16 Curriculum Innovations

“Curriculum holds an outstanding place when seeking to promote innovation in education, as it reflects the vision for education by indicating knowledge, skills, and values to be taught to students. It may express not only what should be taught to students, but also how the students should be taught.”-Kiira Kärkkäinen

Image of a lightbulb with the earth inside of it.


Innovation means doing things in new ways, and in curriculum, it means adopting different designs for learning to help make learning more meaningful for 21st-century learners. Some practices in education have become outmoded, and learning experiences should be redesigned to be more relevant to student interests, abilities, and cultures. An additional challenge is that with a more diverse population of students who have a broad range of abilities, innovations must be linked to curriculum goals as well as being challenging and differentiated to provide for an array of learning experiences.

Essential Questions

  • What are the three main models of curriculum innovation? How are they the same? How are they different?
  • What are the most important change agents in a school?
  • What are the STEM and STEAM initiatives?
  • What are the implications regarding what has been learned about curriculum in the past ten years according to Sal Khan?

Curriculum Change

From Curriculum Studies, pp. 108-113

Curriculum change is inevitable in any society. These changes occur because there is not perfect curriculum, and there is most often a need to adjust to the economic, technological, social, political, and ideological needs in the society. Change can be perceived at three levels.

Minor changes involve re-arrangement of subject content, learning activities, re-organization of personnel, addition of topics or methods in the curriculum project.

Medium changes involve not only organizing of content, materials or facilities, but it involves integration of subjects or new approaches to the existing subjects. On the other hand;

Major change involves an overhaul of the existing curriculum. It may entail a complete re-organization of the conceptual design of the curriculum, changes in structure, content, methods and approaches.

Changes in resources and facilities can also lead to a totally new curriculum plan or program. For curriculum change to occur, there are certain agencies involved in the process. Let us examine some of them.

Agencies of Curriculum Change

Agencies of change include institutes of education, curriculum development centers, research institutes, schools, colleges, universities, departments of education, publishing companies, school districts, school boards, and communities.

Curriculum Innovations

Innovation involves the introduction of something new in curriculum that deviates from the standard practice, often because society has changed and so must the curriculum. To meet these changes, innovations are created.

An innovation must fit in with the goals and objectives of education which usually reflect the needs, interests, values and problems of the society. An innovation must be appropriate, economical in terms of time, space and resources and be aligned with the philosophy of the society and the school and rooted in sound educational theory.

Models of Curriculum Innovation

Various scholars have proposed different models of innovation. For instance, Ronald Havelock (1969) identified three main models of innovation:

  • Research, Development, and Diffusion (RD&D) model
  • Social Interaction (SI) model
  • Problem-Solving (PS) model

The Research, Development and Diffusion (RD&D) Model

In this model, an idea or practice is conceived at the central planning unit and then fed into the system. RD&D is effective where curriculum development is done on a large scale and ideas have to reach wide geographical areas and isolated users. It is a highly organized, rational approach to innovation. Following is a logical sequence of activities in using the RD&D model:

  • basic research by a central project team which develops a new curriculum, devises and designs prototyped materials,
  • field trials of the prototyped materials, and redesigns them where necessary,
  • mass production of the modified prototyped materials,
    • mass dissemination or diffusion of the innovation through courses, conferences, and workshops, and
  • implementation of the innovation by the users (school, teachers, and pupils).

The model can be summarized as follows:

Research, Development and Diffusion Model
Figure 16.1 – Research, Development and Diffusion Model

This model is used in areas that have centralized systems of education, such as universities or departments of education.

The Social Interaction (SI) Model

The model grew out of the progressive education movement in the 1930s when it split into two camps: one that focused on the individual student as a learner and the other on society as an education laboratory (Ellis, 2004). This view sees students as capable of reforming society with support from leadership to provide a curriculum that may become “a classroom without walls” and a community where students and teachers can ultimately change the world (Ellis, 2004).

This model operates through social interaction and emphasizes communication. It stresses the importance of interpersonal networks of information, opinion of leadership, personal contacts, and social integration. The model also has its roots in the notion of democratic communities “helping students to be as well as to become.” (Sergiovanni, 1994).

The SI model also stresses the relationship of the individual to other people and society, and the instructional methods used by teachers in the classroom to facilitate group work. The model is student-centered, and students are encouraged to interact with each other in a structured setting. When implementing this strategy, students often serve as facilitators of content and help their peers construct meaning. The students are to question, reflect, reconsider, seek help and support, and participate in group discussions. The three most common strategies include:

  • group projects,
  • group discussions, and
  • cooperative learning (Patel, 2013).

