The map is not the territory: embracing desire paths in the curriculum

I once visited a school where the English teachers were whispering about their plan to teach grammar more comprehensively to their pupils. The reason they were so hushed was so that their head of department couldn’t hear them: it turned out that the head had designed a curriculum that was a little too light on grammar for their liking, but demanded that that curriculum was followed to the letter. The teachers took this oversight into their hands and a clandestine curriculum was developed, complete with a black market of resources. The staffroom was a speakeasy – the conversation flipped like the tables in Bugsy Malone when anyone walked in.

I’m sure we’ve all gone off-piste when it comes to curriculums – a good teacher will always respond to the needs of the class. But when  more than one teacher takes the same roving trail, what is created is what we might call a desire path.

I first came across the idea of desire paths during a module on my Literature degree centred on the motif of the city in writing, but they are a concept that belong more to urban sociology, psychogeography or town planning than the arts. Sometimes referred to as ‘desire lines’, these are the unplanned pathways created when people walk over the same ground again and again. Seen as organic footpaths that dismiss the prescribed routes, they have been described as an “ultimate unbiased expression of human purpose”.


We might choose to tut and point out the ‘Keep Off the Grass’ sign to those creating these paths, and we could also dismiss it as an act of cutting corners (in a pejorative sense). But it’s worth looking at the reasons behind their occurrence before rejecting them. Desire paths usually emerge because the prescribed route is inefficient and circuitous. But they can also appear because no current route is existent: they fulfil a need that hasn’t been fulfilled by town planners. The best town planners acknowledge the desire paths and incorporate them into their urban design.

It is important to note that desire paths aren’t created by just a handful of transgressors; they are the result of numerous people choosing a more effective and efficient route.

The desire paths of a curriculum can be seen where pockets of teachers seem to be following the same unprescribed route away from that which has been laid down, as with the story I related above. In such a case, it would be profitable for curriculum designers to look at the desire path and determine why it has appeared: does it fulfil a need that hasn’t been fulfilled by the curriculum?

People often look to Finland as a standard-bearer in education, thanks to Pisa league tables. However, it is in town planning that they could inspire us on curriculum design. It’s been reported that Finnish town planners are known to wait until the first snowfall and then visit local parks. They then note the desire paths that have been created by footprints in the snow, and use these to design the positions and routes of their appointed paths.

Such a responsive approach is important in curriculum design. The desire paths of a curriculum will be where a number of teachers are  teaching content which isn’t prescribed but which fills the gaps left by a narrow or incomplete map.

As long as leaders are approachable and receptive – unlike in the anecdote I began with – they will notice the ‘footprints in the snow’ in the conversations they have and witness around them.

But whether curriculum designers choose to acknowledge desire paths or not, the beauty of them is that they continue to exist and fill out the unfilled gaps and address the unaddressed needs of our curriculums.

And that’s why most curriculums largely succeed, in spite of themselves. It’s why the department that I discussed at the beginning of this blogpost are a successful one.


7 thoughts on “The map is not the territory: embracing desire paths in the curriculum”

  1. Great piece – thanks for this. In my area (Alberta, Canada) we’ve recently undergone major curriculum changes in Math. Despite a flawed premise that reflected an ideological perspective concerning the teaching of math, some “old school” teachers managed to carve out desire paths that they knew were in the best interests of their students. Now, these paths have become visible, and the efforts of such teachers (as well as students and parents) have caused a bit of a movement to put common sense standards and practice back into our Math curriculum. For now, it’s at least a start.

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