The Problem With Curriculum Mapping and One Inspired Solution

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The problem with standards is that we often can’t decipher the forest for the trees. Standards are supposed to help us recognize quality and set goals. They may be our destination, but we can’t fix our gaze there. Far too many people seem to be forgetting that it’s the journey that matters. When it comes to articulating curricula, that journey typically begins with a map. Problem is, people like me–those who lead this work– may have been getting curriculum mapping all wrong all along.

Curriculum mapping often feels very much like planning a road trip. Some prefer to use mapping apps to locate well-traveled routes and gain direction, while others long to explore off the beaten path. After a decade of doing this work, I’ve come to one conclusion: these decisions often have less bearing on the outcome than the commitment that all travelers make to gaze out the windows and notice their surroundings along the way.

It’s about recalculating.

It’s not enough to simply choose a road that gets us where we want to go. What we’re looking for are beautiful vistas. Gorgeous landscapes. The experience matters as much as arrival, and so do our feelings about it.

How can we map learning journeys in ways that attend to these realities?

Daniele Quercia got me thinking about this when I stumbled upon his TED Talk, Happy Maps. Here, he challenges viewers to choose pathways that aren’t merely efficient, but inspired. As you watch, consider the connections to curriculum design and map development.
[ted id=2162]

I’ve spent a lot of time mapping curricula in schools. Most of my colleagues know that I’ve never been satisfied by this work, though. I’ve uncovered many problems along the way, and although I’ve worked hard to adapt the process, my approach, and even the tools I’ve used to address emerging issues, mapping has continued to be a bit of a stone in my shoe. Quercia’s talk was a game changer.

I’ve started helping teachers map for happy.

Sounds simple and sweet and like total fluff, doesn’t it? It isn’t. Joy matters.

Curriculum mapping for happy isn’t about evading standards or the importance of alignment. It’s about seeking answers to questions like these, in order to avoid the domino effect of standardization:

  • If we’re going to invest ourselves in the journey, the destination must be worth it. Where are we going, and why are we going there? More than what we will learn or be able to do upon arrival, let’s think about bigger things that matter even more: who do we want to be when we arrive? Who do we want learners to be? How do we want to feel? What about them? How do we even know? Are we giving kids a place at the curriculum design table?
  • How will we help learners seek gorgeous landscapes and beautiful vistas along the way? Definitions vary, after all. How can our curricula enable differentiated approaches, and how can our map make this transparent?
  • Design matters. Columns and spreadsheets and software empower alignment, but do they engage and inspire the maker or the reader? Maps should be as beautiful as they are functional. How can teachers craft stunning products that inspire them, engage other users, unlock creativity, and sustain their interest?

What challenges do you face as you approach curriculum mapping or design? What’s making you uncomfortable? What solutions are you testing? Drop a line in the comments.

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A former English teacher, Angela Stockman is the founder of the WNY Young Writer's Studio, a community of writers and teachers of writing in Buffalo, New York. She is also an education consultant with expertise in curriculum design, instructional coaching, and assessment. Read more from Angela at

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