The most important question you will ever ask

The most important question you will ever ask is…

What do you need to know Bob?


Allow me to explain. “Bob” is the name of a fictional student created by Dr. Marie Alcock. Marie, who is the president of Learning Systems Associates, was a guest to our school to provide the faculty with workshops and support on curriculum mapping. Curriculum mapping is about creating a school wide database of the key areas of curriculum – content, skills, assessment and essential questions. At first I wasn’t too excited to be spending two days with what I thought would be filling in boxes on Rubicon Atlas – our school’s chosen curriculum mapping tool. However, despite my natural cynicism I kept a positive attitude that something useful would happen – especially considering the school had invested in bringing over a fancy guest speaker. I was not disappointed. First of all, Marie is a highly knowledgeable and passionate speaker who truly believes in what she does and does it well. But most importantly, Marie knows how to motivate a group of teachers. And she didn’t do it by sharing cheesy videos, or sappy stories or giving us pep talks etc…She didn’t even have a fancy powerpoint presentation. In fact at one point she told us to turn our eyes away from the screen, embarrassed by her poor choice of font/background color combinations! But she didn’t need the bells and whistles that we’ve all heard already. All she had to do was ask us the RIGHT question. That question was simply….why?

Why are we curriculum mapping? 

And the brilliance of that simple yet highly important question is that it led us as teachers to start asking more questions. Questions we didn’t even know needed to be answered. And this is where Bob comes in.


Marie very astutely pointed out that before we can begin curriculum mapping, we must start with a clear vision as to why we are doing it. We are doing it because it is in the best interest of the students i.e. Bob. We are doing it because research has shown that the most important school level factor in student success is a clear and purposeful curriculum. Enough said. As a group of science teachers we then sat down, took a look at our curriculum and started wondering, is this what’s best for Bob? Do we need to make some changes and if so, where can we do it? We started having the type of conversations that we didn’t realize we weren’t having. This is when critical evaluation and collaboration really started to happen.

As professionals we began to ask ourselves what enduring knowledge we felt was most important for our students to have. For example, after grade ten science, students have the option of choosing biology, chemistry, physics or environmental systems. If a student never took biology again after grade ten, what would be the key concepts they should walk away with? After careful revision we noticed major gaps – they would never even have heard the word evolution! Whaaat? How did we let that happen? So out comes cell transport in grade eight and in comes natural selection. Amazing. It was like osteopathy for education – a readjustment and realignment here and there to create more balance. It was probably the most useful professional development we’ve had as a group in the past four years.


When we finished with vertical alignment of the content, we moved on to skills. This is where things became a bit more fuzzy. Skills such as research skills, study skills, presentation skills – these are not limited to science only. Therefore, in order not to overwhelm ourselves we decided to focus on science specific skills such as lab report writing. When would we introduce uncertainties? How detailed does a hypothesis have to be in grade seven? These were the types of questions we were asking. One of the best decisions we made was to stop asking students to evaluate sources of error in grade seven. Here they start to develop bad habits that carry on through to grade twelve. For example, an eleven year old does not have enough experience to recognize that a weakness in their lab design was the narrow range of the independent variable. Instead they will comment on irrelevant human errors such as the fact that they spilled some of their solution. Therefore, instead of allowing them to start developing these bad evaluation habits, we will ask them different types of questions such as – what further questions do you have after this experiment? We can start introducing error in grade nine once they’ve had more experience and more maturity. We didn’t quite get finished with this, but we made a good, meaningful start.

Some other take away points from those two days about curriculum:

  • Consistency at certain levels is key – for example the language we use has to be consistent (essential questions, significant concepts etc…)
  • Flexibility at certain levels is necessary – for example we all use the same unit plan, but each of our lessons may be slightly different depending on the needs of our students
  • Content is nouns. Skills are verbs.
    • Content: Trends in the periodic table.
    • Skill: Students will be able to identify trends in the periodic table.
  • Filling in the boxes is important once you know why you are doing it. I didn’t realize the power of Atlas to act as a database. Honestly, I just thought it was a repository for information. Now I know that if used properly, it can be used to search across disciplines and see where/when students are developing specific knowledge and skills. It can be a powerful tool for revision and refinement.
  • Take things “bird by bird.” I can’t believe I’m using a bird analogy (see this book to understand the metaphor), but what I mean is don’t bite off more than you can chew. One teacher said it took three years at her last school to finish curriculum mapping. After two mentally exhausting days, I can see why. Better not to overwhelm yourself and do it little by little. Otherwise you just start “admiring your problems” as Marie put it.
  • Our staff meetings need to change. THIS is what we should be doing – not announcing important dates for report cards.
  • It’s not about YOU. It’s about Bob. Yeah you love the osmosis lab…but is it really helping Bob develop key skills and knowledge?

What I’m really interested in pursuing next is horizontal curriculum mapping. This is where the power of the MYP lies – in creating interdisciplinary units based on common skills development and related knowledge. Once we have all completed our vertical curriculum alignment, I am excited to see what opportunities there could be for cross over between subjects. For example, could grade nine math and science team up in the electricity unit to teach slope and Ohm’s law? And how can we start incorporating service learning and global citizenship into our units? These are the big questions that I’m thinking about next.

And of course we also have to keep in mind – what do you want to know Bob?

Photo credits go to @DaunYorke who is also credited with organizing this great experience for us.


6 thoughts on “The most important question you will ever ask

    1. Thanks Heidi. It was easy to write. Marie was a great facilitator of the conversations we needed to have and I think a lot of positive change came out of the sessions. It was truly one of the most useful PD days we’ve had at our school (in my humble opinion).

  1. Juliana,
    This is a wonderful account of the collaborative work done during the professional days with Marie Alcock in this blogpost. You have shared those “aha” moments and articulated beautifully why Curriculum Mapping is so important. Thank you.

  2. Thoughtful post. At my last school where we employed Rubicon curriculum mapping was commonly known as “doing rubicon”. Coming into that environment it was clear the system was broken and no one could answer the question “why are we mapping curriculum?”. Your pictures from the whiteboard mirror my most meaningful mapping experiences. Ones where paper, post-its and diagrams help expose holes, gaps and areas for further articulation. This is one area where I am torn about how prominent a role technology should play. On one hand I understand the need to organize, document and search curriculum easily but on the other I also have seen what happens when a school tries to fill the “boxes” tool quickly and ends up with a big mess full of inconsistent terminology and hastily uploaded unit plans.

    1. That’s exactly where we were before we had this PD session. “Atlas” was becoming a four letter word at our school! The message we were left with, however, is that it’s not about filling in boxes. If you don’t know what to put in a box, then leave it blank and come back to it when you do. If the process takes three years then so be it. Once teachers see the value and administrators are willing to provide the time, it becomes a less overwhelming and more valuable exercise. The technology is secondary. It’s just the vehicle you use to navigate your map.

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