Skip to main content

Guide to Curriculum Development

May 18, 2023

Many school districts depend on commercial publishers for content area curricula in language arts, math, social studies, health, and science. These comprehensive programs are widely used by districts of all sizes. 

Even the most complete programs, however, require ongoing review by districts, schools, and classrooms. At times, local curriculum development may be necessary to modify or update text and materials. In addition, administrators and teachers often find it necessary to develop supplementary curricula that more accurately reflect the academic and social needs of their racially, culturally, or economically diverse student bodies. 

The art of curriculum selection and development requires a keen understanding of the meaning of curriculum and why it is important for student success. Experienced educational professionals with advanced degrees have the knowledge and skills necessary to not only find the best curricula available but also recognize when district curriculum development is required. 

What Is Curriculum Development and Why Is It Important? 

The term curriculum refers to individual and collective lessons, academic content, and materials used to reach grade-level content goals and standards. Curriculum development is the complex process large publishing firms, school districts, and teachers use to write lessons, create assessments, and select appropriate materials and resources for each unit or chapter in each subject area.  

Types of Curriculum

Curricula can be designed in one of three different styles: subject-centered, learner-centered, or problem-centered.

Subject-Centered Curriculum

A curriculum that is subject-centered focuses on the facts and information necessary for students to grasp age- and grade-appropriate concepts in a particular content area. Although subject-centered curricula work well in whole-group instruction, they must accommodate different learning styles, personalities, and levels by including a variety of materials, resources, and opportunities to display mastery of any given concept. 

Learner-Centered Curriculum

While subject-centered curriculum is frequently used in larger group settings, the learner-centered approach considers the abilities and challenges of individual students. Lessons encourage students to take ownership of their own learning and take responsibility for project and lesson completion. While under the guidance of a teacher, students may work independently or in small group settings, giving them real-life experiences in learning on their own and with the support of others, even those with differing approaches or opinions. A learner-centered curriculum is especially useful when students with specialized learning needs, such as learning disorders, dyslexia, or speech disorders, are included in the general education classroom.  

Problem-Centered Curriculum

Another form of curriculum that gives students both autonomy and responsibility is the problem-centered form. In this approach, students are given real-life situations that involve problems to be solved. This open-ended approach to education is an effective way to encourage students to transfer their knowledge and understanding from one content area to another and to find ways to work with other students who may not agree on a solution or answer to a problem. 

Why Effective Curricula Are Integral to Student Success 

Comprehensive and continued student success drives the curriculum selection process. For students to succeed, they need consistent, reliable academic support delivered in a variety of ways and in a safe place. An effective curriculum leads to student success when:

  • It is prepared to be presented sequentially from month to month and then from one grade level to the next, year to year. Knowledge and skills build on each other as lessons become more complex.
  • It sets measurable targets and assesses progress with reliable and valid testing tools.
  • It is adaptable to change and modifications.
  • It is aligned with recognized academic standards for each grade level and content area.
  • It is respectful of their students’ experiences, culture, and learning style and provides an environment in which they feel connected to their in-class or online teacher and classmates. 

What Are the Essential Steps in Effective Curriculum Development? 

The four major steps that must be taken to create effective curricula—either from scratch or in an effort to modify, improve, or update published programs—are Gather, Design, Develop, and Launch.

Step 1: Gather

The purpose of this first step of the curriculum development process, also referred to as analyzing or researching, is to determine who the learners are and what goals are being set. The development team determines the scope of the project and which concepts will be included. It researches the age range of students, their academic background, local and state academic expectations, and what assessments are needed or already in place to measure progress.

In this process stage, the team explores educational trends in teaching and learning, the academic expectations in each content area or field of study, and perhaps what professional development will be needed upon implementation. This information may be procured from the most recent local testing data, teacher input, and scholarly publications about content and pedagogy.

Step 2: Design

Using the information gathered in Step 1, the team designs a program to fit the needs of the target students and teachers. In this step, the development team determines which approach to take for efficiency and impact. They decide which concepts would be best presented as subject-centered, which would be more appropriate for a learner-centered approach, and which objectives would be best suited to problem-centered projects. Additional discussions and decisions revolve around such issues as formal and informal assessments, progress reporting, materials, and other resources. 

To ensure smooth transitions from grade to grade, a well-designed curriculum also considers what learning experiences the students had last year and what will be expected of them next year. This concept is particularly important for transitions from elementary to middle school and from middle school to high school. 

Step 3: Develop

In the development phase of curriculum development, the curriculum team builds the program, writing and sequencing individual lessons that link directly to standards and objectives. They develop sequential lessons that are increasingly complex and build on students’ prior knowledge and experience.

At this stage, curriculum development teams may begin to work in smaller groups, focusing on writing text and instructions, checking work for accuracy, finding appropriate and engaging visual elements, or sourcing materials and manipulatives. Each portion and task in the development process is seen and reviewed by multiple professional educators and creators before it is ready to be launched.

Step 4: Launch

Whether a school district is launching a newly-published or recently modified curriculum package, delivering it into the hands of students and teachers must be well-planned and intentional. Setting classrooms up for success with a new curriculum takes time and administrative support:

  • Give teachers and support personnel sufficient training and time to become familiar with the new materials. Expecting teachers to use new instructional materials without this time can lead to frustration and fatigue. 
  • Assume the posture that curriculum is a resource, not a mandate. There is much to be said for scripted lessons and worksheets, especially for new teachers who do not have the benefit of classroom experience. However, allowing for nuanced modifications that better suit different teaching styles leads to more passionate and authentic instruction and a better outcome for students.
  • Encourage feedback from all stakeholders, including students. Those who use the materials every day can offer suggestions for challenges that appear in the classroom but may not have been anticipated by the curriculum development team.
  • Commit to providing support and encouragement for the long haul. When teachers believe that a new curriculum is simply the next “latest and greatest” that will wither in a short time, they are reluctant to take change seriously. 

Launching a new curriculum may seem like the final chapter, but it should be seen as an opportunity to continue the development process. As teachers and students make suggestions for lesson and material improvements, Step 1 should begin again, with administrators, evaluators, curriculum teams, and teachers always on the lookout for new and better ways to connect with students.

Curriculum Development: Looking Back to Improve the Future 

As new and more innovative approaches to teaching and learning are discovered, creating better materials and finding more relevant resources play an important part in student success. Involving more than merely ordering new textbooks, effective curriculum development is a process that takes careful planning and patient implementation. 

If you are interested in developing materials and finding resources for teachers and the next generation of students, explore American University’s online School of Education advanced degrees. Take part in curriculum development and provide cutting-edge programs for future students and forward-thinking leaders.