12 The Taught Curriculum - Strategies for Teaching Today’s Students 

The needs of the child and the demands of the curriculum are mediated by teachers. –John Dewey


The “taught curriculum” is defined as that which teachers actually teach day-by-day (Glatthorn, 2000). In practice, the written curriculum guides the taught curriculum, but in many cases, it is the textbook, assessments, and/or teacher preferences that influence what is taught. This is compounded by the fact that standards may vary from state to state, and textbooks do not often match the written curriculum because textbook series are written for markets that are nationwide. In addition, students come to classrooms with varying needs, abilities, and interests. These factors, coupled with changes in culture, make it apparent that to be effective, curriculums must change to be responsive to the students and to the teachers.

Essential Questions

  • What is the “taught curriculum,” and what influences impact this dimension of curriculum?
  • Why are changes in curriculum inevitable?
  • What is the “hidden curriculum?”
  • How and why has the learning curve gotten steeper for educators?
  • What are the characteristics of effective professional development efforts or programs?

Inquiry-Based Learning: Developing Student-Driven Questions–Elementary

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Student-Centered Learning—Secondary

The preceding video does not have a designated Creative Commons license and may only be used in compliance with the Standard YouTube licensing guidelines which allows streaming but forbids downloading, adaptation, and redistribution.

The Essence of the Taught Curriculum

The deep structure of the taught curriculum–how concepts and ideas connect and contribute to understanding a subject area—is not obvious to students as they learn (Darling-Hammond, et. al, 2005).  The “hidden curriculum” of the classroom (Anyon, 1980) explains how teachers create conditions that enable or disable certain kinds of learning and identify construction for students. This is often invisible to students and novice teachers (Darling-Hammond, et al, 2005).

The hidden curriculum is not written or taught as a part of a course or subject, but it can heavily influence the values, norms and beliefs expected of students. The hidden curriculum usually begins early in children’s education. They learn to form opinions and ideas about their environment and their classmates, and the accepted ways of acting at school, which leads them to be either accepted or not accepted by the teacher or other students. Some teachers encourage banter and humor; others do not. If there is a high-stakes, testing environment, students pick up on the fact that year-end test scores are what really count. Kids absorb and internalize the hidden curriculum through observation and participation in the classroom and social activities.

To maximize student learning that is in the written curriculum, teachers must have a thorough knowledge of their discipline and adapt this to the students so they can build concepts, connect ideas, and unravel misconceptions. To do this effectively, teachers need to understand student differences in culture, abilities, and approaches to learning. Teachers need to inquire sensitively, listen carefully, and look thoughtfully at student work. They also need to be familiar with resources and technologies that connect students with sources of information and knowledge that help them explore ideas, acquire and apply new information, and solve problems. Teachers who collaborate with other teachers encourage collaboration with students to solve problems and they also communicate with parents to build support from home (Darling-Hammond, 1999).

Many teachers now are required to implement learning strategies that are much different than the ones they experienced when they were growing up. To do this, teachers need to understand the learners and their needs  so they can effectively use both old and new strategies and approaches in different and creative ways.

Teachers as Learners and Learners as Teachers

From Curriculum Studies, pp. 156-157

As early as the 1970s, college professors were expected to have mastered only one knowledge domain–that of their specialty. The walls of the ivory tower were, theoretically, impermeable, and students were to concern themselves only with their text and the knowledge conveyed to them by their professors. The professor was not expected to bring into the conversation any personal concerns, the interests or needs of the students, or even events in the outside world. However, in the last two decades, the academic cocoon has been blown wide open by the forces of globalism, multiculturalism, and multi-modalism (New London Group, 2000).

No longer is it sufficient for educators to concern themselves with the narrow parameters of their chosen fields. They are expected to relate the content of their specialties to the lives of their students and to real-world concerns. To practice sound pedagogy, teachers must be learners in the broadest sense. Not only must they considerably extend the content of what they learn and teach, but they must also subject the ways they acquire and convey their knowledge to rigorous scrutiny which requires analysis, reflection, and evaluation (Wooldridge, 2001).

