Three Building Blocks of Essential Content

November 3, 2021 Tayler Conklin

In a recent Watermark webinar, Kathy Telban, Chief Executive Manager for The Learning Organization, enlightened educators on ways to shift their approach to curriculum design. In her approach to curriculum strategy, Telban focuses on the importance of giving students information that applies to their real-life roles after graduation. To do this, Telban believes an outcome-based model that aligns with essential content is core to student success and offers five guiding questions to help write effective outcomes.

Developing Essential Content that Aligns with Learning Outcomes

As you’re developing essential content to align with your program or course outcomes, Telban encourages you to think about “lean learning.” To achieve the desired effect, Telban states, “We must differentiate between all content and essential content.” Avoiding non-essential content requires you to take the time to consider the necessary concepts, issues, and skills learners need to know to accomplish learning outcomes. Those concepts, issues, and skills are the three building blocks to creating a successful scope of content. In the classroom, this content will lead students to think more critically and participate in authentic conceptual learning, which can then be transferred to real-life roles outside the classroom.

Building Block One: Concepts

When choosing which concepts are vital to your curriculum, first ask yourself which concepts learners need to know and apply to effectively demonstrate their understanding of an outcome. Telban says concepts are the primary ideas learners need to understand to encourage and promote deep learning. Consider which important ideas your learners need to comprehend to truly accomplish the course or program outcomes, and try to express these concepts in one to three words.

Building Block Two: Issues

When defining the issues your curriculum will cover, ask yourself what learners must resolve to demonstrate understanding of outcomes. Telban defines issues as the “essence of critical thinking — the need to resolve a problem or dilemma.” Incorporating issues into your curriculum plan gives your students insight into problems related to your learning outcomes and highlights any challenges your learners will face in their societal roles. They encourage learners along the critical thinking pathways of:

  • Analysis: Pulling issues apart
  • Synthesis: Joining ideas together
  • Evaluation: Making a judgment about the issue
  • Reflection: Self-assessment of problem-solving around the issue

These critical thinking skills should be a priority in any educational experience.

Building Block Three: Skills

Finally, ask yourself what skills learners need to master to demonstrate understanding of the defined outcomes. Skills can range from micro (specific) or macro (general). How specific or general the skills included in your content are depend on what level of curriculum planning is involved (program, course, unit, or lesson). For example, program skills may be more general, where lesson skills may be more specific. The skills students acquire from the content are direct measurements of learning outcomes. They provide evidence that students have achieved course or program outcomes and can apply them in the real world. According to Telban, “repetition, practice, and feedback” are the fundamental components of evolving skills, so be sure to include plenty of opportunities for students to see you model the skill and to give them constructive feedback after they practice it themselves.

The Complete Picture

After you have incorporated the concepts, issues, and skills you will be covering in your curriculum outline, take a step back and look at the complete picture. Does your content present students with opportunities to engage with concepts, issues, and skills that will promote deeper learning and help them meet the desired outcomes? If so, you have created essential content. By following Telban's outcome-based-model curriculum approach of designing backward to teach forward, your content should clearly align to your previously created outcomes.

To learn more about Telban’s process for using learning outcomes to determine essential content, check out our on-demand webinar.

Watermark Can Help!

Designing learning outcomes and essential content for your course or program and managing the data for ongoing assessment can feel overwhelming, but Watermark has a solution for that! Watermark Planning & Self-Study:

  • Supports scalable planning
  • Aligns course learning outcomes with program learning outcomes
  • Creates maps to lay out all program outcomes against courses
  • Provides insights on how students are performing against outcomes
  • Aligns with regional accreditation standards, CTE standards, and articulation agreements
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