High-quality instructional materials have long been considered a powerful tool for increasing student achievement by providing rigorous, standards-aligned, grade-level content. But are high-quality instructional materials enough? Research finds that having a knowledge-building curriculum is an integral part of student learning and achievement, but not all “high-quality” instructional materials are designed to support students in systematically building knowledge. High-quality instructional materials should be the floor, not the ceiling, when it comes to teaching and learning.
Countless data points—including the National Assessment of Educational Progress, NWEA MAP Growth, and state tests results—show that students’ learning was negatively affected by the instructional disruptions caused by the pandemic. But even before the pandemic, far too few students had the opportunity to fulfill their potential. Students deserve better. Rather than striving to return to pre-pandemic performance levels, these data points should serve as a larger call to action to put instructional materials that are both high-quality and knowledge-building into our classrooms. Doing so will help make sure that all students can achieve their full potential and achieve greatness.
Knowledge Matters: The Benefits of Knowledge-Rich Instruction
Research shows that when students have knowledge, it is easier for them to continue to grow their knowledge. Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham writes in “How Knowledge Helps” that “knowledge is not only cumulative, it grows exponentially. Those with a rich base of factual knowledge find it easier to learn more—the rich get richer” (2006). Natalie Wexler echoes Willingham’s findings, writing in The Knowledge Gap, “the more knowledge a child starts with, the more likely she is to acquire yet more knowledge. She’ll read more and understand and retain information better, because knowledge, like Velcro, sticks best to other related knowledge” (2019, 35).
With rich background knowledge, students are likely to make correct inferences about new information and will not have to use their working memory to search for connections, which taxes cognitive load. Additionally, with background knowledge, information can be chunked in working memory to free up cognitive space to think about new information. When students think about the information they’re learning, they’re more likely to remember it. Willingham cites many studies that lead him to the conclusion that “it is easier to fix new material in your memory when you already have some knowledge of the topic” (Willingham 2006).
Knowledge Fuels Student Learning: The Five Components of a Knowledge-Building Curriculum
The important work identifying high-quality instructional materials done by EdReports, the Council of Chief State School Officers’ High-Quality Instructional Materials collaborative, and states like Louisiana, Tennessee, Massachusetts, and Maryland are necessary for ensuring that high-quality materials are in classrooms for every student. These reviews, however, seldom evaluate materials beyond their alignment to standards to understand whether the body of knowledge presented in them is coherent and of interest to students.
Evaluating the body of knowledge presented in a curriculum can feel overwhelming—and no curriculum can reasonably include everything—but guidelines do exist to help educators understand a curriculum’s knowledge build. The Knowledge Matters Campaign offers Five Essential Features of Knowledge-Rich Curriculum. While originally designed to support the evaluation of English language arts instructional materials, these five essential features are found in all Great Minds® curricula. The five essential features are defined below, followed by examples of how Great Minds curricula align to these features.
- Specific: The content students will learn across the year should be clearly and specifically stated by topic.
- Cumulative: Across grades, the content students will learn should include both depth and breadth so that students do not repeat content in one topic when they could study a related topic and build new knowledge.
- Well rounded: Subject-specific learning should include connections to other content areas to help students build more knowledge. Additionally, content areas like the arts are inherently interesting to students and help engage all students in learning.
- Preparatory: Given the breadth of knowledge that could be taught and the time constraints of a school year, it is important to focus on content that will prepare students well for future learning.
- Rigorous: Students deserve to engage with rigorous topics with appropriate supports that help them build from basic knowledge toward a more complex understanding.
When curricula are not specific, students learn content in isolation with few opportunities to meaningfully apply it in different contexts over time. Instead, curricula should be written to reflect what students should know and be able to do, and there should be evidence of that intentionality to students and teachers.
For example, Great Minds mathematics, English language arts, and science curricula are organized into modules, and each module focuses on content and ideas related to a central theme or topic of study. This sustained focus on one area of study at a time allows students to deeply engage with that content, systematically building their understanding of what they are learning and why. All Great Minds lessons include a key question or a focus question to anchor the day’s learning so that students know what problem they’re trying to solve or knowledge they’re building each day. Students may encounter the same question across multiple lessons as they build related knowledge and fully explore the content they’re learning. This focused engagement with specific content increases the likelihood that the knowledge sticks long term.
