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5 Key Elements for Successful Curriculum Design

5 Key Elements for Successful Curriculum Design

May 10, 2022

Curriculum design is the single most important work of a school district. Despite this fact, many districts find the idea of designing a curriculum overwhelming. It gives reason for succumbing to the attractive, simple, and common option: textbook adoption.


Many districts embark on textbook adoption and invest professional development funds to secure the implementation of new programs with fidelity. Only after a resource is selected, does the work of curriculum writing begin so that there is clear alignment with the resource. 


After a multi-year commitment, districts must decide if the outcomes desired were achieved, and the process begins again. However, the curriculum is the map of how a school accomplishes its mission and deserves to be the heartbeat of every strategic plan. The curriculum should be a continuous process and never considered complete.


When looking at curriculum development, it is important to consider what matters most for the district. It warrants a bit of reflection and knowledge of research. The challenge for a district is to avoid the trap of what is easy. What works best for children is not necessarily found in the contents of a pre-written program. 


There are five key elements to successful curriculum design: 

  1. Clear Purpose
  2. Strong Beliefs
  3. Big Ideas
  4. Common, Timely, and Purposeful Assessments
  5. Collaborative Design, Review, and Annual Revisions

1) Clear Purpose

Developing a core visionary curriculum team is critical to keeping any efforts moving forward with steam and energy. That team must consider what the intended outcome is for the curriculum. 


Caution is necessary to guard against the belief that improved test results should be the outcome. That is a critical flaw that often leads to the adoption of promising scripted programs. There are many valuable resources available, but choosing the right resource should not be the first step in curriculum design.  


Improved test scores should be a consequence of a strong curriculum, not the goal! Identifying the student-focused learning outcomes creates a purpose for the curriculum. 


The purpose of any curriculum is to achieve a set of long-term transferable learning outcomes based on established academic standards and related educational outcomes (McTighe and Curtis, 2019). The purpose of the curriculum is to map a course toward those intended outcomes.   

2) Strong Beliefs

Beliefs drive actions. Therefore, a curriculum that is intended to be a guaranteed experience for all students should demonstrate evidence of what the district believes about the content of the curriculum and provide consistency in actions aligned to those stated beliefs.


A key element to the curriculum design process is to begin with time dedicated to developing belief statements that can be shared among all stakeholders of the district. A successful curriculum design team can solve many issues and work through challenges during the process when the beliefs are established and agreed upon before curriculum design.


Generating belief statements can be an energizing exercise for a newly formed curriculum team, and it is not necessary to start with a blank sheet of paper! Educators are excellent at sharing resources!  


Belief Statements…

  • …should clearly articulate the philosophy of the district when it comes to teaching specific content.  
  • …should be drafted and shared out widely for feedback and reflection. The curriculum team should be open to receiving feedback and revising the statements so that a shared commitment can be achieved by all those impacted by the curriculum design.  
  • …can be taken directly from research. For example, research clearly states that an effective math teacher provides students with appropriate challenges, encourages perseverance in solving problems, and supports productive struggle in learning mathematics (Principles to Action, Ensuring Mathematics Success for All (NCTM, 2014) p 11). As units are developed, a belief statement such as this would impact how lessons are designed and promote the use of specific instructional strategies that encourage perseverance and productive struggle.  
  • …can assist with identifying anchor resources for the design team that aligns with such beliefs. 
  • …should have a partnering action step that assists individuals with interpreting the practicality of the belief in action. For example, a belief statement for the Greencastle-Antrim School District (GASD) states, “We believe students learn mathematics through critical reasoning, higher-level thinking, and problem-solving.” This is coupled with a “therefore” statement: “Therefore, we will incorporate collaborative learning experiences that include problem-solving, use of multiple strategies, and opportunities to articulate thinking. Students will make multiple attempts to demonstrate their understanding and revise their thinking as they develop conceptual understanding.” This set of beliefs and action steps create the philosophy of the district that neatly weaves curriculum, instruction, assessment, and professional development into a tapestry of interconnected components. 
  • …can include statements that identify the role of the teacher and the role of resources to support, rather than direct instruction.  
  • …can clarify that teachers have autonomy in practices that best fit their teaching style and the needs of their particular students or that lessons should integrate content and skills to create units that are engaging and multi-faceted.  
  • …can help guide and prioritize district spending, demonstrating the beliefs in action!

3) Big ideas

With a clear purpose and shared beliefs, those long-term, transferable goals can be translated into big ideas for the content area specific to the grade-level expectations, standards, and critical learning focus areas. 


