Solving Tsundoku:
The Interrelated Curriculum – Part 1

Peter Williams

Time 2 Teach

1   Introduction

Our first post gets to the heart of why I established Time 2 Teach: to make curriculums easier to use, and provide automated insights into learning progress, which is the point, after all. This is timely for teachers who are facing ‘unfinished learning’ as students return from school closures. An ‘interrelated curriculum’ is built for this sort of challenge.

Our tagline, ‘Your curriculum—their progress. Stay streets ahead!’ is a work in progress too. A makeover of Richard E Grant’s line from Withnail and I is more pithy: ‘Throw your A4 teaching plans on the road!,’ because I think you will.

Or at least they’ll look quite different.

Solving tsundoko

When I went back into Japanese teaching in 2001, I had far more resources than I could use. In Japanese, this condition is called tsundoku—the discomfort of having too many books and not enough time to read them.

I tried reorganisation, putting my audio tracks into ‘playlists’, but I still had tons of printed material and no solution for organising them. I’d been teaching for decades, and written textbooks, so I thought I knew about innovation. Not this time.

Something had to change!

Enter DUKC

One night in 2003, I watched a documentary about a shipping invention called DUKC, which stands for Dynamic Underkeel Clearance.

The DUKC system made shipping more efficient, safer and more profitable. (There’s a transcript here.) Like all great innovations, it was built on a simple idea. Bring information together, to solve the one-thing-that-matters.

This was what I needed in teaching.

So I cornered my hapless principal the next day, and explained I had discovered how to improve teaching, forever.

She invited me to a meeting.

Validation and Execution!

I left the meeting with two week’s release time, to make it happen.

So I built a small relational database to organise my resources. It worked quite well, but it couldn’t do everything I wanted it to do, because I didn’t have all the information.

Lesson 1: get all the data!

“I’d been teaching for decades, and written textbooks, so I thought I knew about innovation. Not this time.”

Five years later, I moved to a role in assessment, where I designed another data-based system, this time, to re-purpose old examination questions. Here I learnt about metadata.

Lesson 2: Data standards are good. Data standards that people use are better.

I was now working closely with (world-class) curriculums, so there was no escaping the problem that teachers still struggled to use them, efficiently.

So, I went back to what inspired me about DUKC, and decided to build an interrelated curriculum, to fix the problem. It took three years.

Three more lessons

Here are the spoilers, for those who like them.

Firstly, an interrelated curriculum works like an ‘operating system’. This means you can organise your teaching by topic; by year; by difficulty, or any way your data allows. Put simply, you can let curriculum lead your teaching—or learning. Students’ interests can lead too, because you have built-in, ‘turn-by-turn’ navigation. It also makes it easier to find what’s been taught—what’s been learnt, and what’s ‘unfinished’.

Secondly, an interrelated curriculum system multiplies innovation. I’m not a data engineer, so I don’t understand how this happens, but I know that it does, because I’ve seen it many times. For example, with an interrelated curriculum you can talk about a learning ‘forecast’, rather than a teaching plan, which is contingent on guesswork. You can do this, because the ‘forecast’ is based on evidence, which can all be tracked, in real-time.

Thirdly, less talked about, and what an interrelated curriculum reveals, is that placing curriculum information in landscaped columns, for the purpose of creating the teaching plan, is less about planning, and more about connecting the planning pieces. When the interrelated curriculum does this for you, teachers can focus on the learning sequence, and how they can support students at different progress points. Differentiation can occur organically, by clustering students into progress personas, which personalises your teaching, and makes differentiation easier to manage.

Let me explain.

2   We live in an interrelated economy

If you take a prescription to the chemist you’ll probably be asked if you want the medication that your physician requested, or the generic, pharmacy-brand. This is possible because pharmacies have access to vast, interrelated pharmaceutical databases, so customers can make safe, personalised decisions about their medications.

Online retail and many other industries have these databases too. Chances are, your last e-shopping experience was a triumph of seamlessly interrelated data, about products, supply, user satisfaction, payment options, logistics, tracking systems—and more!

Systems like these have been iterating for decades, improving the user experience, and the level of personalisation, not to mention the efficiency gains.

But not for curriculum.

This is our raison d’être. Interrelated data systems help users do things better. Perhaps our curriculums won’t work better until they’re interrelated, but we won’t know, until it happens. The ‘unfinished curriculum’ may be the hammer for change, and it’s an area where we want to take leadership.

“Data standards are good. Data standards that people use are better.”