The teacher edition for each curriculum also includes explicit guidance on what knowledge students should be gaining, in addition to skills, throughout a module. In Wit & Wisdom®, the Module Learning Goals explicitly name the knowledge and skills students are building throughout the module. Within the Module Learning Goals, knowledge goals are clearly defined. Each text selected in a module helps students build specific knowledge that is critical to achieving the learning goals. Over the course of a module, both the core and supplementary texts will support students in establishing breadth and depth of knowledge. The text sets help students build understanding to answer the module’s essential question while developing and practicing critical skills along the way. Students will communicate the knowledge they have built throughout a module in their writing and speaking tasks.
Building knowledge is a long game, and Great Minds curricula are designed to be cumulative. Students need time to work with content and information in multiple forms and at different intervals to make meaningful connections between new content and previous learning that will endure over time. So, while each module is focused on a specific topic to provide depth of knowledge, that knowledge acquisition is also intentionally designed to be cumulative. By the end of a school year, students will have opportunities to demonstrate their proficiency in all standards and to reflect on the content knowledge they’ve learned, helping set the foundation for future learning in the years that follow.
For example, Eureka Math2® is thoughtfully constructed and designed like a story. The curriculum is coherent and has an intense focus on key concepts that layer over time, with explicit connections made for educators about how current learning is related to previous learning and is foundational to future learning. Eureka Math2 also includes interleaved and spaced practice for students so they can revisit content throughout the year, ensure their prior knowledge stuck, and see how that knowledge relates to current learning. Students will use the same models and problem-solving methods from grade to grade, so math concepts stay with them year after year.
The Overview describes topic by topic, the story of learning in the module. Before This Module and After This Module look back and forward to reveal coherence across modules and grade levels.
PhD Science® modules are similarly designed to uncover a story—about a specific anchor phenomenon. The lesson sequence of a module intentionally guides students through aspects of the anchor phenomenon and related supporting phenomena so students can connect their daily learning to a growing explanation of the anchor phenomenon. Each PhD Science module includes resources for teachers so that they can support students in revealing the story of the module and how their science learning helps them understand the story.
In Wit & Wisdom, each module begins with a Module in Context designed to showcase how the current module relates to the other modules across the year. The Module in Context not only covers students’ progression in reading, writing, and speaking and listening, but also how their knowledge is building over the year. While in every module students build knowledge about a specific topic through their engagement with core and supplemental texts, across a year and over grade levels, students begin to build more comprehensive knowledge of the world. In addition to emphasizing the development of essential skills, the teacher–writers of Wit & Wisdom were intentional and thoughtful about the focus and sequencing of module topics so that students make connections between topics over time. Topics are sequenced such that students can recall and apply prior knowledge to new learning, thus helping new knowledge to stick. Throughout Wit & Wisdom, students will build knowledge across grade levels about American history, human history, human geography, health and nutrition, scientific exploration, and anatomy and physiology, among other topics.
3. Well Rounded
Great Minds curricula build students’ discipline-specific and broader content knowledge. Across all curricula, students have opportunities to engage in the arts, as every module asks students to notice and wonder about a piece of art and connects that piece of art to their learning. Art exploration also offers a novel entry point into knowledge building, since all learners can ask questions about the work of art and share what they observe.
Throughout PhD Science, there are also opportunities for educators to help students make cross-content connections so they can apply their literacy and math skills to their science learning. Applying learning in novel contexts supports knowledge building for students as they’re asked to apply their knowledge in a new setting, which requires them to move beyond rote memorization and enact their knowledge.
In PhD Science Level 2 Module 2 Lesson 8, students practice data analysis in science, supporting their mastery of math standards.
In addition to making art connections and situating math in real-world contexts, the Eureka Math2 writers were intentional about making cross-content connections for students through the embedded feature Math Past, which appears in nearly every module. Math Past tells the history of some of the big mathematical ideas in the module through artifacts, discoveries, and other contributions from cultures around the world.
Lovelace – “Portrait of Ada Lovelace, 1836/Wikimedia Commons”
Finally, Wit & Wisdom® and Geodes® are rooted in the research that indicates students develop stronger reading comprehension when they are learning from content-rich texts. A review by Johns Hopkins University using their ELA Knowledge Map highlights the strength of this approach, finding that “at the elementary level, Heat Map coverage is exemplary in many domains, indicating a robust curriculum with a wide variety of materials covering many subjects…the elementary curriculum provides a strong example of what knowledge-building should look like across an entire curriculum” (2022, 3). Topics covered by Wit & Wisdom and Geodes at each grade level include a balance of science, language arts, history, and geography, giving students opportunities to build knowledge across a variety of content areas in a year and to strategically add to this knowledge year over year.
