8 What is Taught?

Jennifer Beasley and Myra Haulmark

Two teachers working together at a whiteboard with dry erase markers
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Objectives and Key Terms

In this chapter, readers will…

  • Identify curriculum standards and how they are used to plan lessons
  • Describe how educators can differentiate curriculum to meet student needs
  • Name the major subject-matter areas taught in elementary and secondary schools

Key terms in the chapter are…

  • Hidden and Formal Curriculum
  • Implicit and Explicit Curriculum
  • Outcomes
  • Standards
  • Benchmarks
  • Differentiation

Definitions of Curriculum

Educators define curriculum in several ways. It can refer to the subject matter taught, the planned experiences, a course of study, or what students are expected to learn. No matter the definition, an educator is bound by the subject he/she teaches and curriculum is the way that it can be organized.

Four Types of Curriculum

Explicit Curriculum (Formal)

  • The material found in textbooks, teacher’s guides
  • Everything that teachers are expected to teach, what students are expected to learn, and what schools will be held accountable for; the material we assess
  • Elementary curriculum heavy in language arts and math
  • Middle school curriculum content places equal time on all subjects
  • Junior High/High School content becomes more compartmentalized

Implicit Curriculum (Informal)

  • The “hidden” information
  • What children learn from the nature and organization of the school and classrooms and from the attitudes and behaviors of teachers and administrators
  • Tolerance
  • Study Skills
  • Respect
  • Organization
  • Team Work
  • Values
  • These are learned from the way classrooms are set up, the practices used, behaviors modeled, the way material is presented, values and priorities that may be unstated, but are evident

Null Curriculum

  • Topics left out of a course of study
  • Sometimes what we don’t say or don’t teach, carries as strong, or stronger message than what we do teach


  • Learning beyond formal studies
  • No academic credit
  • Extra-curricular activities are part of an effective school
  • Need to reach everyone; high and low achievers; all income levels
  • May be sports or clubs, organizations

Influences on Curriculum

  • Education philosophies
  • Textbooks
  • Federal/State Government
  • Local School District/School Board
  • Standards and Testing

Standards in CurriculumStandards are predetermined statements of what students should know and skills they should have upon completion of an area of study.  In many states, curriculum standards are based upon common standards for the disciplines.

In 2010, many states adopted the “Common Core Standards”. These are the standards that must be met for each grade level and subject matter. You can find Arkansas’ standards on the Arkansas Department of Education website.  This is the curriculum teachers must follow. They are required to present these concepts and skills to their students. However, the way in which they present and teach this information is entirely up to them. This is where instruction comes into play. A teacher has the Academic Freedom to structure his/her classroom and learning activities in the manner they feel best in order to present the curriculum to their students and help them master it.

There are many differences between what is taught in an elementary school compared to high school.  The following section will talk about the differences in curriculum.

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Elementary Curriculum

Elementary education in the United States refers to the first seven to nine years of formal education in most jurisdictions, often in elementary schools, including middle schools. Preschool programs, which are less formal and usually not mandated by law, are generally not considered part of primary education. The first year of primary education is commonly referred to as kindergarten and begins at or around age 5 or 6. Subsequent years are usually numbered being referred to as first grade, second grade, and so forth. Elementary schools normally continue through sixth grade, which the students normally complete when they are age 11 or 12. Some elementary schools graduate after the 4th or 5th grade and transition students into a middle school.

Students may attend either a 4-year, 5-year, 6-year or 7-year public or private elementary school. Elementary school usually runs from kindergarten or 1st grade through either 4th, 5th or 6th, depending on the region. Upon successful completion of their elementary education students then proceed to middle school, also known as junior high school. Depending on the school district, some students attend separate middle schools, beginning at 6th grade and then completing at 8th grade before they transition to high school. Additionally, students may have the option of attending elementary schools that include all eight primary grades. In this case, the student will directly proceed to High School.

In most U.S. elementary schools, a class of students is assigned to a particular teacher and classroom for an entire school year. Those students will spend the vast majority of that school year together in that one classroom learning from that one teacher, and that teacher is expected to carefully supervise their students at all times (apart from lunch and recess). Well-financed schools can hire specialists to provide instruction in specific subject matter like art, music, and science; at such schools, a teacher will hand off their entire class to specialists for such units and then resume supervision of the class afterwards. This is distinct from the course model followed at the middle school, high school, and college levels, in which students enroll in various courses each semester which is usually taught in different classrooms by different teachers, and therefore must race from one classroom to the next during the school day.

Secondary Curriculum

Secondary education is often divided into two phases, middle/junior high school and high school. Students are usually given more independence, moving to different classrooms for different subjects, and being allowed to choose some of their class subjects (electives).

“Middle school” (or “junior high school”) has a variable range between districts. It usually includes seventh and eighth grades and occasionally also includes one or more of the sixth, ninth, and very occasionally fifth grades as well. High school (occasionally senior high school) includes grades 9 through 12. Students in these grades are commonly referred to as freshmen (grade 9), sophomores (grade 10), juniors (grade 11), and seniors (grade 12). At the high school level, students generally take a broad variety of classes without specializing in any particular subject, with the exception of vocational schools. Students are generally required to take a broad range of mandatory subjects but may choose additional subjects (“electives”) to fill out their required hours of learning. High school grades normally are included in a student’s official transcript, e.g. for college admission. Official transcripts usually include the ninth grade, whether it is taught in a middle school or a high school.

Each state sets minimum requirements for how many years of various mandatory subjects are required; these requirements vary widely but generally include 2–4 years of each of Science, Mathematics, English, Social sciences, Physical education; some years of a foreign language and some form of art education are often also required, as is a health curriculum in which students learn about anatomy, nutrition, first aid, sexuality, drug awareness, and birth control. In many cases, however, options are provided for students to “test out” this requirement or complete independent study to meet it.

