The Instructional Design/Curriculum Development Process

Questions and more questions – Where do we start in the curriculum development process?                                                                       ©Leslie Owen Wilson

Creating and writing good, usable, organic curriculum that is actually useful to a number of people, novices and veterans educators alike, is a complex process that begins with a series of questions. You can start with the existing pieces and then create the organizing principles, or vice versa. In creating and determining good curricula it is the end results that are important.

Like all general problem solving models, curriculum and instructional planning is a complex process which uses both divergent thinking (creating possibilities) and convergent thinking (narrowing or culling elements). Initial ideas are first generated, broadened, and then refined into set instructional patterns. Thinking of it metaphorically as weaving or braiding might help.

After 35+ years of planning, teaching, and writing, I have come to the conclusion that there is no easy way to create instruction or write effective curriculum, despite what other authors/vendors/publishers may promise. That is especially true today when there are infinite choices on what to include. There are plenty of good ways to attempt to do this like curriculum mapping or backwards design, but before folks begin that process, they need to ask a series of hard questions. These appear below and are designed to help clarify what to include and what to omit.

Leslie’s Note – What not to use: In my humble opinion vendors/publishers pushing computerized mapping should be avoided at this time as that method seems less than effective. For those educators involved in this process the additional work involved appears quite tedious and often causes great enmity among participants. Plus, as it is currently designed, this process is both expensive and exceptionally labor intensive. The most common comment to me from teachers having undergone this process was — We had to keep track of and enter all this data and we are not sure what happened to it or how it was used! In fact, we saw no evidence that it was used to create a curriculum. 

The other method often used by the lazy or untrained, and which I absolutely abhor, is curricula that is created by copying the table of contents of a currently used text. Unfortunately I have seen one too many inept or misguided educators do this and then try to pass it off as curriculum. This is especially sad when the text becomes obsolete and teachers are still attempting to use a curriculum based on it. Texts are teaching tools — nothing more. And they are expensive ones at that! How you use them, if you use them, and in what order you arrange their content should be a trained educators’ professional prerogative.

If you are using curricula that is simply a copied version of a table of contents of a text, then someone has abrogated the responsibility of creating curriculum to a textbook company. Please know textbook companies could care less about your students or their futures. They are after one thing — PROFIT! Publishers do not ask — how will this content best prepare students for the future? Rather they ask what will sell this book? 

An unknown fact: Due to the potential of computerized texts and publisher’s abilities to easily mix and match content into customized text formats this problem has been mitigated to some degree. However, before customizing texts was an option, few teachers or school administrators realized that large textbook publishers based their content choices primarily on the curricula of 3 states – California, Texas and New York.

Why you ask? These 3 states had statewide textbook adoption, and large school age populations. Yes, folks it was all about the money! For those of you from Michigan, or Iowa, or Rhode Island who wondered why the heck you spent a week studying the Battle of the Alamo, it was because it was an important part of the curricula of Texas. If you critically appraise that battle how important was it in the grand scheme of American history and western expansion? Yes, that battle had a number of colorful players, romantic and popular heroes, and became a battle cry — “Remember the Alamo!” But the real reason that particular topic took up a sizable amount of real estate in many American social studies and history texts was because the state of Texas had statewide textbook adoption, and text companies wanted that contract.

In dealing with choosing texts, it is always good to look behind the emerald velvet curtain to avoid that charlatan wizard hiding behind it. Ask your local textbook reps a few pointed questions. Examine the content very carefully! Look for both the accuracy of the content and its importance to larger conceptual understandings. Check out things like the credentials of the text’s author(s), the book’s revision schedules, or its readability in relation the population of students using it. Also ask which schools, or school systems, use or have adopted the text. And see if you can talk with representative teachers using the text and get some candid feedback. Too, please remember, texts are simply teaching tools, they are not subject matter bibles!


What to do:

The following questions represent common concerns or queries revolving around the development, evolution, dissemination and assessment of the overt or written curriculum. These questions are meant to stimulate discussions about varied aspects of curriculum development and content, concept, knowledge, or process selections. These should be part of ongoing professional development discussions that should occur before folks get down to the task of writing or revising curriculum.

Curriculum Content:
  • What persons, or designated groups of people, should be empowered to make selection decisions about what to include in the common curriculum (that body of knowledge required by most students)? Why these people? What qualifications should they have?
  • What defines, or should be considered, essential knowledge?
  • Are there differences between education and schooling?
  • Is there certain knowledge that should be considered common (required by most), essential, worthy, or mandatory? If so, specifically what are these things?
  • What specific or general content or processes should be included as basic or essential knowledge?
  • What social, cultural, or political forces influence curriculum selection, formation, and distribution?

In considering the above, be sure to take into account that the reality that your students will be living in a future time, needing different skills than those required in the past. In order for the curriculum you create to be effective in preparing students for their futures, you need to constantly be aware of current and projected future trends, and incorporate those projections into your curricular choices. One of the biggest mistakes today’s educators make in creating curriculum is relying on a materials and choices that served past needs and not considering how that information or those processes will be used or relevant in the future.  