The interactions are often face-to-face but may also be interactive using online tools and technologies. The steps of instruction using social interaction often vary, but they have these steps:

Flowchart outlining the steps of the SI Model
Figure 16.3 – Si Model (Patel, 2013).

The Problem Solving (PS) Model

The PS model is based on the assumption that innovation is part of a problem-solving process. The following steps are characteristic of the PS model.

The Problem-Solving Model
Figure 16.4 – PS Model (Bishop, 1985, p. 182)

The PS model is referred to as a “periphery-center” approach to innovation.  The innovations are initiated, generated, and applied by the teachers and schools based on their needs. Such innovations have strong user commitment and the best chance for long term survival.

In this model, the receiver is actively involved in finding an innovation to solve their own unique problem. The model is flexible enough to encompass all types of innovations, including materials, methods, and groupings of learners.

Thus, the PS model is local in nature, usually limited in size, and may not be of high quality compared with more centralized approaches to curriculum development.

The following STEM and STEAM initiatives incorporate innovative strategies to promote problem-solving as part of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics curriculums.

STEM Initiative

The term “STEM” was introduced as a way to refer to careers and curriculum centered around Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. These curriculum disciplines are closely connected to many industries in the U.S. and other countries. The government and private companies are continually challenged to develop cutting-edge technological innovations to stay competitive globally. For this reason, the integration of more STEM education in school curriculums has gained a lot of traction (Thomas, 2020).

The STEM initiative falls under the first innovation model, RD&D, because of the various components of the initiative that are research-based. One of the innovative strategies that has been successful in spreading is the Student-Centered Active Learning Environment with Upside-down Pedagogies (SCALE-UP). This modifies the way of teaching and the classroom design so that interaction and activity-based learning is maximized (Foote, et al, 2014).

STEM Explained

From Wikipedia Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics

In 2018, Pew Research revealed that Americans identified several issues that influence STEM education, including unconcerned parents, disinterested students, obsolete curriculum materials, and too much focus on state parameters.

More than 50 percent of survey respondents pointed out that one main problem of STEM is the lack of students’ concentration during learning.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) recently included  Technology and Engineering Literacy (TEL) assessment measures that reported how students could apply technology and engineering skills to real-life situations. TEL uses interactive scenario-based tasks to gauge what students know and can do. The TEL assessment was given in 2018 to approximately 15,400 students in grade 8. The report showed a gap of 28 points between low-income students and their high-income counterparts. The same report also indicated a 38-point difference between white and black students (NAEP, 2021).

The Smithsonian Science Education Center (SSEC) announced the release of a five-year strategic plan by the Committee on STEM Education of the National Science and Technology Council on December 4, 2018. The plan is entitled “Charting a Course for Success: America’s Strategy for STEM Education.” The objective is to propose a federal strategy anchored on a vision for the future so that all Americans are given permanent access to premium-quality education in STEM. In the end, the United States can emerge as a world leader in STEM mastery, employment, and innovation. The goals of this plan are building foundations for STEM literacy; enhancing diversity, equality, and inclusion in STEM; and preparing the STEM workforce for the future.

Employment in STEM occupations has grown 79 percent since 1990, from 9.7 million to 17.3 million, outpacing overall U.S. job growth. There’s no single standard for which jobs count as STEM, and this may contribute to several misperceptions about who works in STEM and the difference that having a STEM-related degree can make in workers’ pocketbooks.

National funding for K-12 STEM programs increased from $700 million to almost $1 billion from 2005 to 2007 alone (US DOE, Report of the Academic Competitiveness Council, 2007, p. 51).

STEM education is more than just a new name for the traditional approach to teaching science and mathematics because it crosses the traditional barriers between the four disciplines by integrating them into a cohesive means of teaching and learning. The engineering component emphasizes the process and design of solutions instead of just the solutions themselves. This allows students to explore math and science in a more meaningful context and helps students develop critical thinking skills that can be applied to their work and academic lives. The technology component allows students to apply what they have learned, by using computers with specialized and professional applications like CAD and computer animation. These and other applications of technology allow students to explore STEM subjects in greater detail and in a practical manner (National High School Alliance, 2010).

