Curriculum Design Explained + 5 Tips for Educators

Educators are always seeking out ways to bring energy into their classrooms and into their lessons. But regardless of grade level, creating engaging and relevant curricula that meets standards while also effectively teaching subject matter can feel like an impossible effort.

The good news for teachers is that there are resources out there to help them reinvigorate or simply refine their lessons. Whether they’ve been teaching for two years or 20, a curriculum design refresher can help teachers find new, innovative ways to motivate their students. 

What is Curriculum Design & Why Is It Important?

Curriculum design is generally defined as “the deliberate organization of curriculum within a course or classroom. When instructors design their curriculums, they identify what will be done, who will do it and when, as well as what the objective of each course is. Curriculum design involves planning activities, readings, lessons, and assessments that achieve educational goals.”

Curriculum design is important because it centers a teacher’s practice based on individual needs in the classroom. Any curriculum development effort should focus on being an effective educator, as it involves rethinking lessons that already exist to re-envision what would better prioritize the needs of the students. The process of design and creation of new or revised curriculum brings fresh and up-to-date ideas to the classroom.

What is Curriculum Planning?

A component of curriculum design and development is curriculum planning — identifying and selecting teaching strategies and organizational methods based on individual student needs that will result in improved student growth and student learning outcomes. 

Curriculum planning should incorporate the 6 elements of effective teaching, from the Danielson Framework for Teaching:

  • Demonstrate knowledge of content and pedagogy;
  • Demonstrate the knowledge of students;
  • Set instructional outcomes;
  • Demonstrate knowledge of resources;
  • Design coherent instruction;
  • Design student assessments.

Curriculum Models: Product vs. Process

Curriculum models are the first step in curriculum development, and they help educators determine what type of curriculum design is appropriate for their students and their learning goals. They have long-existed and act as formulaic guides for teachers as they design their new or existing curricula.

Curriculum models have five areas they define:

  • Focus — Subject or student. Where is the emphasis?
  • Approach — Traditional or modern. What type of instruction will be used?
  • Content — Topic based or content based. How will units or strands be written?
  • Process — Formative or summative. How will assessments be used?
  • Structure — System, linear or cyclical. How often does the curriculum get reviewed?

From there, there are two models of curriculum development that are widely used today — the product model and the process model. The Journal of Education and Practice defines them as:

  • Product model: Product models emphasize the outcome of a learning experience. The product model of the curriculum leads to some kind of desirable end product. Examples given are knowledge of certain facts, mastery of specific skills and competencies, and acquisition of certain “appropriate” attitudes and values.
  • Process model: With process models, the emphasis is on learning acquired from experience of work and life, that is experiential learning. It comprises open-ended student activities with developing tendencies and capacities. The emphasis is on the quality of the learning as it takes place rather than on predetermined outcomes.

Think of it like this — the product model is assessment driven; like a target for the teacher and students to prepare toward the end of a unit. All the lessons that come before the product drive toward the end result. Whereas a process approach depends more on developing skills and revision of work based on continually assessing student needs.

Types of Curriculum Design

There are three categories of curriculum design, differentiated by who or what the primary focus of the lessons will be. 

  • Subject-Centered Curriculum Design:
    • Focuses on a specific discipline/subject
    • Subject-centered curriculum design describes what needs to be studied and how it should be studied
    • Most common type of curriculum used in the U.S.
    • Downside — not student-centered, constructed without taking into account the specific learning styles of the students, which can reduce student engagement and motivation
  • Learner-Centered Curriculum Design:
    • Focuses on students’ own interests and goals
    • Acknowledges that students have individual learning styles, and therefore should not be subject to a standardized curriculum
    • Aims to empower learners to shape their education
    • Downside — it can create pressure on the educator to source materials specific to each student’s learning needs
  • Problem-Centered Curriculum Design:
    • Focuses on specific issues and their solutions
    • Teaches students how to be problem solvers
    • Considered an authentic form of learning because students are exposed to real-life issues, so they develop skills that are transferable to the real world
    • Downside — this format does not always consider individual learning styles 

Benefits of Utilizing Curriculum Design 

Educators are already asked to handle more than their fair share of tasks in their career, so if they’re going to add anything to their workloads, it must clearly improve things for them and their students. Thankfully, curriculum design benefits them both by:

  1. Creating a curriculum with a purpose and concrete goals — a goal-oriented curriculum that has been crafted with student learning styles and outcomes in mind has been shown to improve participation, improve retention, foster collaborative learning and ultimately make learning more fun.
  2. Ensures that standards are being met — While they don’t have to be the singular focus of curriculum design, educators do have to ensure that their subject matter is meeting standards and helping students successfully reach the benchmarks of their grade and age levels. With updated curriculum design, educators can more clearly demonstrate how their courses meet standards.
  3. Improves the teaching process — When lessons or curricula have been in circulation for years, they can get stale for both the students and the teacher. With a refreshed curriculum design, educators can find new and exciting ways to teach the subject matter they’re passionate about, making their jobs more fun and students more engaged.
  4. Improves student outcomes — With a curriculum that is learner-centered or problem-centered, the teaching methodologies are more likely to align with student learning styles which, in theory, should improve their performance in the classroom.

Curriculum Design Tips

Curriculum design should be an intentional process, and it can be guided by a teacher’s own experience, or perhaps in a workshop setting, or even part of a curriculum design course. Regardless of the inspiration, there are a few curriculum design tips all educators should keep in mind.

  • Identify student needs: A student-centered curriculum obviously must originate with students’ needs. However, even if they aren’t considering that type of curriculum design, teachers should have a clear understanding of these needs and use them as a compass as they revamp their course curriculum.
  • Have a clear set of goals: Clearly defined learning outcomes or course goals will help guide educators as they design new curriculum. These can be state standards, individual student goals or even goals for themselves as educators, but having identifiable benchmarks makes it easier to assess both student and educator success.
  • Acknowledge limitations: In an ideal world, teachers would have endless resources and time to ensure that all components of their lesson plans and overall curriculum are taught to completion. But in reality, there are limitations, in terms of bandwidth, class time, student abilities and more. When they are designing or updating course curriculum, teachers must acknowledge these limitations and ensure that realistic expectations are set.
  • Select your instructional methods — Choosing to redesign curriculum is an opportunity for educators to formulate lessons and strategies that play to their strengths. In planning out a refreshed course plan, they should select instructional methods that they enjoy, that are effective with students and that they are proficient in.
  • Establish an evaluation process — While curriculum design is an opportunity to play to one’s strengths, it is also an opportunity to reflect and more clearly see the effectiveness of certain teaching strategies. During this process, educators should implement a solid evaluation process that gives them high-quality feedback on their lessons and helps inform improvements for the next time.
  • Lastly, and most importantly, educators should consider taking a curriculum design course. In these courses, teachers are afforded the time to do the curriculum-enriching work for their school, district and classrooms that they may not have had during the school year. At the University of San Diego’s Division of Professional and Continuing Education, our experienced professional educators provide meaningful and timely feedback throughout our curriculum design program, centering each individual teacher’s needs based on their grade level, subject and coursework plan. At the end of the course, teachers are ready to inspire their students with a fresh, engaging new curriculum.

To learn more visit the University of San Diego’s Curriculum Design program


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