Dynamic Underkeel Clearance (DUKC) - OMC International 2020

3   There will be winners

According to the Learning Progressions and Online Formative Assessment National Initiative – Discovery Phase – Final Report (the OFA Report) teachers move through five ‘phases’, as they focus on upcoming work:

  • identify goals
  • plan
  • teach and learn
  • measure
  • feedback and next steps.

These ‘phases’ typically come together in the teaching plan.

However, placing curriculum information in landscaped columns is less about planning, and more about connecting the curriculum pieces. While timing and sequence information is part of the teaching plan, its largely guesswork, and, once the plan is created, it’s difficult to change. Furthermore, the connecting process imposes the planning sequence, so it’s no wonder the five ‘phases’ identified in the OFA Report have endured for such a long time.

This is not anyone’s fault. It’s a product of the psyche of teaching, where lengthy, manual preparation enforces teachers’ ‘professionalism’. Regardless, it also hinders innovation.

For a good example of ‘enforced planning’, many will remember how we used street directories: look up the destination, remember the grid references, plan the route, orientate the map and try not to get lost!

With the advent of GPS devices, navigation was disrupted, forever. Later, we began to venture to unfamiliar locations (with confidence and minimal planning) because we now had turn-by-turn navigation.

You can see where this is going.

The winners are..

It’s inevitable these innovations will be absorbed by our curriculums. The only question is when this will happen. ‘Planning’ will be very different too, in fact, it might not be called ‘planning’, anymore. Teachers will be the winners, and so will schools. Students will be winners too. And, so will learning. Differentiation will not be ‘a thing’, it will just happen, more and more.

Let’s look at some of the ‘big ticket’ innovations, bearing in mind they will iterate too.

“Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things.”


4   Towards a Land of Promise

Proximity is King

The cartographer and geographer Waldo Tobler said, ‘Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things.’

‘Nearness’ or ‘proximity’ is also important in curriculums. For example, I can use ‘nearby’ content to decide what to teach next, or what I need to revise, to improve learning readiness.

But ‘proximity’ information is only useful if it’s accessible. ‘Scope and sequence’ documents provide very useful information about ‘proximity’, but you need to go outside the curriculum ‘register’ to find it.

In an interrelated curriculum, ‘proximity’ information is built-in, so you can easily identify the relationships between the curriculum pieces:

  • lead-in content
  • follow-up content
  • easier content (i.e. from the previous year level)
  • harder content (i.e. from the next year level)
  • similar-construct-related content
  • similar-topic-related content (re-labelled as integration opportunity content).

Here’s a simple visualisation:

Current curriculum location and 'nearby' content

“In an interrelated curriculum, the ‘curriculum isochrone’ improves the ‘equity’ of access to learning content.”

Efficiency is also about improving ‘equity’

In geography, we know that ‘distance’ is constant; however, the time it takes us to get somewhere, is variable.

In mapping, we can resolve these differences by using isochrones. They help us describe how far we can travel, in a given time. City planners use them to determine where to place a new transport route, so riders can access the service, equitably.

We can use a curriculum isochrone in the same way, to improve learning ‘equity’, by using time on task information to estimate the quickest learning path or the nearest resource:

  • teachers can estimate catch-up time, for missed work
  • students (and parents) can estimate accelerated pathway time
  • teachers can find ‘nearby’ activities, possibly from another jurisdiction, because users know they are teaching the same content.

Improved flexibility to drive learning

Proximity information can also help teachers work more flexibily. For example, if I want learning to lead curriculum, rather than the established scope and sequence, my interrelated curriculum needs to allow me to jump into unfamiliar content, with confidence. I don’t want to have to worry about losing students with imperfect pre-requisite understandings, so I will rely on the easier or lead-in content, that’s nearby, to support my decision. I will also be looking carefully at what the students have already learnt, (which my system will identify) so my ‘jump-point’ is not completely ‘ungrounded’.

Reducing curriculum overcrowding

An interrelated curriculum also helps to identify redundant content. The redundancy may be the result of an integration opportunity, that originated in another subject, possibly with a different teacher. The point being, my interrelated curriculum will draw the redundancy to my attention, so I can focus on ‘consolidating’ that content, rather than re-teaching it, as if for the first time. There is every reason to suggest that, if integration opportunities are easily accessible, teachers will be more likely to implement them, or even seek them out, to enhance their teaching (or learning) efficiency.

It’s self-evident that if content ‘clutter’ is easy to identify, it can be flagged, for deletion, or reworking, as required.