Thus, for educators, the learning curve has grown steeper in almost every conceivable aspect. They must learn not only what to teach but also how to teach; they must learn not only from written texts and from other experts in their fields but also from their colleagues, their students, their observation of events in the outside world, and the abundance of information available on the internet. With knowledge doubling every year or so, ‘expertise’ now has a shelf-life measured in days; everyone must be both learner and teacher; and the sheer challenge of learning can be managed only through a global network that links all minds and all knowledge (Perlman, 1992).

Learning to Teach

How, then, in this new, global, multicultural environment should teachers learn to teach? Unlike the previous static mode of instructional delivery, the current model calls for a dynamic process in which teachers should constantly learn from their practice in a “dialectical union of reflection and action” (Hoffman-Lipp, Artiles, & Lopez-Torres, 2003, p. 249). Moreover, even reflective practice is insufficient for teachers to learn to teach effectively. Teachers must be open to the larger world of politics, culture, and society; they must be able to contextualize both what they learn and what they teach within a larger conceptual framework, “to conceive of their work in broader terms that incorporate sociopolitical contexts of teaching in addition to curricular and pedagogical concerns” (p. 250). No longer can educators afford to sequester themselves behind the walls of academia; rather they must subject both their own practices and the social forces around them to rigorous scrutiny if they are to learn to teach effectively. Teachers must become continual learners. In this world, where we have access to anything we need to know, the teacher’s role has changed. Formal learning is becoming irrelevant. Informal learning, with student-centered inquiry, is much more effective and develops life-long, problem-solving skills. Society needs citizens who can understand and reflect on ideas, work with others towards a common goal, analyze problems, and follow through with solutions. To give students these types of skills, we must “engage and empower them as we educate them for insight” (Marzano, 2001).

Learning From and About Students

Collage of culturally responsive teaching artwork.
Figure 12.1 – This collage is results from a culminating activity where students put together individual pictures of who they are using four symbols.

A culturally responsive teaching and learning activity that can be used from the elementary to college level involves the students dividing a paper into four parts, with each part depicting a symbol of who the student is in terms of how they see themselves: a person with certain beliefs, gifts or talents, a member of a racial or ethnic group, etc. Once individual pictures are completed, they are all put together on a wall or large, clean floor. One of the amazing results of this project is that the pictures flow together to make a beautiful collage of a class or group in which each member is an integral and important part of the group. The collage on this page was made by a class of teacher-education students at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs as a part of an elementary methods class taught by Drs. Greg and Linda Button.

From Curriculum Studies, pp. 158-159

Teachers cannot afford to distance themselves from the students they teach. In the new, learner-centered environment, they must be prepared to learn both about and from their students. The constructivist approach to education that emphasizes the students themselves, rather than the teacher as the source of knowledge is hardly new (Dewey, 1916). However, the belief that the teacher and the students should maintain a partnership based on mutual learning dominates thinking about pedagogical praxis to an ever-increasing extent—from the elementary grades to the college years. The term “dialogue education,” a method in which the teacher poses a problem, and the students join the teacher in a collaborative learning process, illustrates this more equitable relationship between teachers and students. Open communication between the students and the teacher is essential to learning activities and class discussions in which students actively participate and are encouraged to raise questions and pose problems themselves.  This can greatly increase critical-thinking skills in students (Tsui, 2002).

Thus, teachers must learn how to create an environment in which students feel free to openly express and share their ideas. The perception that learning is a mutual experience in which they participate with the instructor has also been shown to contribute to higher cognitive skills in students (Tsui, 2002). Finally, if teachers are willing to abandon the outdated notion that they must be the sole source of knowledge and profess themselves willingly and perhaps are even grateful to learn from their students, they can model for their students the very learning process that they would most like their students to adopt: “Teachers should be examples of how learning works” (Kaplan, 1998).

Expanding Teacher Learning

The content that a teacher must learn to be effective has increased exponentially. Not only must teachers learn how to use technology to enrich their teaching, but they must also learn how to teach students to use it responsibly and mindfully. Moreover, the teacher must also learn about his or her students—their families, their cultures, their communities (Kaplan, 1998). They need to learn from and about their colleagues. In her book, A Life in School: What the Teacher Learned, Jane Tompkins (1996) writes movingly of how academic life tends to isolate both faculty and students from themselves, from each other, and from the world around them. Yet disciplines and discourse communities overlap, and the educator should make an effort to participate in and foster the community of learners to which he or she belongs (Shulman & Shulman, 2004). Sadly, many forces mitigate against the need for teachers to learn broadly and deeply. The forces of competition, territoriality, and sheer lack of time tend to limit the sources that could enrich teachers’ knowledge and improve their teaching.

