Research in Curriculum

Research Report

Summer 2006

Erin E. Peters


            Since the inception of public education in America, educators have wrestled with the question “What are the elements of an effective curriculum?” Currently a multitude of programs, content resources and pedagogy are available to educators, and it is difficult for busy professionals to sift through the materials in order to find the most effective. This paper attempts to synthesize major recommendations from some of the more prominent curricular materials and research reports in science education. The materials that were examined include the Trends in Math and Science Study (National Center for Educational Statistics, 1997), Understanding by Design (1998), How Students Learn Science (2005), the textbook study conducted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), as well as well-known textbooks and kits.


            Before recommending effective curriculum in any classroom, one must be cognizant of the classroom culture and environment. Effective curriculum involves the consideration of students and teachers, as well as materials. Students do not enter the room as empty vessels to be filled. Rather they come to classroom with prior knowledge and conceptual frameworks from their life experiences. Sometimes these conceptual frameworks are misinformed and must be restructured. In addition to student prior knowledge, teacher interaction with the curriculum must be considered in curriculum evaluation. Teachers have limited time to learn new skills within the school year, so learning and administering new ways of dealing with curriculum is often problematic. In addition, the accessibility and presentation of resource materials affects the implementation of curriculum. If teachers find the materials too difficult to implement, they will not be used. Similarly, if students find the materials too easy or too difficult in comparison to their range of understanding, they will not be engaged with the materials. All of these factors, student prior knowledge, teacher responsibilities and quality of resource materials, must be considered before new curriculum is instituted in a school. Once these factors are resolved, then other curricular issues must be well thought-out. Research points to three areas that are central to effective curriculum use: pedagogy issues, classroom resource issues, and community of practice issues


Pedagogy Issues

            Balancing teacher responsibility.

            It is difficult to balance the amount of responsibility placed on teachers regarding curriculum design. Are teachers responsible for designing unique lessons or should curriculum provide “teacher-proof” lessons? One example of an extreme type of curricular tool that depends heavily on teachers is discovery learning, where very vague guidelines are given to the teachers. Teachers then need to develop all aspects of the learning process for the students. The other extreme would be curricular materials that prescribe all parts of teacher talk during instruction as well as student tasks. This extreme doesn’t allow the teachers or the students the opportunity to think for themselves. Understanding by Design (1998), written by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, develops ideas about the ways students understand and methods teachers can use to expand students ways of understanding material. The six facets of understanding that are used throughout the book are explanation, interpretation, application, perspective, empathy, and self-knowledge. Using the six facets of understanding as an anchor, Wiggins and McTighe walk teachers through the process of backwards design, culminating in the development of a template for classroom use. Teachers think about what is most important for students to leave the classroom with, and helps teachers to develop instruction to get to this point. The instruction is deliberately designed to engage students in meaningful work to construct useful conceptual frameworks. This type of curriculum design equally allows teacher creativity and teacher guidance. Understanding by Design is a step toward balancing teacher responsibility for creating curriculum by providing a framework for design, but allowing teachers to make important decisions about content and sequence. A more difficult problem to address is the tendency of teachers to proceed directly to the templates provided as a tool at the back of the book as a way of implementing Understanding by Design. Wiggins and McTighe deliberately laid out the necessary information to evoke conceptual change at the beginning of the book, but teachers are practitioners and tend to bypass anything that is not immediately of practical value. Teachers could be offered face-to-face instruction on the issues addressed at the beginning and middle of the book. Teachers may find the information presented in these chapters more valuable if presented using a different mode of communication such as a presentation.


            Time as a barrier.

            Time is one of the most discussed barriers to teacher change. The lack of time that teachers have in their day-to-day lives often results in shallow lessons. In 1995, the Trends in Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) was administered in five grades, third grade, fourth grade, seventh grade, eighth grade and the final year of secondary school, across 41 countries in the subjects of mathematics and science. Data gathered for the 1995 study included analysis of curriculum materials, videotapes of classroom interactions, and surveys. In 1999, another TIMSS was given to eighth graders in 38 countries, 26 of which participated in 1995. The data gathered in this iteration of the study included information from students, teachers and school principals about mathematics and science curricula, instruction, home life, school characteristics and school policies. The 2003 TIMSS was administered to eighth grade students in 48 countries and fourth grade students in 26 countries for mathematics and science achievement. The same types of data were gathered as in the 1999 study. The curriculum portion of the study has reported that across many countries often the written curriculum differed from the implemented curriculum in the classroom. It has also been reported that although the United States spends more time in the classroom teaching, standards are lower in the area of eighth grade mathematics than many other countries (Cogan, 1996). Most TIMSS countries have a national curriculum, where as the United States allows for local control which amounts to 16,000 different curriculum standards. The amount of time given to teachers to teach the standards are small compared with the number of standards to be covered. Teachers feel the pressure to cover all of the standards and are less likely to change because it would take time away from their current routine. The TIMSS report could point education reformers to ideas about providing more time to teachers for design and reflection of lessons.


