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Curriculum Overload: Changing the Future of Education

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

Global disruption has created many challenges in education. However, with these challenges come new opportunities. The etymology of disrupt stems from disrumpere in Latin: dis- (apart) and rumpere (to break) (Merriam-Webster, n.d.). As educators plan for the future, there are unique opportunities to “break apart” from functional fixedness and to reimagine PK-12 and higher education. According to Sahle-Work Zewde, Chair of the International Commission on the Futures of Education, UNESCO, “It is evident that we cannot return to the world as it was before” (p. 3). Therefore, educators must be strategic and collaborative in planning for the future.

Advancements in neuroscience, psychology, and education provide critical insight about the brain, mind, and learning. Educators have an opportunity to redesign curricula in PK-12 and higher education that build upon human learning principles and innovative pedagogical practices to enhance engagement, transfer of learning, well-being, and flourishing. Research on neuroplasticity reveals that educators are brain changers. Furthermore, experiences and the environment have a profound effect on neuroplasticity and learning over the lifespan. Recognizing that the human brain is a complex organ with over 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion synaptic connections as shared by the Colon-Ramos Lab at Yale University, educators are encouraged to integrate research related to the human learning process and neuroplasticity into PK-12 and higher education across all course formats (i.e., face-to-face, hybrid, online) to support strong neural connections and deeper learning. According to a presentation by the Urban Child Institute (2016):

Connections that are used more grow stronger and more permanent. Meanwhile, connections that are used less fade away through a normal process called pruning. Well-used circuits create lightning-fast pathways for neural signals to travel across regions of the brain. With repeated use, these circuits become more efficient and connect to other areas of the brain more rapidly. Like building a house, everything is connected and what comes first forms a foundation for all that comes later.

The challenge within PK-12 education and higher education is time, which is needed to support and strengthen neural connections through deeper learning and transfer of learning across real-world contexts.

In 2020, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published Curriculum Overload: A Way Forward. This report provides a detailed overview of the importance of countries being responsive to change within curricula but being cognizant of curriculum overload and the effects it can have on students and teachers, even serving as “an impediment to learning.” OECD provides a table that examines four dimensions of curriculum overload as shared in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Four Dimensions of Curriculum Overload, OECD 2020

One of the key issues with curriculum expansion and overload is ensuring that students still have time to engage with the content and each other to support learning and practice leading to mastery as well as unlearning and relearning. As noted in the OECD report:

More countries and schools have increasingly become aware of the importance of focusing on quality of learning time (rather than quantity per se) as well as student well-being. Addressing curriculum overload is also actioned to ensure teacher well-being and support effective teaching. (2020, p. 9)

The reexamination of curricula and courses mitigates the risk of shallow learning as a result of insufficient time to “explore new concepts in a meaningful way” and support deeper learning.

Curriculum expansion and overload are also prevalent in higher education. Certificate and degree programs are designed to prepare graduates as lifelong learners for future careers, career transition, career advancement, and/or advance studies. Curricula must support stated learning outcomes as well as align with standards related to accreditation and licensure. Furthermore, curricula must prepare graduates for an increasingly competitive and ever-changing global landscape. Like PK-12 education, the challenge is time. Thus, the importance of quality vs quantity. In the article, More Content Doesn’t Equal More Learning, Monhan (2015) states, “Perhaps it’s time to rethink the role of content in teaching and learning. A fresh perspective on this problem includes thinking about our role as faculty and that of our students, as well as reconsidering the nature of curriculum design” (para. 3).

Curriculum overload can affect student performance and health. In the national study Stress in America 2020, approximately 90% of college-aged students (18-23 years old) reported education as a significant source of stress (APA, 2020). According to Curriculum Overload: A Way Forward:

Students also may feel stress and pressure, while lacking the time in or out of school to complete all required assignments. This stress, in turn, can undermine students’ ability to engage in deeper learning or the productivity or quality of learning time may be lower. (p. 7)

Research reveals that stress can affect cognitive performance, including working memory; and cognitive impairment can lead to increased stress. In the article Learning and Memory Under Stress: Implications for the Classroom, Vogel and Schwabe (2016) state:

While stress around the time of learning is thought to enhance memory formation, thus leading to robust memories, stress markedly impairs memory retrieval, bearing, for instance, the risk of underachieving at exams. Recent evidence further indicates that stress may hamper the updating of memories in the light of new information and induce a shift from a flexible, ‘cognitive’ form of learning towards rather rigid, ‘habit’-like behaviour. Together, these stress-induced changes may explain some of the difficulties of learning and remembering under stress in the classroom. (para. 1)

Curriculum overload and stress may also affect sleep as students balance multiple courses with new supplemental readings, expanded assignments, discussion boards across varying course formats – in addition to co-curricular activities, family, work, and other responsibilities. Sleep is critical to learning, memory, and performance. According to the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School:

When we are sleep deprived, our focus, attention, and vigilance drift, making it more difficult to receive information. Without adequate sleep and rest, over-worked neurons can no longer function to coordinate information properly, and we lose our ability to access previously learned information. (para. 9)

In reimagining PK-12 and higher education, it is important to examine current curricula and courses across learning formats (face-to-face, hybrid, HyFlex, online) to mitigate curriculum overload and to support deeper learning. As brain changers, educators have the opportunity to refine and redesign curricula to align with the science of learning, neuroplasticity, cognitive load theory, and flourishing. According to the UNESCO report, Education in a post-COVID World: Nine Ideas for Public Action:

This is the right time for a deep reflection on curriculum. We must prioritize the development of the whole person not just academic skills. (p. 18)

Author: Dr. Kristen Betts

Learn more about how INTERACT123 can support your work with mitigating curriculum overload and supporting deeper learning.


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