Many STEM programs focus on post-secondary education, but there is an increasing number that focus on K-12 programs. This is a serious STEM challenge at the K-12 level. What are the characteristics of high-quality STEM programs? Research has identified the following characteristics of effective STEM programs:

  • Programs should broadly address student learning, including core content knowledge and critical thinking skills as defined by the relevant standards from professional organizations such as the following: International Technology and Engineering Educators Association (ITEA),
    • International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE),
    • National Research Council (NRC), the National Council for Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM),
    • National Science Teachers Association (NSTA).
  • Programs should address student engagement (by illustrating the value of STEM in students’ lives, as well as building interest in STEM fields and encouraging students to pursue STEM-related careers).
  • Programs should have an over-arching STEM “framework” which maps standards for knowledge, skills, and dispositions to curricular activities.
  • Programs should integrate the teaching of all four STEM areas into a “meta-discipline.”

STEM in Action

From BIO-MED Science Academy STEM School

One example of an exemplary STEM school is the Bio-Med Science Academy in Ohio which opened in 2012. This STEM school serves students in grades 2nd-12th on three campuses, and the students experience STEM learning within the framework of a balanced curriculum that integrates the arts, humanities, and sciences. Additionally, BMSA leverages our region’s great scientific, medical, academic, and business assets to engage students directly with practicing professionals. Students gain exposure to a range of industries through speakers, internships, field experiences, and other opportunities that prepare them for real-world living and working. The result is an inquiry-based, individualized learning experience that positions students to succeed in any number of career fields, including, perhaps, fields yet to be created. The Academy seeks to produce not just future mathematicians, engineers, doctors, and scientists, but leaders in all fields.

  • The first class of 69 ninth graders came from 27 school districts across 5 counties, and the school received formal STEM designation in 2013. It is a member of the Ohio STEM Learning Network (OSLN), and is recognized with other STEM schools across the state and the nation.

The Academy is the only STEM school in the United States housed on an academic health center campus, and one of few located in a rural area. This unique positioning gives rural Ohio students and their teachers direct access to sophisticated research laboratories, scientists, professors, and medical professionals. The environment creates a dynamic learning experience for the Academy students. There are many excellent STEM programs across the country.

Students working on STEM projects at Biomedical Science Academy
Figure 16.5 – Students work on their STEM projects as the Biomedical Science Academy.

ILA 16.0

OER Commons has an overwhelming amount of STEM resources. Finding STEM OER that works for you can be quite a task. Access the OER Commons website and utilize the following STEM OER Commons Scavenger Hunt to guide you through strategies for accessing the different STEM resources OER Commons has to offer. Have fun!

STEM OER Scavenger Hunt

STEAM Education

After STEM became a force in the world of education, a new, and very similar term emerged — STEAM. The “A” in steam refers to arts. And this addition plays a critical role in how we need to be preparing our youth for the future.

Why Add Art to The STEM Framework?

To provide a better understanding of how STEAM came about and the importance of implementing a STEAM learning environment, it is important to look at what the “A” or art brings to the table, and how educators can implement this framework to enhance students’ education and development.

STEAM is a progression of the original STEM acronym, with an additional element: art. Why the change? The integration of the arts into STEM learning has allowed educators to expand the benefits of hands-on education and collaboration in a variety of ways, promoting creativity and curiosity at the core. (Thomas, 2020).

Another reason for the addition of arts is that creative scientists are needed in a world with a greater population, global interconnection, technological advancement, and more large-scale problems than ever before in human history. Complex problems require sophisticated problem-solving skills and innovative, complicated solutions (Madden, et. al, 2013). In the United States, scientists are educated in colleges and universities using an approach that began decades ago, even though there are now different demands on science with new challenges. Traditional science training is built on a solid foundation of facts and basic science techniques, but it seldom includes creative, cross-disciplinary problem identification, and solving skills (Madden, et. al, 2013). Many leading corporations are eager to identify ways to promote creativity in science that encourage innovations and will be needed to solve complex problems.

It is important to empower students with creativity and critical thinking skills because it will give them additional opportunities to be successful in real-world, professional settings, and problem-solving situations (Thomas, 2020).

In a report titled “Critical Evidence: How the ARTS Benefit Student Achievement,” the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA) shared data showing why it is important to keep the arts strong in schools, and how students benefit from the integration of arts in the curriculum. In the study, researchers found that students scored higher on standardized tests when they were more active in the arts — compared to those who were less active in the arts. The same students reportedly also watched less TV, felt less bored in school, and participated in more hours of community service (Thomas, 2020).