            Organizing curriculum into big ideas.

            The state mandated curriculum in the United States tends to have more topics to teach in one year than is possible. One solution to reduce the number of content objectives to be covered is addressed in the book, How Students Learn Science. How Students Learn Science is a report that is written by the National Academies and builds on the book How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience and School. It takes the three organizing ideas from How People Learn, student prior knowledge, central concepts in doing science, and metacognition and describes science instruction in these terms. The topic of reform has been described in many different ways, and at times can be confusing. This book takes this difficulty into account and uses only three large ideas to rethink. Their use of big ideas shows that this committee really used what they promote because one of their tenets was to organize instruction around the big ideas in each discipline. The report also used examples and reasoning why teachers need to go beyond the textbook in their classroom instruction. In many reform documents, the reform is posited, but only supported by a weak rationale. This report uses research-based evidence to illustrate why teachers need to do more than the status quo. The report also is careful not to blame teachers for poor instruction. This tone is very important so educators actually read the report to implement its recommendations. Teachers take quite a beating from the media about their lack of expertise, and tend to be very sensitive about it. Explicitly saying that our poor educational state is not the fault of the teachers is a positive step toward change. Organizing around three major issues is a step in the right direction, rather than expecting teachers to cover an inordinate amount of material.


            Reduce reliance on textbooks.

            Reducing the number of standards is only one of many things that need to be done to improve curriculum. There is a public perception that teachers need textbooks in order to teach well. Some school boards have mandated that textbooks be adopted before any other kit based materials (C. Skelton, personal communication, June 5, 2006; M. Lombard, personal communication, May 31, 2006). Research such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science textbook evaluation, a web-based document that details the findings of a multi-year study of the informational and instructional value of widely used science and mathematics textbooks, has shown that textbooks are not as helpful as the public thinks. The study looked at middle school texts focusing on earth science, life science and physical science as well as biology texts books written at the high-school level. Evaluators for the textbooks included science teachers, curriculum specialists and science education professors who trained extensively for the endeavor. The report summary concludes that not one of the textbooks chosen for the evaluation met the standards set by the Benchmarks for Science Literacy. The major textbooks examined in the study had too much information, little depth in the topic discussions, and the brevity used in describing some concepts lead to student misconceptions (AAAS, 2006). In communicating this information, AAAS does a good job in informing the public that science textbooks should be more than a collection of facts. The textbook should inform the quality of instruction along with providing accurate content.


            Students in elementary school are constantly faced with new experiences that either match up with or contradict their scientific understandings. It is important that elementary teachers are given curricular materials that help to address young students’ prior knowledge. In addition, elementary teachers are responsible for all subjects taught in school, so they do not have much time to devote to the background knowledge that meaningful science instruction requires. Curriculum materials such as Full Option Science System (FOSS), or Science and Technology for Children (STC) incorporate these factors into their products. These kit-based materials are organized into conceptual units so that a teacher who is unaware of the way content should be sequenced can provide quality instruction. The activities are hands-on and engaging so that students can connect their prior knowledge constructions to their new experiences. There is brief, yet adequate background information for scientific ideas addressed in the activities so that teachers can help scaffold information for students. The materials needed for the experiences are contained in the kits, which is helpful because teachers do not need to spend planning time gathering materials.


            Students in middle school take their basic conceptual understandings from elementary school and enhance their learning with more detailed information and more complex logical structures. Many middle school textbooks addressed the issue of increasing the detail about phenomena compared with elementary texts, but ignored the issue of cognition in students. The American Association for the Advancement in Science extensively critiqued popular textbook series with their rigorous rubric and found that middle school textbooks were deficient. One text that tried to incorporate the idea of spiraling topics is the Foundational Approaches in Science Teaching (FAST) textbook series. Unfortunately, teachers needed to be trained in order to use this text and the project has not been updated. McDougall-Littell was one of the textbook companies that addressed the concerns of AAAS. The publisher addresses real-life situations and provides explicit formative assessments to inform instruction. Although the McDougall-Littell middle school science textbook series rises above the others, it still adheres to content that covers a wide range of topics, but rarely in depth.


