Designing Curriculum That Teachers Will Actually Use


How To Design Curriculum That Teachers Will Actually Use

Ed note: On May 26, 2015, Grant Wiggins passed away. Grant was tremendously influential on TeachThought’s approach to education, and we were lucky enough for him to contribute his content to our site. Occasionally, we are going to go back and re-share his most memorable posts. This is one of those posts. Thankfully his company, Authentic Education, is carrying on and extending the work that Grant developed.

by Grant WigginsAuthentic Education

What is leadership in curriculum?

Whatever the answer, the question should not be confused with a related but far different query: What is management in curriculum? Yet, I suspect that few people with curricular responsibilities appreciate how different the questions and answers are – and why real leadership is rare yet sorely needed now.


Curriculum management is an easy-to-grasp idea. An administrator with curriculum-management obligations ensures that the curriculum gets revised or at least examined in cycles, e.g. every 5 years, on a staggered calendar. Then, the manager ensures that time and money is set aside in July for the work, and requests/invitations for teacher-writers are sent out. At the writing meetings the writers make decisions on how to tweak lessons or activities and suggest resources. The work is done when time and budget run out.

Such work requires no leadership per se. And such work predictably leads to documents that educators in the schools who were not part of the writing rarely consult. Why do we keep permitting such a vital task to continue with such obviously poor results?


Curricular leadership thus requires questioning the whole enterprise of curriculum writing as just outlined. A leader would be eager to forge something quite new and different to overcome the longstanding weaknesses of the current system. At the very least, a leader would establish clear and explicit product goals and criteria by which all curriculum writing/editing is to be done moving forward. What is the purpose? Who is the audience? What follows for structure and content? These are the three basic ‘backward design’ questions that curricular leaders would insist on asking repeatedly and would hold curriculum writers accountable for addressing.

Here is a set of questions that map out with greater specificity what any curricular leader would expect writers to have answered and justified.

12 Questions To Guide Curriculum Design

  1. What is the purpose of the curriculum? What follows for form, content, process, and who the writers should be?
  2. For whom is the curriculum written? What follows for form, content, process, and who the writers should be?
  3. To what extent is the written curriculum obligatory? (The answer might vary, depending upon the years of experience of teachers; and for different parts of the curriculum, e.g. Goals might be obligatory but teaching a matter of freedom as long as methods align with goals.)
  4. What are the key deficits of current teaching, assessing, student engagement, and student performance that need to be better addressed? How will student engagement and understanding-focused learning be designed in? How will increased student autonomy (and thus gradual release of teacher responsibility) over time be designed in? How will writers obtain answers to these questions before writing?
  5. How will the writers get the feedback they need to ensure that the document is audience-friendly and likely to be constantly used by the intended audience(s)?
  6. What level of detail is demanded of curriculum, given the purpose and audience?
  7. What role should textbooks/programs play and not play in the local curriculum?
  8. How will “best practices” and research-based approaches to learning be designed into and highlighted in the curriculum?
  9. What assessments are demanded by understanding-based goals? What advice should therefore be given about what typical assessments not to use (as well as which to use), given goals?
  10. Given the heterogeneity of all classrooms, how should curriculum be written to help teachers know how to differentiate learning while meeting goals?
  11. What troubleshooting advice should be built into the curriculum in order to address likely rough spots in implementation and student misconceptions?
  12. By what criteria will the designing and revising of the curriculum therefore be assessed (and self-assessed) before determining that the writing has met the purpose/audience goals?

Clearly this set of questions demands lots of hard thinking, experimentation, sophisticated judgment, intense collaboration, and very high standards for the finished product.

Of course! That’s what leaders do, demand, and uphold. Who’s up for it?

This article first appeared on Grant’s personal blog; Grant can be found on twitter here; image attribution wikimediacommons