7 Curriculum and Instruction

Two teachers working together at a whiteboard with dry erase markers


When we look at curriculum, we must keep instruction in mind. Instruction is the way curriculum is taught. Curriculum focuses on learning goals, (Outcomes, Standards, Benchmarks) while instruction focuses on the “how”, or the way teachers will help students meet these goals. Let’s take a look at curriculum first.

Definitions of Curriculum

  • Subject matter taught
  • The planned education experiences offered
  • Course of study, or systematic arrangement of courses
  • “What teachers teach and what students are expected to learn.”

Four Types of Curriculum

Explicit Curriculum (Formal)

  • Material found in textbooks, teacher’s guides
  • Everything that teachers are expected to teach, students are expected to learn and what schools will be held accountable for; material we assess
  • Elementary curriculum heavy in language arts and math
  • Middle school curriculum content places equal time on all subjects
  • Junior High/High School content becomes more compartmentalize

Implicit Curriculum (Informal)

  • The “hidden” information
  • What children learn from the nature and organization of the school and classrooms and from the attitudes and behaviors of teachers and administrators
  • Tolerance
  • Study Skills
  • Respect
  • Organization
  • Team Work
  • Values
  • These are learned from the way classrooms are set up, the practices used, behaviors modeled, the way material is presented, values and priorities that may be unstated, but are evident

Null Curriculum

  • Topics left out of a course of study
  • Sometimes what we don’t say or don’t teach, carries as strong, or stronger message than what we do teach


  • Learning beyond formal studies
  • No academic credit
  • Extra-curricular activities are part of an effective school
  • Need to reach everyone; high and low achievers; all income levels
  • May be sports or clubs, organizations

Influences on Curriculum

  • Education philosophies
  • Textbooks
  • Federal/State Government
  • Local School District/School Board
  • Standards and Testing

Standards: pre-determined statement of what students should know and skills they should have upon completion of an area of study.  In Michigan, our standards are based on the Common Core Standards.

In 2010, Michigan adopted the “Common Core Standards”. These are the standards that must be met for each grade level and subject matter. You can find these at the Michigan Department of Education’s  website.  This is the curriculum teachers must follow. They are required to present these concepts and skills to their students. However, the way in which they present and teach this information is entirely up to them. This is where instruction comes into play. A teacher has the Academic Freedom to structure his/her classroom and learning activities in the manner they feel best in order to present curriculum to their students and help them master it.

We know every student is different and we need to try and “reach” every student. The choice of teaching methods you use will depend on your students and the material to be taught. Always consider what will be the best way for your students to receive and process the information. Keep the Multiple Intelligences Theory in mind and look for ways to present curriculum that will tap into a variety of intelligences.

We all have recognized that our students will be unique and each will have their own interests, needs, abilities and motivation.  As educators, we have to find a way to reach all of them and address as many of these issues as we can.  Let’s look at some of these.


While teachers have little to no control over the formal curriculum, they have a wide range of options when it comes to instruction.  Instruction refers to the way in which we present curriculum to the students.

As we saw when we looked at education philosophies,  our instruction can learn towards student-centered or teacher-centered.  Let’s look at teach of these.

Teacher Centered

  • Teacher is responsible for planning learning activities.
  • Passive; students sit and listen as students talk “at” them. (Direct Instruction)
  • Teacher creates all of the guidelines for both behavior and work done in the classroom,
  • Classroom organization is determined by the teacher.
  • All learning goals are determined by the teacher.

Student-Centered Instruction

  • Students have input into learning activities.
  • Instruction and learning activities are tailored to meet students learning needs and interests.
  • Students have input into classroom guidelines and organization .
  • Students are also able to set learning goals for themselves in conjunction with learning goals set by the teacher.

Our goal is to help students learn, and we have to find the strategies that work best for our students.  A combination of teacher-centered and student-centered seems to work well in many classrooms.  Remember that students have a developmental need to have control over themselves and their world, thus giving them the power to make decisions regarding their learning increases motivation, focus and further helps to develop a love of learning.

One instructional strategy which has supported many teachers in their efforts to meet the learning needs of students is “Differentiated Instruction.”   While it takes some work in the beginning, once you have a “toolbox” of activities and lessons, it is much easier to implement.

Differentiated Instruction refers to our use of a variety of teaching strategies in order to deliver information to our students. It also means using a variety of different activities to help reinforce that information. We may use direct instruction, we may have them watch a video, we may have them create a project or conduct an experiment. The idea is that we vary our teaching strategies in order to meet the needs of our students.

