Why Curriculum Visualisation Matters

Updated: Jul 27, 2020

At the 2018 UX Australia conference, I had the pleasure of hearing designer, Eva-Lotta Lamm, speak on visual literacy. Lamm hammered home the contributions that Viz (visuals) and Verb (words) each make to our understanding of information. To highlight, Lamm showed how even the smallest combinations of words and images can totally change the meaning that’s conveyed:

What’s in each cup?

Since hearing Lamm speak, more and more I’ve started noticing the design features that surround or are combined with the words we read. Curriculum design — not the content, but the actual visual layout — is a juicy case in point.

What does a typical curriculum design tell us?

There’s a curious feature about curriculum design. I’m talking about the document that lays out the skills and knowledge that students should learn over the course of their schooling. This is the one that is set at a system level and used and interpreted by thousands of teachers. So what’s special about this document?

The curriculum is linear.

Contained within the curriculum document is a subtle message about hierarchy, importance and progress. Namely, having a list of curriculum dot points one after the other suggests that each point is of equivalent value. After one point is taught, it is now ‘done’ — the skill is acquired or the knowledge soaked up — and students can move on.

The reality of learning, however, is that it is interwoven and messy. Some concepts can be foundational(e.g. equivalent fractions) — they provide a way of understanding entire content areas and unlock much learning that follows. Other concepts help to bridge different areas that previously would have been perceived as disconnected (e.g. arrays bridge multiplication and area; the Cartesian Plane bridges algebra and Cartesian geometry).

It would be misleading, not to mention particularly unhelpful, to expect a student to learn new content without connecting it back to previously learned ideas. And it’s unhelpful to communicate an entire subject area to teachers using a design that neglects that subject’s true depth.

What’s an alternative to a linear curriculum design?

In her recent keynote at the MAV18 conference, Director of Cambridge Mathematics Lynne McClure talked about how the principle of ‘connectedness’ can inform curriculum design. Connectedness puts front and centre the notion that the skills and concepts that students get exposed to don’t occur in isolation but are related to one another. A connected curriculum places value on these relationships, communicating that one mathematical idea is informed by and helps to inform many other ideas.

Here are some examples.

1. Maths Pathway

The portion of a curriculum map below shows how the early skill of ordering numbers (in purple) is a precursor to many more mathematical ideas. Maths Pathway’s mapping demonstrates the breadth of impact that is had from learning one discrete skill.

2. Cambridge Mathematics

A similar set of concepts related to ordering and comparing quantities are demonstrated below. For Cambridge Mathematics, the colours of the nodes and edges are used to demonstrate the value of a concept and thedifferent forms of experiences that students will have.

What I love about these two examples is the way that they bring mathematics to life. The mappings aren’t neat, but they are more realistic than a linear design.

I’m interested to hear what other clever approaches to curriculum visualisation exist. What have you come across?

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