Why Curriculum Still Matters in the Age of Free Instructional Materials

Martha Ruttle

In his August 2016 President’s Message, current NCTM President Matt Larson examines the relationship between the growing availability of open educational resources and curricular coherence. He explains that “[a] critical feature of high-quality curricular materials is that they are coherent. Coherence, with respect to mathematics curriculum, generally means that connections are clear and receive emphasis from one year to the next, from one concept to another, and from one representation to another.” 

We agree. Coherence is not just a matter of ensuring the consistency of conventions, vocabulary, models, and concepts within and across grade levels. Rather, a curriculum demonstrates coherence by helping students develop an understanding of mathematics as a unified body of knowledge, not as a collection of disparate problems and exercises. A coherent curriculum helps students build a strong foundation of skills and understanding, and it regularly invites them to make their own connections between topics and between what they are currently learning and what they have learned before.

Larson warns that “the danger in online curricular selection is the undercutting of curricular coherence by the introduction of disjointed tasks that are of questionable quality, do not fit within the mathematical learning progression, and are incoherent.” We know that many districts have provided teachers with curriculum maps and invited them to select from among the free resources available online to create curricula. When curricula are assembled in this way, the absence of explicit connections among activities and ideas undermines students’ mathematics learning.

Larson summarizes the resulting dilemma for mathematics educators as follows:

The dilemma is that while districts, schools, and teachers have greater access than ever to tools and resources for selecting and developing instructional materials, the skill required to develop a high-quality curriculum is both complex and often underappreciated. The widespread availability of online tasks therefore makes having and working with a coherent curriculum at the school and district level even more important because it is the curriculum that establishes the learning goals in a coherent progression and helps teachers see and understand the multiple pathways that students might take through the progression.

We know from firsthand experience that creating rigorous, focused, coherent curriculum for teachers is incredibly demanding and fascinating work. However, we also understand that creating high-quality curriculum materials is only part of the picture. Because most of us on the Math Learning Center curriculum development team are mathematics teachers and have continued to work in classrooms, we also know there is great skill and artistry in bringing that curriculum to life with students. When teachers can rely upon a coherent curriculum, they are free to spend their time doing what they do best and for which there is simply no substitute or shortcut: developing strong relationships with students and tailoring their instruction every day to facilitate mathematics learning for all students.

Martha Ruttle is the senior curriculum editor for MLC.