 Curriculum creation and formation, organization, and dissemination: 
  • Who should be responsible for the creating the philosophy or tone of a curriculum, or for selecting the specific learning theories that drive the curriculum? Note: *Your philosophy statement, whether overt or implied, is the front door by which your readers enter your document. It sets the stage for those things to come and for readers’ expectations.
  • Who should be involved in ensuring that a curriculum has a sense of unity, relevance, pertinence, and purpose?
  • What minimal components are considered necessary, or bare essentials, for the practical implementation of the curriculum?
  • And, how is usable curricula best organized?
  • Should there be different forms of curricula (hard bound, electronic, media online), ones that facilitate changes and revisions, and which are easy to use and easy to disseminate quickly?
  • Who is responsible for making revisions, formatting, organizational, and distribution decisions?
  • Will retraining or professional instruction be needed in order for educators to derive maximum usefulness of the curriculum? If so, who is in charge of that retraining or advanced training?
  • What forces or people play a part in deciding to create new curriculum, or to revise older curriculum?
  • What social, generational, political, or professional influences generally serve as catalysts in changing curricula?
 Curriculum Assessment: 
  • How can educators best assess whether the goals and objectives of the delivered curricula have been obtained?
  • What types of evidence or data indicate that the curriculum has been effective? What types of measures can be used in assessment?
  • Who should be in charge of assessing if and how learning has taken place?
  • Who should be responsible for evaluating the overall effectiveness of curricula, and for collecting and documenting assessment data?
  • How should assessment and evaluation data be used to improve the quality of instruction, and determine future curricular directions?


Questions for instructional development:

In 1949 the late Ralph Tyler offered some initial suggestions for developing curriculum and instruction that may help you get started. As someone who has used Tyler’s work, and in hopes to clarify what curricular aspects he was talking about, I have taken Tyler’s four classic tenets of curriculum planning and offered additional directions and questions in ( ). Use these to begin your dialogues about your curricular choices. Tyler’s is a small little book – – it is still in publication, and still being used around the world. Most of important of all, this book is still very useful in developing curriculum documents.

Tyler’s Four Questions of Instructional Development

1. What are the purposes of the school?

(Think about, justify, and delineate what you are you going to teach and how this material is relevant to the common, current purposes of schooling?)

2. What educational experiences are related to those purposes?

(What content, processes, and methods are you going to use to deliver instruction and information that perpetuate the purposes of schools ?)

3. What are the organizational methods which will be used in relation to those purposes?

(Again, in the contexts of your educational purposes, how can you best organize your information, presentations, and learning events so that they are most effective?)

4. How will those purposes be evaluated?

(How do you know your learning events, information, and processes were taught successfully — what evidence will you collect?)

Tyler, R. W. (1949) Basic principles of curriculum and instruction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Additions from Leslie Owen Wilson) Iterations of Tyler’s work have been in constant print since 1949! There are also earlier editions of his work.

If you have ever created a unit plan, or a series of complex, related lesson plans, you have probably already asked yourselves these or similar questions as a form of internal or reflective dialogue, or as an automatic, subliminal process. Within this process you first elaborated and then refined your educational intentions and related educational directions.

While Tyler’s questions are certainly a good place to start developing curriculum, in light of what we now know about the complex journey of learning and how the human brain processes and retains information, there are additional questions that may help you create effective instructional plans and curriculum for today’s students. Hopefully, these questions, in addition to Tyler’s, will aid you in creating material that is both relevant and useful. Here are my added suggestions:

Wilson’s Additions to Tyler’s Principles

1. In the context of students’ future needs, be able to justify why you are teaching particular content or processes.

(Be able to provide a rationale for what you are teaching and for how you are using students’ time.)

2. Be able to make the content or processes more holistic.

(Teach the whole child through instructional techniques and processes which actively engage multiple modalities and children’s minds, bodies, psyches, and social consciousnesses. Good instruction needs to be multisensory and holistic in order to be remembered. This approach creates multiple neural pathways and has a better chance of being remembered and recalled, as well as meeting different types of learning styles.)

3. Be able to make instruction relevant to students’ experiences — past, present, and future lives?

(Tie instructional strategies and content into students’ experiences — make it real, make it applicable to their past experiences, their present needs and their immediate futures.)

4. Be able to create more authentic types of assessment.

(Give students connections through meaningful assignments that have direct applicability and carry-over into the real world.)

Things to consider:

In order to create effective curriculum and instructional designs, use Tyler’s questions as a place to get started, and then use my questions as a way to monitor instructional relevancy and applicability. The other thing that I need to point out is that this is a process that can be enhanced through conversations and comparisons, and parents and students can even be included in the process. I also need to leave you with these very important points:

      • all good curriculum provides enough structure for continuity among multiple users, but
      • it also needs to be loose enough so that it can accommodate the individualization of teaching style and professional artistry
      • at some levels it needs to be useful to both the novice and the veteran teacher, and
      • it should include sample activities and useful prototypes, and finally 
      • it needs to be organically arranged so it can be changed, updated, and personalized easily.

Before you begin, get a sense of what you like and what you do not. Gather a series of curricular guides and carefully examine them (see my examination guide as a place to start.)  Note content, organization, and format, and decide which formats and features work for you.. These questions, plus the examination of an array of up-to-date guides, will give you a foundation for constructing something that is worthwhile so you can be able to create, write or revise very USABLE curriculum documents.

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