves as mathematicians, writers, scientists, and historians, excited about how these subjects apply to their lives and futures.