Reexamining An Overstuffed Curriculum – Does It Spark Joy?


This past year, many of us tidied up our closets and junk drawers inspired by Marie Kondo’s prompt to “keep only those things that speak to the heart and discard items that no longer spark joy. Thank them for their service and let them go.” Sparking joy is strikingly on-point when it comes to cleaning out an overstuffed curriculum.  The power of the spark joy  philosophy is that it is both “introspective and forward looking” and one that we can benefit from as we start to examine jam-packed units, pacing guides, and resources.  Every year more and more is packed into the school year with almost no evidence of cutting back.   Both teachers and learners feel overwhelmed. The pandemic exacerbated the problem.  Coverage. Coverage. Coverage.   No wonder there has been a sense of curricular fatigue reported by teachers.

But what sparks joy in our work? What should be the determining criteria of whether the learning experiences we plan  remain valuable or have run their  course?  What motivates?  Just because a unit of study  does not spark joy doesn’t mean it’s not necessary. Might we reframe the necessary for increased engagement? “An old Finnish saying summarizes it best. Translated, simply: those things you learn without joy, you will forget easily.” In fact, the Finnish school system and approach which is one of the most highly respected in the world is literally predicated on joyful learning. Joyful learning fuels curiosity, compels students to lean in and investigate, study, create. It drives an interest in wanting to figure it out, see how it works, and make revisions. And if we lose that joy in the curriculum weeds, all that is left is a series of  tasks that may be foundational but are less likely to flourish in our students.

In the spirit of Kondo’s admonition to have a thoughtful and honest  inner dialogue about  what  sparks joy and matters most,  educators need to formally dialogue about their choices in shaping curriculum and  designing  purposeful learning experiences.  Our aim is to seed dialogues on what sparks joy.

Below, we illustrate several prompts to engage your school community in reflective and forward-looking conversations.

  • Between educators and experts in the field from diverse professions
    • What emergent ideas in the field are most  promising? 
    • What in the field continues to prompt research and exploration? 
    • What types of projects are you working on right now that get you excited to go to work each day?
  • Between colleagues as they examine their own curriculum
    • What have we seen our learners continue to gravitate towards in our curriculum? 
    • What  areas in the curriculum that are foundational and could be addressed as a springboard rather than an endpoint? 
    • Might these areas be developed with online learning opportunities thus providing more time for in-class investigations and discussion? 
    • What authentic learning opportunities incentivize students to take a deep dive into authentic problems and issues?
  • Between teachers and their students
    • What have I experienced that sparked my interest that surprised me in this class?
    • What types of learning experiences do I find motivating? (e.g., discussions, online lessons, viewing videos, interactive games, simulations)
    • What books stimulated my interest or surprised me because I didn’t want to put it down?
    •  If I could dive into something new that we are not addressing in this class it would be….

Translating the results of these focused dialogues will naturally lead to some paring back, prioritizing, and reshaping the curriculum.  We have laid our guidelines and a call to action in a previous blog post  “3 Part Process on Making Deliberate Curriculum Choices” on how to set up and implement formal curriculum reviews focused on what to cut, keep, and create.  While this weeding  may be painful for some, it is imperative to streamline the topics to create breathing room so students can investigate more deeply, test out and refine their ideas for a more joyful learning experience.

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