Building the Future Now: Deciding What to Cut, What to Keep and What to Create

By Heidi Hayes Jacobs and Allison Zmuda
Part Two in a Four-Part Series 

As the school year is winding to a close and everyone is desperate for a break, looking toward the opening of school next year is already causing unease. Throughout the world, educators face a critical challenge: how to design aspirational and future forward (post-pandemic) learning experiences rather than a temporary fix (triage). In our first blogpost in this four part series, we proposed the importance of beginning with input from students, parents, and teachers about what they are experiencing, what lessons they are learning, and what they will need moving into the next school year. We also looked at factors to mull over what will matter most in the planning for the year rather than jumping onto the “let’s pick up where we left off” bandwagon.

How can we shape curriculum right now that will best serve our learners for the future?

This blogpost is centered on two key steps to assist decision makers, learners, and families as they make this determination: development of future forward learning goals and using those goals as a north star to examine and clarify curriculum choices. This work can provide a balcony view to clarify broader learning goals that ideally guide day to day learning choices that teachers and students make—goals that take the long view on determining the strength, approaches, life-skills, and aptitudes needed to support our learners.

  • For teachers in the identification, creation, and/or redesign of compelling problems, questions, and challenges that can give insight into a refreshed curriculum storyline. Otherwise we are more likely to recycle what we have immediately in front of us, to cover old material, and to miss an opportunity.
  • For students as they are becoming more skillful, sophisticated, and strategic throughout their school years. This is especially helpful now when students may feel increased pressure/anxiety in anticipation of pace of learning to “catch up” for what was missed.
  • For the school community in reaching consensus on realistic priorities will be central to our efforts. Otherwise, there may be a tendency to go for the granular, memorize some facts, scramble to construct where “we left off.” It is critical to reach consensus as a school community on learning goals that will serve as a North Star to decision making.


What These Meta-Level Learning Goals Are

Future Forward Learning Goals are overarching, and transdisciplinary. We developed key criteria for these learning goals as well as a few illustrative examples.

  • Reasonable number and scope to capture all aspects of a learner’s life. Goals should cover the range of skills, behaviors, and dispositions that we seek in the long run. We have found that limiting to 10 may be a helpful barometer (not a hard fast rule).
  • Apply to the range of topics and challenges that learners encounter in all corners of school life—curricular, social, and personal investigations. These lend themselves to both transdisciplinary and subject-specific tasks that can honor existing curricular choices as well as open up the design table to more meaningfully include students.
  • Describe desired complexity and sophistication. These goals can then be broken down in grade level bands for instruction and coaching.
  • Provide clarity for  your target audience(s). We need to pay closer attention to how well we communicate about what we mean when we use broad generalizations.  Fuzzy language implies fuzzy thinking.  

The following examples that were drafted in partnership with Bena Kallick illustrate each of the key criteria listed above.

  • Seek to investigate challenging contemporary global and local issues by pursuing questions or a line of thinking.
  • Use design thinking and other processes to develop solutions, findings, prototypes, performances, and media.
  • Navigate through diverse sources and perspectives to make discerning and thoughtful judgments.
  • Generate, enrich, and craft communication through the strategic use of evidence and command of language.
  • Share stories, ideas, and points of view to engage others to think interdependently and potentially act collectively.
  • Think flexibly, take responsible risks, and listen with understanding and empathy as they  engage with the world.

Establish nomenclature. It may be that your school elects to give these Future Forward Learning Goals a “name” to stake out the ownership and engagement of your community. We encourage you to do so. Whether these are your Meta Level Goals, Essential Learning Goals or North Star Learning Goals, it is important that they belong to your community and will serve as guideposts to make wise decisions moving forward.

Examine Established Learning Goals as a possible starting point. Right now is  a rich opportunity to challenge our thinking about what we truly value through the process of crafting of Future Forward Learning Goals. It is not necessary to start from scratch.  For example, many school communities and have crafted descriptions of  what a Portrait of a Graduate  should demonstrate/look like. These descriptions are in the spirit of what McTighe and Wiggins call “transfer goals”—goals that will be important not only within the life of school but also in their lives well beyond school. We know that these goals reflect college and career readiness, part of the driving force for developing these goals. There are clear meta-level learning goals embedded in IB’s Approaches to Learning that serve naturally to guide decision making. There is also a rich source for essential goal setting in the introductory statements of purpose focused on life-long goals for learners in most standards whether through a national, state, or provincial organization. If  you already are using one of these models reaffirm and reimagine them to reflect the times.

