George Lucas Educational Foundation
Curriculum Planning

Making Space for Your Autonomy Within a Set Curriculum

Here are a few ways teachers can exercise professional agency in deciding how to make a curriculum relevant to the students in their class.

March 26, 2024
Michael Morgenstern / The iSpot

Just as we sometimes open closets full of clothing but feel like there’s nothing to wear, a curriculum can be perceived as a large collection of materials that aren’t as useful as one might hope. Contrary to common perception, a curriculum does not tell anyone how to teach—rather, it identifies content-based learning targets with standards-aligned objectives, often in conjunction with recommendations for sequencing or pacing.

In other words, a curriculum tells us what to teach, but it doesn’t tell anyone how to do that. This is appropriate given the fact that teachers and students are human, and a degree of flexibility is therefore needed when it comes to lesson delivery.

To that end, getting the most out of any curriculum product is about determining how to present the material in a way that is most beneficial, which requires careful decisions that are specific to the students who sit in front of them. In essence, as teachers build years in the profession, they amass a variety of tools and strategies that help with instructional delivery. To make sure that kids are getting the most out of any given class period, aligning what is in our teaching repertoires to kids in a way that maximizes results is the mark of teaching expertise. 

Backward designing to meet curricular priorities

There is a common misperception that the rigidity of a curriculum lies within the instructional activities it inspires rather than in the overall focus of any given unit of study. In truth, the engaging activities that teachers love to design are often not provided in any resource, but they should support larger outcomes. Every curriculum contains a series of nonnegotiable priorities for instruction that cannot be overlooked. Therefore, one of the most important moves a teacher can make is to prioritize the most crucial elements of the curriculum while ensuring that there is enough flexibility within lesson planning to meet the needs of students.

The process of backward design provides clarity for focusing instruction while still giving space for agility and creativity through three essential steps of planning:

  1. Identify a measurable learning objective. An example from a fifth-grade science class might be, “Students will develop an argument that supports the downward pull of gravitational force.”
  2. Design evidence to determine whether the objective has been achieved. To measure the objective above, teachers could assess student performance by asking them to find quotations in their science textbook that support the argument.
  3. Plan instructional activities that are aligned to the measurable objective. To work toward a deeper understanding of the concept, students might be asked to construct mini roller coasters that exemplify the downward pull of gravity.

Often, teachers reverse steps two and three (or even put step three first) as they prioritize the activity portion of class. However, effective instruction is not just a series of tasks (a “what” followed by another “what”) without any through line. When the backward design process is followed, there is still plenty of room for innovative thinking, but the curriculum nonnegotiables do not get lost along the way. In other words, the “what” and the “how” work together to keep course content aligned to grade-level standards, and the teacher still has the ability to exercise some creative freedom in executing the lesson.

Meeting the needs of individual classes

With curriculum nonnegotiables in mind, teaching pedagogy itself must take classroom culture into consideration to ensure that content outcomes are set up to meet student needs. This reality can hold true even for students who have the same teacher and the same subject at different times of day.

For example, if the daily lesson involves talking about a weekly current event that everyone read about for homework, a group of sleepy kids who meet first period might need to get up and move by talking to a learning partner about their thoughts, whereas an overexcited fifth-period class that is typically difficult to calm down after lunch could benefit from a quieter method of discourse that keeps everyone in their seats, like a traditional turn and talk.

In both cases, the curricular goals would not change; however, the method of delivery (the “how”) is determined by the teacher to best serve the students in the room and is therefore a more responsive approach that allows students the maximum level of access and opportunity to achieve learning targets.

Make room for professional agency

Sometimes, it seems that a curriculum is one giant to-do list of one thing after another. However, there might be more room for autonomy than we first suppose. Consider taking an integrative approach to aligning interdisciplinary standards, which allows for creative freedom without adding anything extra to anyone’s plate. Teachers are responsible for ensuring that students meet learning targets set by the curricula they use; however, style and capacity differ from classroom to classroom.

It’s also important to remember that students benefit from the same agility as adults. While we get comfortable with exercising more professional agency as teachers, it is also wise to model a 360-degree use of autonomy by empowering students to share the responsibility for learning. Children tend to mirror adult behavior, which is useful in this context when teachers let members of the class share responsibility for components of the learning.

For example, suppose one student a day is in charge of developing a summarizing question. That way, each person in the class is able to engage more fully with how the daily objective has been reached, and it also provides a wonderful opportunity for growing critical thinking skills. As students become more autonomous and confident, teachers also have more time and space to address the more flexible nuances within a curriculum. With added student capacity, the teacher has the freedom to provide extension opportunities for course concepts or work with students individually who may need more scaffolding.

A curriculum may begin as a written product, but it is a dynamic entity that comes to life in the classroom. When teachers put their own stamp on provided instructional pathways to engage students in grade-level work, they are able to meet the distinct needs of each individual while maintaining high standards and equitable outcomes. Navigating the limitations and the agility of a framework effectively is key to executing skillful instruction and to reaching a deeper level of understanding about how to correctly implement any curriculum to maximize student growth.

Here’s a question for you: How are you finding ways to exercise your autonomy within the curriculum you’ve been provided? Please share in the comments to help create a rich set of strategies for your fellow teachers.

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