RD&D Initiative That Supports PS and SI

There are several examples of the RD&D curriculum model, but one of the most established initiatives that is research-based and designed to support K-12 curricula is the Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education or CIESE at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. For the past 20 years, it has strengthened the STEM initiative by designing and promoting multidisciplinary STEM curricula for educators that can be accessed globally for K-12 school curriculums. The lessons and projects are research-based, and also promote problem-based learning, collaboration, higher-order thinking skills, and critical analysis through the integration of science, technology, engineering, mathematics as well as language arts and social studies. Many of the CIESE projects use real-time data from scientific and government databases. These curricula engage students in global collaboration using pooled data from shared databases, and also involve student publishing on the Web.

Unique and primary source information is available to students. One of the innovative features of the CIESE program, the Real-World Learning Objects, has a library of instructional activities that supports the teaching of discrete topics such as exponential functions in mathematics or genetic traits in biology that are appropriate for high school (CIESE, Stevens Institute of Technology, 2020).

Access the catalog of projects, lessons, and activities that are currently offered as part of the CIESE K-12 Curriculum and Resources for more information.

The interdisciplinary STEM projects that make use of online real-time data focus on collaborative projects that connect students to peers and experts around the world, so there is an element of the SI as well as the PS models. This initiative fits into all three categories of curriculum innovation at varying levels.

The project catalog is organized by science (life, Earth, physical, environmental); technology (real-time data, online collaboration, primary sources, robotics); engineering (systems, civil, mechanical, electrical, general); math (numbers and operations, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, data analysis). Most of the projects overlap more than one category.

SI Technology

With the swift progression of in-class to online teaching, technology has taken center stage with online learning platforms, remote class and small group meetings, and individual student-teacher conferences, and a host of tech tools that are being developed. Since the SI model depends on the students interacting with each other, technology can support learning in other ways such as discussion forums and chat rooms.

Teachers can monitor students, promote on-task behaviors, and help students through e-conversations. The primary source of information is the internet which opens the door to a vast amount of data that may or may not be accurate or relevant.  It is up to the teacher to show students strategies for sifting this information. 

Since the curriculum is based on social issues and democracy in the classroom, students must have a say in the curriculum (Bean, 1997). It also requires students to practice social skills so they can learn effectively in a group.

Innovative Curriculums Can Be Built by Teams

The Alain Locke PK-8 Charter School in Chicago, Illinois, has been designated as a demonstration site for urban schools. The school’s goal is to produce globally competitive students. It has a learner-centered approach that prepares students for college, as well as an extended day center, and a year-round academic program with a short summer break. Ninety-four percent of the students qualify for free and reduced lunch prices.

The curriculum includes Spanish, technology, the arts, music, library, and physical education as well as personal and social development. It has an additional 10 days of instruction per year with three-in-a-half extra hours of instruction a day.

The Alain Lock School was profiled by the U.S. Department of Education for making significant growth towards closing the achievement gap in their community.

Pat Ryan, co-founder of the Alain Locke Charter School has stated that there are three counterintuitive truths about great schools:

Figure 16.6 – Three Counterintuitive Truths about Great Schools

Visit the Alain Lock School for more information.

In another interpretation of Great Schools, Dr. John Hattie of Melbourne University believes there are many great schools that “invite kids to learn” and they are the schools that students find inviting because they are a great place to learn. Students get information on their progress, and teachers know they can influence character development and a moral purpose. It is the effort that makes the difference.  The excellent teachers are the ones who make an impact on students by helping them achieve and also build character.

Dr. Hattie explains this in more detail in What Great Schools Do – John Hattie – VASSP2012.

Innovations Can Be Built by One Person

(The following is taken from an interview with Sal Khan from The Harvard Business School Alumni Stories by Garry Emmons in 2012).

Sal Khan had three degrees from M.I.T. and an MBA from Harvard and was working for a hedge fund in Boston when he got a phone call from his nine-year-old cousin, Nadia. “Sal,” she asked, “can you please help me with my homework?” That simple question led to amazing and dynamic innovation in education. Using Yahoo! Doodle as a shared notepad, Sal tutored Nadia in math via computer and telephone. Soon, other cousins and their schoolmates wanted help, too. Khan said,  “It was getting crazy, so in 2006, a friend suggested that rather than reteaching the same points over and over again to different kids, he should make videos of each lesson and put them on YouTube.” He was skeptical. YouTube was for cats playing the piano, not serious mathematics! Then he had an idea and made a couple of videos. The initial feedback from the cousins was good so he kept going.