Minimal professional development and lack of adequate school funding further constrict teachers’ opportunities to learn about themselves, their students, and larger cultural and political issues. However, the forces of globalism, multiculturalism, and technological change mandate that teachers extend the boundaries of their learning beyond the structures of their discipline and the walls of their classrooms and institutions to encompass the larger world that they must prepare their students to enter. In this world, where we can access vast amounts of information with the push of a button, is it not our job as teachers to learn how to filter through this information to find the best answers to our questions? Teachers and students can analyze the validity of data and the soundness of information together. This collaboration brings real learning to the process and reinforces the role of collaboration as it occurs in the real world. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 required that high-quality professional development be provided for educators. This is in hopes of sustaining and supporting highly qualified educators. Borko (2004) states that professional development should begin with these three major components: subject-matter knowledge, student thinking, and instructional practices.

Borko proposes a three-phase plan to ensure research can be conducted to see that educators are provided with an appropriate program. Essentially, professional development should begin with a single site. The program would be evaluated when facilitators then share the program with other schools. The final evaluation phase would then be to compare the program with other similar programs. This focused approach to professional development could work to identify and disperse a high-quality program system-wide especially when there may be limited opportunities and funds.

One example of a high-quality professional development study was done by Fortino and Gerretson (2002) which included four professional-development studies they did in the U.S., Latvia, and the Philippines. The philosophical foundation of the studies was based on holistic education and the premise that each person finds identity, meaning, and purpose in life through connections to self and to the natural world (Miller 2004). According to the study, the challenge teachers at all levels of education face today is how to make the learning in schools more authentic, to provide instructional contexts, and activities that enhance traditional knowledge-based curriculums so that students are equipped to solve problems they confront in and beyond school (Paris and Winograd, 2002).

A central part of the study done with the teachers incorporated the 5E Instructional Model of Science (Bybee, 1994).

5E instructional model with a circle for Elaborate, Engage, Explore and Explain and with Evaluate in the middle
Figure 12.2 – The 5E model (This Photo is by an Unknown Author.)

The teachers followed the 5E model (see graphic) during the professional development workshops in which they created their own dynamic symmetry in spirals, meanders, explosions, and branching. While discovering and explaining patterns in bubbles, cubes, and the golden ratio in the beautiful nautilus shell, they found a link to mathematics and the formulae for the plane curve of the equiangular spiral.  In addition, the Fibonacci numbers in plants seem to be related to the arrangement of stems on a branch, and the tip of a branch that circles about in spirals as it grows, “reaching” for moisture, sunlight, and air.  While growing, the branch generates buds, stems, and levels at regular intervals.

The study revealed that patterns that underlie the structure of the world are related and only the human mind can fathom their understanding. Through this holistic teaching approach, teachers looked at strategies to enhance students’ thinking about nature’s use of the most efficient patterns in both physical and biological systems where function can dictate form. They, in turn, implemented these teaching practices in their classrooms. They found that an effective professional development model should include the following:

  • facilitators who help to create a cohort of learners as teachers who communicate and collaborate,
  • facilitators who introduce only a small portion of the new materials at each workshop space over a period of time, and
  • principals who give teachers leeway so they can try out new techniques with their students.

In conclusion, they state that evaluations about professional development of teachers can only be made from information told or written by the participants.  Observations may point to “outcomes.”  The outcomes can be determined through point-in-time feedback of actual workshop trainings, small focus groups, and individual interviews with principals, teachers, and students. The “impacts” of the study are long-term effects, such as the intention to improve or to make potential changes. These impacts embody shifts in the teachers’ beliefs, attitudes, and personal actions for teaching and learning science and math while implementing a new program. These long-term changes can only be evaluated over time (Fortino & Gerretson, 2002).