Gather insight and information directly from all members of the school community. Focus on student agency—having their voices inform what they learn, where they learn, how they learn, and how they demonstrate learning—have been the heart of global conversation with personalized learning for close to ten years. During the current triage phase of our response to COVID19, parents viewed first hand the impact of remote learning had on their children. Lessons are being learned at home right now that are central to planning ahead. Now is the time to pay close attention to our learners and harvest recommendations. In our previous blogpost, we recommended Virtual School Community Summits to bring the community together. Whether the summit takes place in a virtual town hall format or whether it is organized in smaller “zoom room” discussion groups, the mix of parents, learners, and educators seems critical.   Certainly thoughtful surveys that encourage specific and actionable suggestions can prove fruitful. An invitation to articulate essential high priority learning goals can be integrated into discussions and into survey forms. We also recommend following a project called #JustAskUs  supported by the National Parents Union, Student Voice -Prichard Committee, High Tech High, AERO, Big Picture Learning that is developing tools and approaches to directly engage learners in contributing their voice and perspective in reimagining education now and into the post-pandemic period. The title is inspired by Heather Wolport-Gawron’s book, Just Ask Us: Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement, published by Corwin.  If you wish further information contact the project coordinator:  Masa Uzicanin 

Generate new Learning Goals. Based on our current experience in triage mode, the need for new or refreshed learning goals has gained clarity. While most schools valued the idea of  growing self-direction in students with the move to full-time remote learning, the urgency of growing this capacity has become more paramount. We moved to name a specific element of self-direction, self-management as a way to move from the broader, generalized statement which, in turn,  generated the following future forward learning goal.

Develop self-management skills by making choices for learning and monitoring thinking.

    • Take a bigger challenge and break it down into smaller, doable increments.
    • Set goals and monitor/revise them as needed to optimize clarity, viability, and motivation.
    • Experiment with time management structures to balance focus on task at hand with brain breaks, meeting deadlines, and staying motivated by my thinking.

Another example that is typically highlighted in many Graduate of a Profile statements is collaboration. To clarify this goal, we suggest bringing community voices to engage in conversation about when and under what conditions they feel they can connect and contribute most effectively. 

Collaboration is a dynamic between the way people interact and the work they need to accomplish. Many schools often focus on the management of a task to achieve a common objective rather than the relationships that invite social construction. We moved to draft a future forward learning goal that values both.

Engage deliberately and cultivate relationships with all members of the school community to build on, better understand, and be influenced by one another’s ideas and perspectives.  

    • Adapt with increasing skill by communicating with others in a given network to develop more effective thinking by listening and questioning.
    • Recognize how positive relationships impact motivation, openness to new ideas, and connection to the work.
    • Adhere to norms and demonstrates respectful behaviors as one engages with others to help maintain a safe environment that invites all to participate.


Armed with a thoughtful and powerful set of Future Forward Learning Goals, the following is a process for examining existing curriculum to determine what matters most for your learners. While this “weeding” may be painful for some, it is imperative that there is consensus so relieve pressure for coverage and provide more space to generate new ideas with students. We have provided the following graphic organizer to help clarify the process: 

Future Forward Curriculum Planning Process 

First, examine and clarify your current curriculum narrative.

  1. Compile existing units of study from your curriculum. Ideally, this can be done in grade level bands (e.g., K-1, 6-8) to ensure the choices you want to make do not put undue pressure on other grade levels to capture essential content. Working in departments on the high school level is obviously important, but it is also equally important to review across a grade level to see what the challenges will be for learners attempting to juggle multiple demands.  
  2. Examine each one and tell a brief story (thumbnail synopsis) of that unit. Why does it exist? What is the essential learning students will be able to continue to develop and transfer when that unit is over? What are the most critical standards to be in the foreground?  
  3. Review the storyline through the scope of the year. Are there connections between the units? What does your curriculum value the most?  

Second, ask yourselves the following questions:

Could you cut out unit(s) of study to make room for deeper investigation and development of key concepts and skills?

  • In any composition there is an editorial review where the question of “cutting” material is central to the whole. What matters most given the time that we have for our specific learners with our specific conditions, we must govern how we decide. The unique situation we are facing, will dictate significantly different learning conditions is a sensible element in our deliberations. (Shortened academic calendar, staggered classroom schedules, alternative attendance on-site if it occurs in your location, increased on-line learning demand).
  • To be clear, when cutting units it will be critical to examine standards that were emphasized in a unit. Given that standards are cultivated over time, it is likely that the faculty teams can readily identify the most critical standards that have been in the “foreground” in the design of learning experiences. It is always a concern to us when we see a unit of study with 30 standards listed (this is not an exaggeration) since these proficiencies take time to develop. Bundling standards that naturally cluster together in student learning is a natural way to align assessments. A faculty team can look at bundled and individual standards to sort out which are the most essential to their specific learners and those that are not.