In differentiated instruction, we can also vary the products we expect from our students.  If you keep in mind the idea of multiple intelligences, you know that many of us excel in some areas and these would be the areas that where we would most likely be able to create a product that would best demonstrate our learning.  For example, you have recently studied the Battle of Gettysburg and the students have to do a project that will reflect their learning.  Many of us probably wrote the boring report that had to be three pages, etc. and many of us also probably struggled with that.  The written report is only one way to look at student learning.  Why not offer more choices?  For the musical individual, have them write a song that reflects the major issues of this battle, or how about create a newscast as if the student was a reporter on the scene and they were broadcasting the events. (I know TV and radio weren’t around then, but expand your thinking a bit.)  🙂  Could the student build the battle field and include facts on cards or included in some other way?  They could write a R.A.F.T. (We will talk about this soon.)  They would have to choose a role to write from, for example a solider or general.  They choose an audience and format, maybe they are writing a letter home to family, and then they discuss the battle.  In this letter you would be able to see what the student has learned about this battle.  The whole idea is that we give students various ways to present their knowledge.  We will gain much richer information in regards to what they have learned and they will be more engaged and motivated in the learning activity.

Areas to Differentiate

  • Content (What students learn.)
  • Process (How students learn it.)
  • Products (What students produce.)
  • Learning Environment/ Affect (Environment in which they learn.)
  • Assessment (Evidence we use to determine what students are learning.)

Along with varying our instruction and student’s products, we also vary our assessments.  So many teachers are “hung up” on tests and they are not the best way to assess.  Many of these “products” you ask students to produce can be used as assessments.  Using these will also be a more accurate measure, in many cases, of what a student has learned over a written test you may give them.

Planning for Instruction

When we plan classroom activities, we want to follow a strategy called, “Backward Design“.  When we follow this practice, we begin our planning with the standard we are teaching, in other words, what we want the students to learn.  We then plan how we will assess that learning, and finally plan the learning activities for this particular concept.  Simply put:

  1. Identify desired results (Standard)
  2. Determine acceptable evidence  (Assessment)
  3. Plan learning experiences and instruction
When objectives, learning activities and assessments relate directly to standards, we have “Instructional Alignment“.  All of our lessons should be instructionally aligned.

Let’s look at various strategies for instruction.  Some strategies are better suited to the content being taught than others.  Varying the strategies you use will keep students engaged, interested, and increase the potential for learning.

Learning Centers: Areas set up in the classroom with learning activities directed at a specific concept.  Learning centers can be set up to reinforce skills previously learned, or to help students internalize new concepts.  For example, the learning centers could be used to “fill in” when students have idle time. If they are finished with work, they can go to the centers and work with concepts they have previously been exposed to.   You may have a science center, a creative art center, and maybe a language center.  You can rotate activities, thus giving students more exposure to concepts being taught, as well as helping to engage students in a time of the day when idle hands could cause behavior concerns.

The other way learning centers can be used is to teach a concept.  For example, if you wanted to teach the concepts of magnets you would have a variety of centers set up all dealing with magnets.  Students would move from center to center, engaging in the planned activities.  You would want to try and design the activities at the centers to tap into the various multiple intelligences.

RAFT: Role, Audience, Format, Topic

This is a writing strategy that allows for student creativity.  It can be used in a variety of ways, including as an assessment.

ROLE:  Students choose a perspective to write from.

AUDIENCE:  Students choose who they are writing to.

FORMAT:  Students choose the format for writing; letter, memo, poem, advertising ad, etc.

TOPIC: The topic they are writing on.

Here is an example that could be used:

Role:  Abraham Lincoln

Audience:  American People

Format:  Interview

Topic:  The major challenges of his presidency

In this activity, the students would have to decide what the major challenges were in his presidency and be able to explain those.  The student would also design the questions that could be used in the interview in regards to these challenges.  For some students, this would be a more engaging and interesting way to report on these versus just writing a 1000 word essay.  You will probably get more information from the student as well.

Choice Boards

  • Students choose from a menu of options
  • Tasks vary by process and interest
  • Some anchor activities can be required of all students
  • Can be used for homework, projects, and assessment, or as again, a way to fill idle time.

