When I first started teaching 4th grade, I inherited a social studies unit on Ancient Egypt, a topic that is universally adored by students at this age level. Over the years of teaching this unit, the 4th grade teachers had developed a document – what we’d now call a knowledge organizer – of all of the facts that students would be required to know by the end of the unit: Names of Egyptian gods and goddesses, how were hieroglyphics and papyrus made, the importance of the Nile for civilization, the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, features of labor and slavery, elements of Egyptian architecture, and so on. There was a lot of good stuff in that unit thanks to those clever teachers, and multiple parents confirmed what our assessments told us: Those kids learned a lot about Ancient Egypt!

Unfortunately, the new curriculum coordinator at that school had other plans for our unit on Ancient Egypt. She wanted all social studies units to be about the “Big Ideas” of history, not about boring old facts. She proposed, and eventually enforced, a unit about “Civilizations”, with the Big Idea being, “Civilizations help us understand the present time.” She could have just as easily called it, “Thinking historically is good” or “History was then, and then there’s now.” In less than a month, a successful unit was gutted of its content to make way for activities that had students inquiring into whatever civilization they wanted. Most students succeeded at making a childish diorama, but failed to discover anything of substance about civilizations through these activities.

Even the schools I attended as a kid were often guilty of stripping academic subjects of what makes them so interesting: The content. For instance, my 9th grade history class was not about the events, people, and places of World War II, but about “thinking historically”, with World War II serving as the backdrop. Instead of teaching us about World War II, we were told to use our existing knowledge about World War II to put the Nazis on mock trial and to compose free form poetry about the Holocaust. As you can imagine, these activities were fun, but shallow; By the end of the course we were no more capable of thinking historically about World War II than when we first entered.

I have a sense that elementary schools – my area of training – are the worst offenders at replacing content with hollow and frivolous activities, and the reasons are many. Elementary teachers are not typically content experts in science or social studies, so it takes years of teaching the same topic before we become confident with the subject matter. Assigning a role play or an art project is an easy way to immerse students in the subject whilst we’re still, ourselves, discovering which knowledge is important or unimportant to teach. In addition, many people hold the misconception that elementary children are simply too young to be able to understand ideas and concepts beyond their immediate experience. This idea, epitomized by the saying, But that’s not developmentally appropriate, is behind the popularity of the expanding horizons approach to social studies and science, where content-rich units on Mesopotamia and the Civil Rights Movement are replaced with content-poor units called “All About Me” and “My Community”.

Cognitive science has long indicated that knowledge is the driver of successful thought (i.e., it’s the stuff we think with). Purging the curriculum of content is to, ironically, rob children of the tools they need to think historically and scientifically. Substituting instruction on distant peoples and places for activities about the familiar and the close-at-hand only serves to keep students in ignorance of the wonders that exist beyond their immediate experiences.

As teachers, I believe we have a choice. We can choose to build knowledge upon previous knowledge, progressively deepening students’ understandings of the world beyond their immediate experiences through a so-called knowledge-rich curriculum. Or, we can take a melon baller to subjects like science and social studies and replace “boring old facts” with fun activities that supposedly promote a range of thinking skills. After years of “alternative facts” and “fake news” from the Trump administration, how one can still believe that facts do not matter, so long as you are taught to think, is beyond my comprehension. How might these last few years have been different if every American was equipped with the most basic facts about how democracy and election laws work, how climate change works, and how viruses are transmitted and how vaccines work?


Readers, I appreciate your engagement! Consider attending my March 2022 webinar on cognitive load theory and check out my podcast.

10 thoughts on “The Sad, Sad Story of the Hollow Curriculum

  1. I really enjoyed reading your article and I have seen and have also been guilty of teaching the type of hollow unit you refer to. Over the years however I’ve come to see that it is the fault of how a concept based curriculum is interpreted and coordinated. Children can’t make any connections if we don’t give them the knowledge in the first place. That is why we need strong case studies that allow children to make those connections. Traditional curriculum and resources about Egyptian Civilization are excellent for that. Students can then compare with other civilizations, perhaps ones from their own country and share with others. Concept based curriculum does not have to be empty waffle. If students are exploring genocide the experience would be much richer if not only the Holocaust, but also the genocide under the Khmer Rouge regime is studied and analyzed so that generalizations can be made. I have seen terrible Programmes of Inquiry where I wondered what was actually taught. I have also seen strong POIs where clearly outlined knowledge and content enhanced the big ideas and allowed children to develop understandings that they wouldn’t forget.