Could you cut back each unit of study significantly? It is highly likely that educators have already made key decisions to cut back during this current curricular planning Triage phase of COVID19 as of this writing. Given the abruptness of moving to a total online environment over the past weeks, lesson planning may have been arbitrary and left to each teacher. Curricular decisions may have been orchestrated with others in a school, grade level team, department or the process could have reflected both approaches.

Moving forward we suggest your planning teams review the “thumbnail” story of the curriculum through the year to determine places where they may elect to cut back and distinguish the most essential from the less critical material in their units.   The task is to distinguish the most essential elements in the curriculum and place them in the foreground.

  • Skills: Given the importance of cognitive and technical skills in the long term growth of learners, teachers will want to elevate critical skills integral in supporting students within a given discipline as well as sub skills tied to Future Forward Learning Goals.  
  • Content cuts: Materials, information, facts, subtopics that are non-essential should be cut given the larger aims and goals of the unit. The tendency to “cover” content needs to be confronted in order to move forward.  Distinguishing content that directly supports and is central to the Future Forward Learning Goals and storyline might prove to be a great challenge but also a rewarding one. Of particular value will be to proactively have our learners show the connections between the key content and that storyline as the curriculum develops. In our previous blogpost, we referenced The Big History Project, which takes a big picture view of key concepts through history where learners construct a narrative based on those key conceptual ideas rather than simply diving into minutiae. The approach exemplifies how your team might step back and layout the conceptual framework that is accessible to learners in any course or learning program. To be clear, the review of these cuts will be ongoing once the new school year commences whether on-site or on-line or both. 
  • Assessment cuts: Evidence of learning is bedrock to the design of learning experiences. Coupled with meaningful feedback, our learners can progress in their development. Considerations and decisions about what formative and summative assessments will be the most revealing and helpful demonstrations of learning should be determined as a faculty both across grade levels and vertically. Certainly the impact of state or provincial requirements for public educators and education organization policies (i.e. College Board, IB) is a major factor in decision making. Bottom line, if there are cuts in the curriculum then there will be corresponding cuts in the assessments.

Could you consolidate based on units of study and personal learning progress during the remote learning time?

  • Given the nature of your course or grade level subject area layout, if there are related and clear connections between units then combining them is possible. To consolidate means to combine elements to make a more effective coherent whole. On a practical review of the scope and sequence of a year’s units, we can step back and not only determine what we might cut and where we might cut back, but where we can merge units of study. Consolidation can certainly occur within an existing unit as a teacher reviews and revises elements and activities based on past experience. Certainly interdisciplinary units of study can be a fruitful design consideration when consolidating. 
    • It may be that a geology course in a high school begins with a look at the formation of the earth as a planet for the first unit and in the second examines oceans and the third unit looks at land. It seems that these three could be combined to shorten the time and be reframed to look at the early story of planet earth: beginnings and elements.
    • On the elementary level, a fourth grade ELA curriculum might have a sequence that moves from a unit on historical fiction focused on a chapter book perhaps Number the Stars by Lois Lowry , to a unit on persuasive writing on an issue. It seems plausible to combine those two and consider having students take a stand on a critical issue raised in Lowry’s classic work.

Could you create a new unit or module to replace this altogether? 

  • Generating new curriculum units responsive to the learners and to the zeitgeist is an option that seems particularly relevant.  Certainly new units could be interdisciplinary derived from a reconsideration of your existing layout for the school year.  A deliberate lens from multiple subject areas on common topics, problems, issues, and themes could provide a fresh perspective for learners. We strongly recommend the development of phenomena-based learning supporting inquiry into emergent problems and issues in a students life.  These might be framed on a personal, local, or global level but what is key is there is an immediacy to the situation. (NOTE: Interdisciplinary units emerge from the natural connections we see “between disciplines”, that is between the subjects.  Phenomona-based is not anchored in our traditional school day but transcends the notion.   We are not suggesting one is “better than the other”, rather we hope to provide a menu of options as units are generated) .
    • A key organizing focus could be phenomena-based given the emergent issues regarding the pandemic. Whether an individual unit or a series of units, learners could examine the impact personally, locally, or globally. Certainly developmental considerations need to be primary here. Here are some examples:
      • On all levels, learners can document and share their experience both from the onset of the restrictions and the closing of on-site school to the present in their transition to school (whatever form that might take). The unit could be COVID19: My Story, Your Story, Our Stories
      • Secondary students can dive into an examination of the pandemic and/or consider specific angles. For example, as contemporary historians they might develop an annotated timeline since the first reports in November 2019 from China to the present. As journalists they could “cover” certain angles on the pandemic in a series of articles: the point of view of essential workers, impact on a range of families in the community or, the challenge to local government and decision making. Clearly, an area of fascination for all of us is the scientific research and scramble to develop treatments and a vaccine and certainly for our learners that could be covered in an empirical style.
      • Elementary students might engage and develop service based learning projects to thank local health care and essential service providers. Whether in the form of  written communication or in  a short video message, gratitude is appreciated and it is important to display. What is more, it may be possible to actually provide concrete support to members of the local community as the adaptation and easing into functional society occurs.