The 5Es may also be used in teaching remote mathematics as seen in How to Use the 5Es in Remote Math Instruction from Edutopia.

From Curriculum Studies, p.160

Learners as Teachers

Just as teachers have had to alter their methods and shift from being their students’ sole source of knowledge to one of the many sources, students also have had to shift from being passive receptacles of knowledge to active participants and even to being teachers themselves. Research in the areas of constructivist teaching practices, cooperative learning, and technology has opened new doors and have altered the roles and responsibilities of students today.

In classrooms where inquiry-based learning can incorporate students teaching other students. The Student-Centered Learning at the Secondary Level video demonstrates how this can be done.

From Curriculum Studies, p.160-161

Learners and Constructivism

In the traditional classroom, teachers stand at the front of the classroom and present the information to the students. This process is often seen as effective because teachers can present an immense amount of information in only a short period. The students are expected to absorb the information that the teacher presented and then recall it later on a test.  Constructivist research has continued to show us how ineffective and inefficient this process can be.  Research results also indication that in classes where teachers focus on imparting knowledge, student are more likely to have a superficial interest in learning that subject.

Jerome Bruner (1985) posited that learning is an active process in which learners construct new ideas or concepts based upon their knowledge and experiences.  The learner “constructs” this knowledge by forming hypotheses, making decisions, and relying on their cognitive structure to make meaning and to organize these experiences. Bruner’s theory is linked to the research done by Piaget. It should be noted that constructivism consists of a broad conceptual framework that includes other applications of this theoretical framework.

When teaching focuses on students and challenging their perceptions, students report a deeper involvement with learning the subject (Trigwell, Prosser, & Waterhouse, 2004). Proponents of constructivism believe that if teachers shift their teaching practices, especially in mathematics and science, test scores will increase. The constructivist model promotes students as being active participants in the education process. Instead of sitting back and listening to the information presented, students must construct their knowledge through meaningful experiences.

In the constructivist classroom, the students help drive the curriculum by focusing on specific topics outlined by the teacher  that they want to study. One example of how students can accomplish this is through project-based learning. Students can, individually or in groups, generate questions about a real-world problem, investigate the topic through research, analyze and reflect on their findings, and devise solutions to the problem. They then can teach the rest of the students in the class, the teacher, and even the rest of the community about their specific topic. Essentially, they become experts on the topic. In this style of learning, the students take responsibility for their learning because they truly are interested in it (Curtis, 2001; Lane, 2007; Marlowe & Page, 2005).

Class Discussion and Mutual Learning

Another way students become teachers in constructivist classrooms is through discussion. Class discussions are a central component of constructivism since the focus is on the process of learning instead of the product. It is not important whether the students get the right answer, what is important is how their thinking evolves. For example, the math strategy, math talk, is one in which students are given a word problem and asked to solve it. Then, through a class discussion, the students are encouraged to share and explain their solutions to the problem and justify their reasoning. The children can “gain greater understanding and ownership of mathematical concepts as they develop and express their ideas” (Houghton Mifflin, n.d.). Since there are numerous ways to solve any given problem, the students become each other’s teachers as they discuss not only their logic but also the faults of their peers’ logic.

This process is so effective because “hearing and analyzing others’ approaches can supply one with new perspectives; and frequent exposure to different approaches engenders flexible thinking” (Houghton Mifflin, n.d.). The age of the child does not matter; even kindergarteners can effectively be their peers’ teachers during math talk (Kamii, 2000).

Cooperative Learning Groups

A similar method in the classroom where students become the teachers is the use of cooperative learning groups. Cooperative learning is characterized by small groups of students grouped together based on different skill levels.

Mark May and Leonard Doob wrote Competition and Cooperation, an early book on cooperative learning that was published in the 1930s.  They found that when two or more people work together on a learning project, they learn from each other, share their skills and experiences, and benefit from the experience (Pappas, 2014).  David and Roger Johnson went on to say that societies and individuals who are most likely to survive are those who work together as a group. In an ideal classroom, students learn how to work cooperatively with others as well as on their own (Johnson and Johnson, 1998). In essence, cooperative learning makes use of small groups of students working together to maximize learning. Spencer Kagan (1995) found that cooperative learning structures like “Numbered Heads Together,” “Jigsaws” and “Line Ups” help teachers who had difficulty translating concepts like positive interdependence and individual accountability into learning plans that were easy to teach (Johnson and Johnson, 1998).