            Students in high school take their general science knowledge and expand on it by taking classes that discuss one dimension of science for an entire year. In chemisty, the ChemCom text provides the most meaningful content. It is organized around familiar ideas for students and connects their understanding of the world with scientific knowledge. The inquiry methods explained in the book are highly engaging and cover a deep understanding of content. In physics, the Active Physics series is organized similarly. Each text is organized around a familiar topic such as transportation or sports. Using this organizing framework, students explore the scientific underpinnings through short readings, constructivist activities and reflection. Biology, a topic laden with vocabulary, does not have a similar counterpart. Biology: Exploring Life is a text that is somewhat student-centered. They organize ideas around questions in each chapter and provide a large quantity of extension activities. However, the text is extremely verbally dense and does not provide ideas on how to focus on topics in depth. 


Classroom Resource Issues

            Ultimately, the teacher must decide what materials to use and what is most important to teach given the large quantity of standards. Teachers can look to research such as the TIMSS report, which points to reducing the amount of topics and focusing on core topics in depth. The Understanding by Design framework gives guidance to teachers about how to choose important topics and how to teach them once they have been identified. How Students Learn Science also gives a helpful framework in a slightly different way, by organizing lesson planning around student prior knowledge, thematic ideas, and thinking about thinking. The connection between Understanding by Design and How Students Learn Science lies in their recommendation to draw from multiple classroom resources for information while still maintaining a thematic approach focusing on big ideas. Teachers are encouraged to pick and choose from many different materials in order to weave together a coherent thematic program. Most of the textbooks are not organized this way, but kit-based curriculum such as FOSS and STC are organized thematically. The research generally recommends that teachers choose curriculum address several thematic ideas in depth.


Community of Practice Issues

            Many of the recommendations for curricular changes such as the ones discussed in Understanding by Design, Trends in Mathematics and Science Study, and How Students Learn Science involve teachers working as a community, but there are several barriers to this design. Teachers are not given the time to meet as a community, nor are they given the resources to communicate with each other effectively, such as meeting space or technology that assists communication. Teachers are often not respected by the public and often choose not to be on committees because their opinion will be overruled by school board or administrators wanting to please the outside community. Exemplary unit examples given in Understanding by Design, Trends in Mathematics and Science Study, and How Students Learn Science all require feedback, cooperative planning, and time for reflection. Teachers see these recommendations as unrealistic. The ability for teachers to be members of an active, positive community must be considered in the factors involved in evoking effective curriculum.


            The factors involved in implementing valuable curricular change are complex. Teachers are expected to change their pedagogy from presenting disconnected activities to a more thematic connection among ideas, but this change requires time and resources that are more often than not scarce. The materials that are offered to teachers to help in planning expect too much material to be taught in a short period of time, so teachers are faced with the difficult decision either to teach all of the material in a shallow way, or to leave out some material to teach some topics in depth. The current educational system leaves no time for teachers to communicate to each other and often to students in a meaningful way. The current curricular situation does not provide the opportunities for teachers and students to be thoughtful and reflective. Reform called for in documents such as American Association for the Advancement of Science textbook evaluation, Understanding by Design, Trends in Mathematics and Science Study, and How Students Learn Science all point toward slowing down and thinking systemically about planning. They recommend that educators consider learning outcomes from activities before moving on to the next activity. Unfortunately, this won’t occur until teachers are relieved of some of their current responsibility and textbooks are given less status within the curriculum. The reform recommendations coming from research all show that as soon as teachers can be thoughtful about their planning, they can provide meaningful instruction.



American Association for the Advancement of Science. Project 2061 Textbook Evaluations. Found at on July 14, 2006.


Cogan, L. (1996). Third International Mathematics and Science Study Summary of Eighth Grade Achievement Results. Retrieved July 1, 2006, from


Lombard, M. (May 31, 2006). Personal communication.


National Center for Educational Statistics. (1997). A Study of U. S. Eighth-Grade Mathematics and Science Teaching, Learning, Curriculum, and Achievement in International Context. Chapter 2: Curriculum. Retrieved June 23, 2006, from


National Research Council. (2005). How students learn science in the classroom. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.


Skelton, C. (June 5, 2006). Personal communication.


Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.