Here is an example that could be used for learning what verbs are:

Choose a book from the reading area and write down 10 verbs Create a song using five verbs
Choose five verbs and illustrate them Write a short story and identify the verbs in the story
Listen to a favorite song and identify the verbs Draw a picture and write a short description of what is happening using at least three verbs

These are all activities that would help reinforce the idea of verbs.  Students would be able to choose which of these they would like to do.  This example has six, but many are made with nine choices.  Teachers can determine how many activities students have to complete.  The Tic-Tac-Toe choice board is set up with nine choices and students have to do three that will form a tic-tac-toe.  I have even seen teachers give extra credit if students do them all, or in Bingo terms, a “cover all”.

As I stated, Choice Boards can also be used to fill in for idle moments and review a variety of concepts that are being learned.  Here is an example for older students:
Create a Venn Diagram comparing yourself and a character in To Kill a Mockingbird Illustrate a book cover for a favorite book
Create a comic strip with seven frames that shows how the Earth’s surface has changed. Complete the “President Map” which shows the qualifications to be President, as well as the roles of the President.
Create a game that will teach a concept from class, but requires movement Describe 10 occupations that incorporate area, surface area, or volume. Be very specific on the job title and explain how that job uses area, SA, or volume. At least 3 sentences each.
Choice Boards give students some control over the activities you do, yet you have chosen the activities.  Always be open, however, to the student who comes to you with an idea for an activity.  Sometimes students have great ideas!
Students working in a group with pencils and paper

Cooperative Learning

  •  Small groups
  • The group has a common goal.
  • All have a responsibility in the group and all are accountable.
Discovery Based Learning
  •   Environment is set up, students make discoveries through their interactions
    • Setting up learning centers for children to discover how magnets work
Problem Based Learning
  •   Students are given a problem to solve
  •   Groups are formed to discuss topic
  •   Groups are re-divided so each new group has one member from the first groups
    • Example:  The topic being taught is “Reasons for the Revolutionary War”
      • Each group is given one reason to research and create a fact sheet on
      • Groups are re-divided so each new group has a person from the previous groups and each member reports out to the group the particular reason they researched.
  •  Students are given a topic to think about.
  •  Students then pair up and discuss the topic
  •  The students share their thoughts with the class.
Reading Buddies
  •   Pair students to read material and complete assignment
Web Quest
  •   Web based with a variety of activities
  •   Pre-writing strategy; look at topic from a variety of angles
  •   Example:  Who, What, Where, When, Why and Impact
K-W-L: Know, Want to know, Learned
  • When beginning a unit of study, list all the things you KNOW about the topic.
  • Next, create a list of things you WANT to know about this topic.
  • After the unit of study is done, create a list of what has been LEARNED.

A K-W-L can be done as a class, or each student can create their own.  There are benefits to both and your learning goals will determine which one you may use.

Responding to students who answer correctly

• Be supportive!!
• If correct, acknowledge, provide quick praise, acknowledge any strategy used in discovering the answer:
        “You are right. The answer is 16. Nice adding. I’m glad you used the counters.”
• If correct but student is hesitant, acknowledge answer and repeat question:

“Yes, 3×5 does equal 15.”

This reinforces the information and gives positive acknowledgement of the answer.  For students who are in the class and were uncertain of the answer, this reaffirms the correct answer.

Responding to students who answer incorrectly

• If incorrect, acknowledge their willingness to take the risk, inform them of the incorrect answer and help them discover the correct one:

“I’m glad you tried this. Trying is an important part of learning, but your answer is not correct. Let’s look at this together and find the answer. You have the problem 2+8 and you answered 11. That is incorrect. First we have the number 2, so what do you need to do? Good. Now we have 8; what will you do?  Good. What’s next? OK, count all of the markers. Yes! Now you’ve got it! 2+8 equals 10. Let’s try the same strategy with another problem.”

  • Be sure to answer in a non-threatening manner.
  • This gives them strategies to use in the future.
  • Demonstrates your support and willingness to help.
  • Builds confidence, sense of security, and a willingness to try.

Students who do not respond

• They  may be afraid to answer out of fear of getting it wrong.
• They are uncertain of what you’re asking.
• You have given unclear directions.
• Consider, did you ask only one question at a time?  If you ask more than one at once, they don’t know which to answer.
• Have you used appropriate vocabulary they understand?
• Students may be uncertain where to start.

You may have to walk students through the process or give them tips on completing a task.  If you ask questions and no one responds, look closely at what you have asked, and how you have asked it.

Always remember, ALL STUDENTS CAN LEARN!! However, what they learn, how they learn it and the pace at which they learn it will vary. Under the differentiated instruction idea, we are changing our instruction, our expectations and our assessments based on the needs and interests of the students.


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Education 2010 by Brenda Alward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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