Knowing that one curriculum cannot cover all knowledge, writers make critical decisions during curriculum development about what content is included and what must be omitted in order to achieve all standards and ensure students have a coherent learning experience. The teacher–writers of our curricula intentionally focus on the content and skills that prepare students for future learning. Our curricula introduce students to important topics at young ages and ask them to engage in the cognitive work required for learning both content and skills so that as they progress through grades, they have a strong foundation upon which to build another year of learning.
For example, in Eureka Math2, students are taught about number bond models beginning in kindergarten. This model is a tool students can use to understand critical part–whole relationships as they progress through grade levels, and it also supports fluency work. Students will be able to employ the number bond model in every grade level with increasing complexity. Number bonds are just one of the research-based, high-leverage models that students will encounter. Other models include arrays, number lines, and tape diagrams, all of which are intentionally used across grade levels to help prepare students for more complex units and computation.
In PhD Science, modules are sequenced to build coherent understanding and mastery of Disciplinary Core Ideas, Science and Engineering Practices, and Crosscutting Concepts within and across levels and are intended to be taught in the order they are presented. Modules provide opportunities for students to explore questions and apply knowledge and skills they developed in previous modules. Each module describes how student understanding progresses across modules in the Building Knowledge and Skills Across Levels section of the Module Overview. Spotlight on Three-Dimensional Integration notes within lessons also include an explanation of how a lesson activity related to one or more specific DCIs, SEPs, and/or CCs.
An example of Building Knowledge and Skills Across Levels from PhD Science Level 1 Module 2.
As students explore Wit & Wisdom topics like The Five Senses, America, Then and Now, and The Continents in kindergarten, they are not just building skills, they are also building content knowledge. English language arts instruction provides the opportunity for students to learn about the world through engaging texts that spark their interest in a variety of topics from history, science, and the arts. Through a content-rich curriculum, students build background knowledge that they can draw upon and apply when they encounter these topics more deeply in subject-area specific classes like social studies, science, art, and music.
Great Minds curricula contain rigorous, grade-level content and are designed with embedded supports and scaffolds so all students can access the content, engage in the productive struggle of learning, and build a foundation of knowledge upon which they continue to learn and grow. When students are presented with rigor in the classroom along with appropriate supports for learner variance, all students can achieve grade-level expectations.
Rigor in Wit & Wisdom means that thinking and analysis are done by students, not for students. In a Wit & Wisdom classroom, all students, regardless of language acquisition, reading level, or background, are given the opportunity to learn from a complex, grade-level curriculum and correspondingly advanced texts. Instructional routines such as Chalk Talks and Socratic Seminars allow students to productively struggle with academic content, building their sense of self-efficacy and competence as learners and allowing them to master content and skills. The curriculum prioritizes giving students ample processing time and intentional learning routines and supports—such as Content Framing Questions and Craft Questions—so that students have the tools to engage deeply in their own learning.
Eureka Math2 is designed to provide a balance of conceptual understanding, procedural skills, fluency, and application of math knowledge, which are mutually reinforcing and support students in developing deep mathematical understanding. The curriculum supports students’ development of conceptual understanding with simple to complex problem sequences and concrete-pictorial-symbolic progressions and connections. Procedural skills and fluency are a major focus throughout the curriculum so that students can attain the efficiency needed to find success with grade-level content. Practice problems provide students with opportunities to revisit skills, especially through interleaved and distributed practice, which helps students solidify their conceptual understanding and procedural skills, transfer knowledge to new applications, and build fluency. Prioritizing students’ development of conceptual understanding, procedural skills, and fluency across modules and grade levels ensures that students maintain rigorous engagement in their learning rather than settling for the ability to apply a skill or formula as evidence of deep understanding.
PhD Science is designed for all students to meet the learning expectations set forth in the NGSS. To support students in building knowledge, the curriculum requires rigorous engagement from them through a learning cycle of asking questions and sharing initial ideas about phenomena, exploring those questions, developing evidence-based explanations, and transferring their knowledge to explain different phenomena in new contexts. Supported by differentiation strategies, all students engage with challenging content through hands-on investigations, collaborative conversations, and analysis of authentic texts, data, and media.
All students deserve access to high-quality instructional materials that are also knowledge rich because all students should feel excited, engaged, and successful in their learning. Knowledge-building instructional materials help students succeed with rigorous content by providing a coherent, consistent, and clear learning sequence that lightens students’ cognitive load and allows them to focus on understanding and retaining new information. When students can focus on learning, their confidence grows along with their passion to learn more.
