Articulation is a word we like to use in Curriculum Trak training and professional development events to capture the benefits of a clearly defined school-wide curriculum. Articulation forms a foundational component for curriculum mapping efforts and is often the impetus for a curriculum mapping initiative in the first place. However, it is not a word commonly used in educational circles. We adapted the word from its more common uses and repurposed it for the sake of capturing several key ideas in the realm of curriculum planning. For a moment, consider the rich context of the standard definition of this term.
Orators Articulate. Articulation is more commonly used when describing the efforts of a speaker to be clear in what they are communicating it (i.e. – using all of the structures of the mouth to speak clearly) as well as how the thoughts and ideas are shared (i.e. – word pictures, word choice, etc.). It seems the most articulate among us earn titles of admiration like orator, statesman, or even oracle. For some of us who are less articulate, there is no shortage of titles, terms, and even word pictures (“cat got your tongue”) for us to bear. We value the ability to articulate great thoughts and ideas in effective ways.
Musicians Articulate. Articulation also has musical applications that refer to clarity and precision in sound, pitch, and tone, specifically for musical groups. Choirs rehearse and follow their conductor carefully to sing con una voce – with one voice. In the context of an orchestra, the term takes a broader definition to capture the pitch and specific parts of each individual instrument. While a children’s choir or an elementary band who has not yet mastered this concept can still be enjoyable for family and friends, imagine the cacophony our little cherubs would produce if they were in an echoing cathedral designed to amplify the tones produced by their efforts. On the other hand, a more articulate ensemble’s sound would fully capitalize on the echoing sound to fill every corner of the sacred space with a heavenly sound. Music, by definition, is the result of a clearly articulated tone.
Dancers Articulate. The term articulation is also applied to the art of dance. In this context it refers to the efforts of the dancer to create harmony among the bone, muscle, joints, ligaments of the body to produce clear, fine lines to reflect the themes of the music. The masterful precision displayed by a ballerina in Swan Lake paints a stark contrast to a rowdy bunch of junior high students engaged in an impromptu chicken dance or an arena filled with raucous fans miming the letters Y…M…C.. A.. along with the blaring voices of the Village People. The synchronicity of a well-practiced contemporary dance troupe can evoke deep respect and awe for those of us who only dare to dance when we are sure no one is watching.
Why should teachers articulate? When we apply the term articulation to the efforts of a school to understand, organize, and reflect on what is being taught teacher by teacher, subject by subject, and grade by grade, the common uses of the word above can provide very engaging mental images. As educators, we strive to be as clear and articulate in our instructional practices as we possibly can, but the value of a clearly articulated curriculum, like the combination of rehearsed elements outlined above, transcends any one person. In reality, it makes little difference how clear a teacher may be about what they plan to teach, if they do not have a frame of reference about how it fits into the broader scope and sequence of the instruction going on around them, it will be muddled, at best. That would be like a silver-tongued orator with a limited vocabulary, or a violin which is prone to fall out of tune before the first movement is over, or a professional dancer who never practiced the current choreography.
Taking the analogy even further, a clearly articulated curriculum – a record of what has to be taught grade-by-grade and subject-by-subject in order for the basic requirements of the school’s course of instruction to be met – could be seen as the thesaurus, the tuning fork, or even the choreographer for all of your instructional decisions. It forms the guide, or map, for all of the other people and parts to congregate around. Think about how valuable it can be for every teacher at your school to have a clear reference to what is taught where and in exactly what sequence important concepts are being introduced and spiraled. Like the thesaurus, the tuning fork, or the choreography, a clearly defined curriculum provides the precision your professionals need to fine-tune their efforts for the sake of the students. It provides context, focus, even a standard against which to measure their efforts. Further, a clearly articulated school-wide curriculum provides a guide for adapting and modifying their efforts. Tiered interventions, advanced remediations, differentiation techniques, integration practices, focused review, and even opportunities for advanced exploration flow best from a clear vision of the required minimum. By articulating the essential components of a school-wide curriculum you are able to identify opportunities for any variation any student may require for their individual needs.
While we like to use the term “articulated curriculum,” Dr. Robert Marzano adopted the term “guaranteed and viable curriculum” as he communicates the findings of his research. In the book, What Works in Schools (Marzano, 2003), he goes so far to say that as instructional teams gather around the “guaranteed and viable curriculum” – what has to be taught no matter what – students achieve more. He identifies the practice of understanding and promoting the articulated curriculum as a greater factor in student achievement than the school’s budget, access to technology, and even socio-economic demographics. Dr. Mike Schmoker found similar results in his own research. He suggests that unless we have a “coherent curriculum” for all of our courses, we will only have a superficial impact on our students.
So, how articulate are you? What steps could your instructional team take to become more articulate? If things are a little incoherent, or your choreography is off, or perhaps the string section is a little out of tune, there is hope! Perhaps your current efforts look more like the Chicken Dance than Swan Lake. At least your team is ready to dance! If you seek meaningful and relevant ways to begin collecting and refining your course concepts, your educational team will embrace it. This is a safe assumption because teachers are always striving to become more articulate.
Marzano, R. J. (2003). What Works In Schools: Translating Research Into Action. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.