By 2009, Khan had quit his job to work on the videos—and the software—full time. To date, he has made around 3,000 videos—and loves doing them—on dozens of subject areas, ranging from physics to finance to history. It’s all free to everyone and anyone, and all kinds of learners seem to like them. As the website says, the tally as of early February is now “119,074,255 lessons delivered.”

What is the Secret of the Success of the Videos?

Khan tries not to talk down or be judgmental, and he is off-camera—the less distraction the better—so it’s just a voice-over—and informal and without a script. He does his best to give students a deeper understanding rather than just learning things by rote. The screen image is of a chalkboard, simulated through software, and he “writes” on it as the lesson develops. His cousins have told him they like this “virtual Sal” better than the real-life one. In response Sal said, “They can start and stop and repeat me at will.”

The Khan Academy and Experimentation with Nearby Schools

The Los Altos school system, which is close to where Khan lives, is using his Academy on an experimental basis. It’s early, but the results look promising. Students spend part of class time—and some time at home—working at their own pace on videos and exercises. They get immediate feedback, and there are game mechanics—points and badges—to provide even more motivation. Every interaction with the system is logged, and this data is used to give students, teachers, and parents real-time reports on student progress. In the same classroom, there will be some fifth graders working on trigonometry and some reviewing basic arithmetic. The teacher no longer spends class time lecturing but focusing instead on small-group interactions with students who need help. The students also teach each other. Every student is working at their own pace, and time is freed up in class to work on more open-ended projects. Khan says that even more than the student-to-teacher ratio, this optimizes the student-to-valuable-time-with-the-teacher ratio.

This model gels with the best learning experiences Khan had in his own public school in Louisiana. “Whether it was being on the math team, the school paper, or the wrestling team, the teachers in those situations were more like mentors with whom you worked collaboratively to achieve personal and team goals. Teammates would help, too. Everybody was trying to get the best possible result, without that teacher versus student antagonism. That’s the way learning should happen.”

Future Plans for the Khan Academy

Khan plans to eventually open a brick-and-mortar school because he believes they are effective, but it will have a different environment and setup because he believes that traditional schools “can be dehumanizing, and students are sometimes belittled, not allowed to talk, interact or be creative. They don’t allow students to move at their own pace.”

Khan also believes that he and his team of about 20 people are creating something that hasn’t existed before (true innovation!) that will still be around in 200 or 300 years. He wants his website to be something that has the content and tools of a world-class that is free or provides a low-cost education for everyone, the way clean drinking water and electricity are today. His website is free, but he knows there is a cost for computers and bandwidths, which are relatively inexpensive and are becoming cheaper.

Sal Khan believes there is a hunger for deep learning, and he wants to remain a not-for-profit so Khan Academy is accessible to everyone who wants to learn. In fact, he would like to feel that he has helped give “billions of people around the world access to a truly first-rate education.”

What Have We Learned About Curriculum in the Last Decade?

As an innovator, Sal Khan sums up what he thinks we have learned about curriculum in the past decade:

Graphic outlining the three things learned about curriculum.
Figure 16.7 – What We Have Learned about Curriculum

Insight 16

It is inspiring to find out about the many innovations that are taking place in education today.  Some are the result of changes in society, some are born out of a simple question like, “Can you please help me with my homework?”

It is interesting to me, as an educator with several decades of teaching experience, to find out that innovators in education see teachers as the “unwavering center of schooling,” and that students need a grade-level curriculum that is rigorous.  Despite today’s challenges, public schools are making progress.  The new, not-so-secret piece of the puzzle that also helps make it work for everyone is the ethic that education can and should be available to all people who want to learn at low or no cost, such as the Khan Academy and other Open Educational Resources.

As an educator, I am excited to see these innovations in education. It makes my personal curriculum journey very interesting and one well worth continuing.


Curriculum changes occur because societies have new needs and issues. These changes may be in response to curriculum evaluations or reviews, or the culture. Curriculum may also change in response to economic, social, and political issues as well as access to technology and curricular innovations. On the other hand, it is the introduction of something new that makes the difference from previous practices. Exemplary initiatives, programs, and schools make use of innovations. STEM and STEAM curriculums can support students to achieve in the sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics, as well as art, social studies, and literacy by integrating these subjects. Many exemplary schools focus on closing the achievement gap for students who live in high needs areas. Sal Khan is an innovator who has a vision for the future of education that will benefit people in the U.S. and globally.


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Curriculum Essentials: A Journey Copyright © 2021 by Linda J. Button, Ed.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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