The big ideas describe what matters most in the content for a specific grade level or course. GASD found it considerably beneficial to engage the curriculum design team in looking at the existing vertical alignment of learning to identify trends, gaps, and redundancies that needed to be addressed.


Arguably the most difficult, but important piece of curriculum design is engaging staff in generating what students would need to understand to achieve the intended learning outcomes described in each big idea. This is part of the woven tapestry for curriculum and professional development. 


However, when teachers know what students need to understand, they are more well-equipped to design learning plans that can deepen understanding and can be personalized to students in their classrooms. There are so many excellent models available to educators, that sometimes it makes more sense to borrow ideas from resources and edit them over time and as needed.  


With the big ideas and understandings identified, the team is then able to create or select questions that can be asked repeatedly so that the responses will provide evidence of understanding and dictate possible instructional adjustments that may be necessary. This key element in curriculum design describes a large portion of stage one of the Understanding by Design® Framework (McTighe and Wiggins, 2005).

4) Common, Timely, and Purposeful Assessments

Designing an effective curriculum that will lead to the desired results for a district is hard work, but energizing, as it places the power of learning back in the hands of those that have the most impact on children. 


The commitment to invest the time and effort into designing a local curriculum deserves the fourth key element for successful curriculum design: common, timely, and purposeful assessments. 


The curriculum design team must identify how the district will know if students are achieving the intended learning outcomes and prepare to respond to the results. Common assessments that are given at regular intervals are essential to monitor progress and provide instructional guidance. Assessments should be carefully selected or created so that the information gathered from the tool is valuable and productive. 


Plans for reviewing assessment results as a team must be part of the organizational structure. Time for collaboration is essential to the successful implementation of a curriculum and must be a district priority.

5) Collaborative Design, Review, and Time for Annual Revisions

The curriculum design team is a key element to the successful creation of a local curriculum. An effective team is comprised of passionate educators from within the district that have expertise in a grade level and who are willing to review research and multiple resources. 


This team needs opportunities for extended time together initially, and overtime to continuously review the strength of the curriculum units and revise as necessary with feedback from their colleagues. 


Curriculum design is a continuous process that is never finished. A district should expect to revise with each year of successful implementation, teachers will inherit stronger learners and instructional plans will need revising to meet the changing dynamic.  


The district must commit to regular review of the beliefs, identifying evidence of the beliefs in action and areas that may require additional professional development to move forward. It is always helpful to have outside support and consultation from experts, however, having district teachers with their administrators as the critical members of the curriculum design team results in shared ownership of the curriculum, and a deeper understanding of the content, purpose, and assessments.


Teachers must recognize that their voice and expertise matter. Administrators must be ready to support the implementation and understand that the goal is not perfection, the goal is continuous reflection, revision, and improvement. The most critical role of the administrator is to provide the time and space for collaborative work.  


A well-designed curriculum is the most critical piece of any district improvement plan. It must be the first step in any effort to plan for instruction, assessment, and professional development. With the initial instruction identified in the curriculum with clear learning goals, a district is well-positioned to develop a systemic response when children need differentiated support.


Targeting specific skills, knowledge, and learning gaps becomes part of the learning design plan. Resources can be evaluated through the lens of the district priorities and the intended learning outcomes for every child.  


  • McTighe, J., & Curtis, G. (2019). Leading modern learning: A blueprint for vision-driven schools. ASCD.
  • NCTM Statement of Beliefs
  • NCTM Beliefs about Teaching and Learning Mathematics 
  • GASD Math Philosophy
  • GASD Literacy Philosophy
  • Wiggins, G., Wiggins, G. P., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design®. ASCD.

About the Author:

Dr. Lura Hanks, current superintendent of the Greencastle-Antrim School District began her teaching career in 1998 as an elementary teacher in Frederick County, Maryland. She has served as a teacher specialist, assistant principal, principal, and previously Supervisor of English Language Arts and Social Studies for Washington County Public Schools. Dr. Hanks has a master’s degree in Educational Leadership and a Doctorate of Organizational Leadership from Hood College. 


Dr. Hanks has presented at local, state, and national conferences on topics of literacy education and teacher professional development. She has authored and contributed to a variety of articles including the 2019 released book by Doug Fisher titled This Is Balanced Literacy. In October of 2019, Dr. Hanks presented at the International Literacy Association conference on improving literacy instruction through talent management professional development.


While she grew up in Tewksbury, Massachusetts, Greencastle has been her home for 18 years where she lives with her husband and two children.

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