These heterogeneous groups work efficiently because each student is held accountable for his or her participation in the group, as well as the group being held accountable for their overall performance. This interaction is characterized by positive interdependence. It can be summed up in the adage, “We sink or swim together” (Johnson and Johnson, 1984). Cooperative learning can be used anytime a group needs to work together, whether it be on homework or on completing a class project. When students are grouped based on differing ability levels, students with certain strengths can coach the students with weaker abilities in a given area. This coaching and subsequent teaching often enable the students to learn a subject better because they are hearing it from a peer’s perspective. Teachers often approach a topic and attempt to explain it from a level that is much too complex; however, students are often better able to explain a topic because they know where to start. By working together as a team to help each other accomplish an ultimate goal, each individual uses his or her strength to help coach and teach others so that everyone ends up learning up to his or her potential (Surin, 2006).

Inquiry-Based Learning

Inquiry-based learning, which is similar to problem-based learning, encourages students to find solutions to open-ended questions. This method places the student at the center of a learning experience that focuses on investigating a question or problem.  It requires the students to use evidence-based reasoning and creative problem-solving to find a solution.

An elementary classroom example of inquiry-based learning is demonstrated in the Inquiry-Based Learning: Developing Student-Driven Questions video.

Another strategy that cultivates inquiry and student choice, and also takes little preparation time is called “The Wonder Wall” or “Wall of Inquiry”. This is a place in the classroom where students can ask questions or post topics they wonder about or ask questions they have. Just start with a title, directions, and post-it notes. In the article, “A Low-Prep Strategy to Cultivate Inquiry, Voice, and Choice, by Institute for Arts Integration and Steam,” a more detailed description is given, and an example of a wonder wall is shown in the video, Peter Gamwell: The Wonder Wall.

The Teaching-Learning Community

Photograph of teachers engaged in collaborative professional development.
Dr. Helen Gerretson,  ULINCS Project co-leader, encourages teachers to share ideas that engage and inspire learners in mathematics.

In a world where knowledge and information are abundant and so easily accessible, the roles of teachers and learners are transformed and blended. The walls of the classroom have been extended through new technologies, and in this extended classroom, roles must adapt.

Gone are the days when the teacher is the sole imparter of knowledge and the student the passive recipient. Both become part of a collaborative learning community. In this new way of teaching and learning, students are empowered. They become self-directed and take responsibility for their learning. Teachers become mentors, guides, coaches, and learners themselves. Through powerful web tools such as blogs and wikis, students and teachers have opportunities to create and contribute to knowledge and share ideas. They now can share ideas and communicate with learners worldwide. In doing so, both the teacher and the learner will see the world differently and learn to appreciate the perspectives of others. These new technologies, with which our students are generally quite adept, threaten to widen the divide between teacher and student if teachers are unwilling to become learners and users of technology themselves. As digitally savvy students enter the classroom, teachers have the power to close that gap if they’re willing to extend their learning and teaching for the 21st Century. Applications of this role will also be addressed in Chapter 15.

Insight 12.0

The most effective teachers are open to new approaches and perspectives. They plan carefully so that students are active participants in a dynamic and collaborative journey of discovery and learning.

ILA 12.0

Have you had an experience where you had to go outside your comfort level and learn about a new subject, implement a new instructional practice, or learn an approach that resulted in a new perspective for you as an educator? Use the ILA Response Group in Hypothesis to describe what you learned and how it impacted your teaching.


In times past, educators were well versed in one subject area.  With the rapid expansion of knowledge, technology, and a changing culture, effective teachers must now be open to learning about other disciplines, knowing how to “cross the boundaries” between subject areas, and collaborating with other educators for the benefit of the students. Classrooms are also now more student-centered, which means that teachers have an obligation to know their students and to work with them as learning partners. These changes have had an impact on professional development. The most effective staff development efforts are more than a single workshop and require the application of knowledge and feedback over some time so the teachers may expand their knowledge base and view learning from a new perspective.


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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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