The geo-fence: leveraging innovations from other technologies

Data visualisations point to powerful innovation opportunities, in an interrelated curriculum, because proximity is easy to recognise, when it’s represented visually.

For example, geo-fence technologies can automatically identify nearby resources within the geo-fence. Furthermore, the interrelated curriculum system can alert teachers when students enter the geo-fence, and when they leave, which provides asynchronous and differentiated learning opportunities, which are personalised for each student.

Curriculum 'geo-fence' alerts users (teachers and students) to quality nearby-resources

Companies such as Mapbox are developing technologies which are able to generate beautifully rendered visualisations containing extremely complex data, even on small devices.

The challenge for curriculum systems is to interrelate the curriculum as well as usage data, and to use algorithms that will automatically ‘tune’ search results so teachers can find the result they want, with a single search. That said, this is no easy thing to achieve!

Reframing planning as learning progress forecasts

In an interrelated curriculum, content and usage data can be used to estimate teaching time and learning progress estimates.

This enables the teaching plan to be reframed as a teaching forecast, because the estimates are based on evidence. Furthermore, the teaching forecast acts as a ‘pencil line’, for measuring actual learning progress against what’s been forecast. This helps teachers to monitor students who are working ‘ahead of forecast’, and those who are ‘behind’. It also reduces the risk that ‘outliers’, such as high- and low-performing students, will be missed.

Because the DUKC system has evolved as an effective risk management tool, in the ports where it is used, we would expect the interrelated curriculum to play a similar role. In fact, it could be its biggest role! 

Understanding learning progress before assessments are administered

Teachers and parents may be surprised to discover that an interrelated curriculum does not require learning progress to be contingent on assessment results.

There are many benefits with this approach:

  • a student’s capability does not determine their learning progress
  • learning progress becomes an important pre-cursor to assessment
  • metrics for learning progress can be ‘triangulated’ with assessment results to provide holistic, high-level insights into learning engagement.

It’s also possible to use metrics for learning progress, such as ‘learning steps’. These can be aggregated using a ‘learning step counter’, and analysed to provide further insights into learning engagement.

Data insights using the learning step counter

Schools can use the learning step counter to provide data-rich insights into learning engagement:

  • students can use learning steps as daily learning targets, and personalise their settings, to enhance their sense of responsibility for their own learning
  • teachers can compare class learning steps with data from a previous week, or term, or semester, to highlight class learning progress
  • teachers and school leaders can reward ‘above year-level’ learning steps, e.g. with trophies or stickers, generated automatically by the interrelated curriculum system.


Learning engagement and engagement with the interrelated curriculum system

The learning step counter provides schools with a simple, built-in mechanism for understanding the level of engagement, with the interrelated curriculum system

‘Static’ progress insights

Teachers can also use the interrelated curriculum to provide insights into student progress, on a single task, using the hill graph.

The hill graph provides a progress visualisation, across two broad phases:

  • up-the-hill slope: what is unknown; students are working out how to do something
  • down-the-hill slope: what is known; students are working towards an observable milestone.

“With an interrelated curriculum, learning progress metrics are not limited to ‘learning steps’.”

The Hill graph: static- , deep- or point-in-time-progress insights

This provides teachers with powerful insights:

  • in which ‘phase’ are students making the most progress
  • where are the ‘outliers’ situated, who might be easy to miss
  • where are students stuck, which may indicate gaps in their pre-requisite understandings, or flaws in the task?

These insights can generate discussions about learning:

  • how students might work differently, to move up the hill
  • whether a task may need to be redefined, so that students can get ‘unstuck’
  • how students can develop soft skills, such as a growth mindset
  • ways of responding to ambiguity and/or complexity.

The hill graph can be further enhanced, to visualise the extent and frequency of collaboration, as the task moves towards completion.

Overcoming ‘roadblocks’

Teachers may view the transition towards an interrelated curriculum with varying degrees of anticipation. Some may have questions and other may be sceptical.

Part 2 of this article includes feature examples, to illustrate what the transition to an interrelated curriculum might look like.

We are building learning progress modules for One Curriculum, for release later in 2020.

If you would like more information about how we could work with your school, to implement an interrelated curriculum, let us know here.

We are keen to partner with schools to ensure One Curriculum meets your needs. We especially want to support schools who are facing the challenges of ‘unfinished learning’, following school closures.

We will publish Part 2 of this article, very soon.

Thank you for reading.

One Curriculum

Get real-time insights into curriculum delivery, syllabus compliance, learning progress (and unfinished learning)—in ONE easy-to-use dashboard. Designed by educators, for teachers, coordinators and school leaders.

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