Hey, what’s the big idea?

By Karen Cowe|January 13, 2014

I’m a big fan of graphic novels. I especially like when they take hard-to-grasp subjects or big ideas and successfully break them down so they are accessible to many more people than just experts. One of my favorites is Osamu Tezuka’s eight volume story, Buddha.

In the same way, I love the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts’ (RSA) version of Sir Ken Robinson’s talk on Changing Education Paradigms. The RSA Animate “was conceived as an innovative, accessible, and unique way of illustrating and sharing world changing ideas.” Here’s a link to 20 or so other RSA Animates illustrated talks. Make sure you have nothing scheduled for the afternoon when you go there!


Image copyright RSA Animate

Sir Ken’s talk combined with the RSA Animate so inspired me that I printed out a giant poster of the final graphic and posted it on my wall in my old office at Key Curriculum Press. For me, it became an important back drop (literally) for my thinking because it’s so important to understand the context that you’re working in and to understand how to meet people where they are and not where you’d like them to be. We created very innovative products at Key Curriculum Press and we never lost sight of the realities of the classroom.

I first met Will, Ten Strand’s Executive Director, a little over a year ago, as I was wrapping up the sale of Key Curriculum Press to McGraw Hill Education. At that first meeting, Will shared his experience of teaching the Education and the Environment Initiative curriculum (EEI) and his belief that schools were the ideal place to introduce environment-based education to develop eco-literate citizens. Before I even looked at the curriculum I was attracted to its approach because it’s so sensitive to the classroom teacher. Looking back at my notes from our meeting, here’s what attracted me to the EEI curriculum:

  1. The EEI is carefully mapped to standards and teaches certain standards to mastery, so teachers don’t need to take it on as extra work and can simply swap out a unit of their current curriculum. The authors even went as far as mapping which chapters of which books could be swapped.
  2. Any science, social studies, history or ELA teacher at any grade level, K-12, can teach the EEI. There are 85 units to choose from, containing roughly 500 lesson plans.
  3. The resources for each unit for teacher support are extensive and the requirements for materials for hands-on activities are minimal. Each unit has a comprehensive Teacher’s Guide, with lesson plans and background content, student workbooks and dictionaries, visual aids (including beautifully illustrated wall cards), and maps created by National Geographic(™).
  4. The curriculum doesn’t assume every classroom has a one-to-one computing environment or that all classrooms have access to the Internet. The curriculum can be taught in any setting.
  5. There’s a focus on authentic contexts emphasizing California’s people, places and animals.
  6. It’s inquiry-based and focused on teaching students how to think, not just recite the right answer.
  7. The text encourages strong reading, writing and critical thinking skills, as well as group collaboration and oral presentation skills.

I joined Will and the team at Ten Strands in early 2013, and shortly thereafter met the good folks at the Office of Education and the Environment (OEE), the group responsible for introducing CA teachers and administrators to the EEI. Since then, I’ve had a lot of exposure to the curriculum and to teachers who use it.

I’m most impressed with how the curriculum introduces students to a wide range of hard-to-grasp big environmental ideas. For example: climate change, environmental justice, environmental sustainability, oceans, pollution prevention, public health and the environment, resource conservation and recycling, and water.  The curriculum presents these topics through rich informational texts, beautiful and vibrant illustrations, local and relevant contexts — not so different from the RSA Animate’s approach.

Also, the big ideas spiral across grade levels and more complex ideas are introduced as students become cognitively ready to take them on. For example, environmental sustainability is first introduced in Kindergarten and then in almost every unit through 12th grade. I don’t know of any other curriculum that spirals concepts from K-12, curriculum programs tend to be either targeted to elementary (K-5), middle (6-8) or high school (9-12).  In this regard, the EEI is unique.

You can’t write or talk about instructional materials today without also mentioning the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and the Next Generations Science Standards (NGSS). California has adopted both. Even although the EEI was written before the publication of the CCSS and the NGSS we’re finding the pedagogy of the program combined with its modular design correlates very strongly to both. The web site for the curriculum has a page dedicated to the CCSS and NGSS correlations. There are 16 CCSS correlations there now, the remaining 69 will be posted in the next couple of months. The NGSS correlation work is well under way. Ten Strands is supporting getting this work completed.

I’m excited to be working with an innovative curriculum that introduces big environmental ideas to students and their teachers in highly accessible ways.

* By the way, I just read an article on the top 10 TED talks of all time and Sir Ken’s talk on Do Schools Kill Creativity tops the list with over 23 million views. It’s so rare to see education top any list!

Karen Cowe
This article was written by Karen Cowe

Karen Cowe is an education-industry executive with over 30 years of experience in sales and fund development, marketing, program design, professional learning, business development, and operations. Prior to joining Ten Strands, she was president and chief executive officer of Key Curriculum Press, an innovative and award-winning K–12 STEM publisher. Before that, she was managing director of Burlington Books in Athens, Greece—the first publisher in Greece to offer locally-focused English language instructional materials for Greek students. In addition to her understanding of the complexities of the US education landscape, she has valuable insights into education in other nations, having built relationships in Europe, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. Karen holds a bachelor in business and a minor in education from Saint John’s College, York and a master of business administration from Saint Mary’s College, California.