Knowledge Develops Educator Practice: What a Knowledge-Building Curriculum Looks Like for Teachers
To ensure students experience the full benefits of a high-quality, knowledge-building curriculum, instructional materials should also be educative, or knowledge building, for educators. Educative curriculum materials help teachers acquire new content and pedagogical knowledge, typically through embedded notes, annotations, and models of practice. The presence of educative features in a curriculum has been shown to improve teachers’ instructional planning and curriculum implementation in addition to improving student learning.
The Teacher Edition for each Great Minds curriculum is intentionally designed to help educators hone their practice and effectively guide their unique learners through the productive struggle of building knowledge that lasts. While each curriculum includes several different embedded supports and resources, the following core features are consistent across all Great Minds instructional materials:
- Module Overviews that show the development of learning throughout the module and connections to learning in the past and in the future.
- Just-in-time notes that provide information to support lesson implementation for all learners as well as differentiation suggestions, including scaffolding and extension opportunities.
- Sample dialogue and student responses to model student discourse and written work.
Knowledge Knows No Bounds: How a Knowledge-Building Curriculum Supports Families
When students engage in knowledge building about the real world inside of the classroom, they start to make connections outside of the classroom too. Great Minds provides a wealth of resources to engage families in their students’ learning so that caregivers can encourage their students’ curiosity and wonder. For example, each of our curricula include Tip Sheets that can be shared with families, providing them with an overview of each module along with ways to support students. Geodes also include take-home copies of the texts so students can practice reading comprehension and share the content at home.
With these family-oriented resources, caregivers feel more connected to their students’ education and are able to ask specific questions about what their child is learning in school. This fosters rich conversation and helps students retain information as they engage with the content in a new environment. Access the full range of family resources for each curriculum by using the following links.
- Wit & Wisdom for Families
- Eureka Math2 Family Support Resources
- PhD Science for Families
- Geodes for Families
Knowledge for All
Access to knowledge is an equity issue. As cognitive research shows, learning is more successful when embedded in content-rich topics. But, too often, students who are striving learners receive instruction that is overly focused on skills and procedures and is void of content in which students can apply those skills and procedures while building enduring knowledge. Without equal access to instructional materials that are specific, cumulative, well rounded, preparatory, and rigorous, students may learn enough to pass an assessment, but their knowledge is unlikely to grow and stick for the long term.
Ensure your students have access to high-quality, knowledge-building instructional materials—because when students have knowledge and know how to acquire more, they are unstoppable.
Chiefs for Change. “Hiding in Plain Sight: Leveraging Curriculum to Improve Student Learning.” 2017. Accessed January 12, 2023. https://www.chiefsforchange.org/download-media/hiding-in-plain-sight/.
Chu, Elizabeth, Andrea Clay, and Grace McCarty. 2021. “Fundamental 4: Pandemic Learning Reveals the Value of High-Quality Instructional Materials to Educator-Family-Student Partnerships.” Columbia University Center for Public Research and Leadership. July 2021. https://cprl.law.columbia.edu/sites/default/files/content/Publications/CPRL_2021_Fundamental%204_Final.pdf.
Johns Hopkins School of Education, Institute for Education Policy. “ELA Knowledge Map.” 2022. Johns Hopkins University School of Education. https://3454910.fs1.hubspotusercontent-na1.net/hubfs/3454910/Research/JHU_ELAKnowledgeMapReport_WitandWisdomandGeodes.pdf
Knowledge Matters Campaign. “Five Essential Features of Knowledge-Rich Curriculum.” 2016. https://knowledgematterscampaign.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/FiveEssentialFeatures.pdf.
Wexler, Natalie. 2019. The Knowledge Gap: The Hidden Cause of America’s Broken Education System—and How to Fix It. New York: Avery, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
Willingham, Daniel T. 2006. “How Knowledge Helps: It Speeds and Strengthens Reading Comprehension, Learning—and Thinking.” The American Federation of Teachers (Spring). https://www.readingrockets.org/article/how-knowledge-helps.
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Jenny has over a decade of experience in education policy and research. She has worked with states and districts on the development and implementation of college and career readiness policies, especially around the implementation of rigorous standards and high-quality instructional materials. She has extensive knowledge about K–12 standards, graduation requirements, assessments, and accountability systems nationwide. Additionally, she has conducted research for school districts to address pressing needs in those districts. Jenny received her B.A. in English and education from Bucknell University and her M.Ed. in education policy from the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education.
Topics: knowledge building