Leading Future Forward Curriculum Analysis, Revision, and Reimagining

This process needs to be implemented with all deliberate speed to develop a solid draft that functions as a rudder to help steer turbulent waters of where, when, and how learning happens in 2020-21. In teaming configurations whether grade level, grade level clusters (i.e.-K-2, 3-5, 9-10), department, or interdisciplinary teams,  teachers can meet to review their upcoming plans. Likely to be virtual in nature, these formal reviews will be focused on making  collective proposals on what to cut out, cut back, consolidate, and create informed by the Future Learning Goals. Using a collaborative decision making model, leadership in a school or district can coordinate these efforts, document them and share them. Transparency is critical.

Here are two possible starting points to begin the review process:

Have a curriculum that has been consistent for at least 2 years? You could start here.

  • If your school utilizes curriculum mapping on a software platform, your teams can make a deliberate and formal walkthrough of your units and scope and sequence to make determinations about what to cut out, cut back, consolidate, and create.
  • Examine curriculum vertically to identify primary areas of fluency that are vital when students engage in more ambiguous and complex problems. For example, in math: Performs multiplication with multi-digit whole numbers.
  • Teams may want to utilize standards to inform grade level decisions and coordinate vertical choices. What is in the foreground of our subjects given the need to prioritize without putting undue pressures on other grade levels.

Have a standards-based report card? You could start here.

Pay particular attention to growing skill development either within a subject or transdisciplinary. For example, here is a sample from a Grade 1 Writing Report Card. The same focus areas are repeated on the report card through Grade 6.

  • Writing is focused; purpose is clear.
  • Writing includes details and descriptive words.
  • Writing is organized.
  • Writing demonstrates basic sentence structure.
  • Writing uses grade-level conventions of standard English.

Consider how these focus areas support one to draft a Future Forward Learning Goal in formal communication. For example: Crafts a purposeful and polished text in a given genre for a target audience.

Then, grade level or vertical department teams can make informed choices as to what genres to pay attention to both timeless and familiar ones (e.g., poetry, fairy tales, informational statements) as well as contemporary ones (e.g., interviews, emails, virtual chats).

Wrapping Up and Looking Ahead

Decisions on curriculum matters have never been easy.   Educators know that there are certain units of study and learning experiences that are particularly satisfying to teach and are hard to let go. There can be sharp differences of opinion on what matters most for learners between members of a grade level team or department. Conversely, there are great opportunities for collaboration and responsiveness to the needs, especially now, as we work through these decisions. Perhaps there is guidance in looking to the Latin root word for curriculum, which means a path to run in small steps. The familiarity with this path creates ruts that become deeper and make it more difficult to see with fresh eyes. As school faculties lay out a reimagined path in partnership with their learners and families, the opportunity it to leverage specific expertise in service to common and aspirational learning goals. Moving forward into the months ahead, future forward learning goals and a collaborative planning process will inform our choices on what to cut, what to keep, what to create in the curriculum.

Here are two streamlined organizers:
one for future-forward learning goals and one for review and reimagining process.

In our next blogpost, Part 3 in our series*,  we will consider the most meaningful demonstrations of learning to consider as students return to school in light of our future forward learning goals. How might we meet the challenge of determining their readiness to return both academically and emotionally? What types of feedback and grading makes sense as we review student formative and summative assessment? How will we develop self-navigating and self-monitoring skills that have already proven to be critical in remote learning?

*NOTE: We will explore the range of options and key considerations that school leaders, learners, and families might examine as they move forward in our four-part blog series on the Transition.

Part 1: How Will We Return to School? Curriculum Choices in the Face of COVID19

Part 2: Building the Future Now: Deciding What to Cut, What to Keep and What to Create

Part 3 (COMING SOON): Assessment and the Return to School: Engaging Student Voice, Self-monitoring, Meaningful Demonstrations, and Feedback 

Part 4 (COMING SOON):  Responsive Return Strategies: Crafting Fresh Approaches to Schedules, Grouping of students and teachers and Shaping both physical and virtual learning spaces 

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3 years ago

Thank you for the wonderful Blog posts. They are very helpful in stimulating conversation. I especially appreciate the time and effort you have put into communicating such thought provoking ideas and questions for schools to examine at this time – especially the “Future Forward Learning Goals”. I am grateful to you for sharing your work.

3 years ago

Thank you for great Blog post.There is great information that has been thoroughly thought through and can be put into practice.

I am Waiting Impatiently.Part-3 ve Part -4 🙂

Thank you for all these blog post.
I am grateful to you for sharing your work.