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    1. I agree it’s possible. If PYP coordinators were going out of their way to describe UOI just as you did – i.e. So, this unit is about genocide, we mainly teach the Holocaust but we also fully teach and compare the Khmer Rouge so they understand the concept of genocide, then I wouldn’t have a complaint. This post isn’t against central ideas or concepts, but about mundane units about the familiar packed with frivolous activities that take too long and are only superficially related to the concepts and/or content.

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  2. It’s always disappointing when favorite unit goes south. I agree that it takes a long time at teaching a unit of inquiry well but maybe it will take some time for your team to adjust to making this unit more powerful for learning. Yet I’m sorry to say that your post reminds me of is what Lynn Erickson called “the dinosaur unit”, a beloved teacher unit that lacked depth and complexity for conceptual transfer. If your revised unit is “hollow” then maybe you should reflect on how students can connect facts on ancient civilizations to relevant situations today so that the information is more “sticky” and retainable. We have a similar civilization unit at our school and it is outstanding. The 3rd grade kids do amazing research and provide workshops to other grade levels. Everyone learns a lot of facts and make connections to our modern life. Have faith that your team can work together and make it a stronger unit! It is possible!

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    1. I agree that a unit shouldn’t be devoid of powerful concepts. And, as you say, the ability to explain one comes down to internalized facts explored during the unit. These facts would have to be interrelated and organized so that they create a situation model about a domain in long term memory. Whether these are organized around a concept or a topic doesn’t seem to have any bearing on the storage strength of the situation model, although the situation model would be different. I think frameworks like the IB PYP are a bit too religious on this point: what evidence is there to suggest that a dinosaur unit filled with powerful concepts is inferior to a content-rich unit called Fossils provide a window into the past?

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  3. As a secondary/high school science teacher, this was a really interesting article to read, because my experience of a knowledge-rich curriculum so far has been the opposite! With high stakes exams at the end of secondary school, science for 14-16yr olds has become all about overloading with facts, and not having enough time for students to make those synoptic links that give meaning to the facts. It’s become so much about fact recall that I would strongly advocate less knowledge and more skills/deeper thinking, but I’m sure like you also agree, it’s not one or the other, a curriculum should have subject-specific knowledge and bigger concepts/thinking skills, that allow students to compare what they knew before to the new info, and then evaluate things using the new info, to adapt their thinking and become more informed, not necessarily more knowledgeable or more skilled.

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    1. Thank you for sharing 🙂 Elementary can be a different world and “knowledge rich“ hasn’t even entered the lexicon in the US, in my experience. My wife’s (elementary) school doesn’t even have social studies and science – having narrowed the curriculum around math and reading – and barely has any time for writing. What do they write about? Generic prompts. What do they read about? Random topics with no particular reason why they’re selected. And the teachers are frustrated when students can’t understand certain stories (which require specialized background knowledge), so they avoid certain books or just trudge through them without building the knowledge. So, yeah, looks like it’s possible for schools to forget the path of orienting students towards using their knowledge, but other schools are quite far away from that point! Thanks for commenting!

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  4. This is so perfect. I am teaching a new grade level this year. As we are finishing our 3rd unit of inquiry, I got into quite a discussion with our pyp coordinator and one of my co-workers when I said I was confused about the lack of depth with the units so far. I keep being told that it is just an introduction or overview we cannot expect the kids to learn in depth. I was told that as long as the students could do anything to show our central idea: Language expresses ideas and emotions- then we were successful. I pointed out that the student who had screamed profanity at me the day before because I was cause of all of his problems and that his anger gave him the right to kick the walls- should get an A+ then. We were focused on poetry, author’s craft and performance. They are letting kids do magic tricks and mime for their summative assessment. It just does not make any sense to me. I am so sharing this article with them. Thank you so much!

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