Many high schools provide Honors, Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) courses. These are special forms of honors classes where the curriculum is more challenging and lessons more aggressively paced than standard courses. Honors, AP, or IB courses are usually taken during the 11th or 12th grade of high school but may be taken as early as 9th grade. Some international schools offer international graduation qualifications, to be studied for and awarded instead of or alongside the high school diploma, Honors, Advanced Placement, or International Baccalaureate. Regular honors courses are more intense and faster-paced than typical college preparatory courses. AP and IB on the other hand, are college-level classes

Educators know every student is different and educators need to try and “reach” every student. The choice of teaching methods used will depend on each student and the material to be taught. Always consider what will be the best way for students to receive and process the information.

We all have recognized that our students will be unique and each will have their own interests, needs, abilities, and motivation.  As educators, we have to find a way to reach all of them and address as many of these issues as we can.  In the next section, this will be addressed.

What do you think?

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While teachers have little to no control over the formal curriculum, they have a wide range of options when it comes to instruction.  Instruction refers to the way in which we present the curriculum to the students. Instruction can lean towards student-centered or teacher-centered.  This section will give examples of each.


  • The teacher is responsible for planning learning activities.
  • Passive; students sit and listen as students talk “at” them. (Direct Instruction)
  • The teacher creates all of the guidelines for both behavior and work done in the classroom,
  • Classroom organization is determined by the teacher.
  • All learning goals are determined by the teacher.

Student-Centered Instruction

  • Students have input into learning activities.
  • Instruction and learning activities are tailored to meet students’ learning needs and interests.
  • Students have input into classroom guidelines and organization.
  • Students are also able to set learning goals for themselves in conjunction with learning goals set by the teacher.

The goal is to help students learn, and teachers need to find the strategies that work best for students.  A combination of teacher-centered and student-centered seems to work well in many classrooms.  Remember that students have a developmental need to have control over themselves and their world, thus giving them the power to make decisions regarding their learning increases motivation, focus and further helps to develop a love of learning.

One instructional strategy that has supported many teachers in their efforts to meet the learning needs of students is “Differentiated Instruction.” While it takes some work in the beginning, once you have a “toolbox” of activities and lessons it is much easier to implement.

Differentiated Instruction refers to our use of a variety of teaching strategies in order to deliver information to our students (Tomlinson, 2014). It also means using a variety of different activities to help reinforce that information. We may use direct instruction, we may have them watch a video, and we may have them create a project or conduct an experiment. The idea is that we vary our teaching strategies in order to meet the needs of our students.

Watch the following video.  How might you describe this to someone else?

Areas to Differentiate

A teacher can differentiate content, product, process, or the learning environment.

  • Content (What students learn.)
  • Process (How students learn it.)
  • Products (What students produce.)
  • Learning Environment/ Affect (Environment in which they learn.)
  • Assessment (Evidence we use to determine what students are learning.)

Along with varying our instruction and students’ products, we also vary our assessments.  So many teachers are “hung up” on tests and they are not the best way to assess.  Many of these “products” you ask students to produce can be used as assessments.  Using these will also be a more accurate measure, in many cases, of what a student has learned over a written test you may give them.

Planning for Instruction

When teachers plan classroom activities, they want to plan with the beginning in mind.  When teachers follow this practice, they begin planning with the standard they are teaching, in other words, what they want the students to learn.  Teachers then plan how they will assess that learning, and finally plan the learning activities for this particular concept.  Simply put:

  1. Identify desired results (Standard)
  2. Determine acceptable evidence  (Assessment)
  3. Plan learning experiences and instruction

When objectives, learning activities, and assessments relate directly to standards, they will have “Instructional Alignment”.  All of the lessons should be instructionally aligned.

Let’s look at various strategies for instruction.  Some strategies are better suited to the content being taught than others.  Varying the strategies you use will keep students engaged, and interested, and increase the potential for learning.

High-Quality Instructional Strategies

Learning Centers

Areas are set up in the classroom with learning activities directed at a specific concept are often defined as learning centers.  Learning centers can be set up to reinforce skills previously learned, or to help students internalize new concepts.  For example, the learning centers could be used to “fill in” when students have idle time. If they are finished with work, they can go to the centers and work with concepts they have previously been exposed to.   You may have a science center, a creative art center, and maybe a language center.  You can rotate activities, thus giving students more exposure to concepts being taught, as well as helping to engage students in a time of the day when idle hands could cause behavior concerns.

The other way learning centers can be used is to teach a concept.  For example, if you wanted to teach the concepts of magnets you would have a variety of centers set up all dealing with magnets.  Students would move from center to center, engaging in the planned activities.  You would want to try and design the activities at the centers to tap into the various multiple intelligences.

RAFT: Role, Audience, Format, Topic

This is a writing strategy that allows for student creativity.  It can be used in a variety of ways, including as an assessment.

ROLE:  Students choose a perspective to write from.

AUDIENCE:  Students choose who they are writing to.

FORMAT:  Students choose the format for writing; letter, memo, poem, advertising ad, etc.

TOPIC: The topic they are writing on.

Here is an example that could be used:

Role:  Abraham Lincoln

Audience:  American People

Format:  Interview

Topic:  The major challenges of his presidency

In this activity, the students would have to decide what the major challenges were in his presidency and be able to explain those.  The student would also design the questions that could be used in the interview in regard to these challenges.  For some students, this would be a more engaging and interesting way to report on these versus just writing a 1000-word essay.  You will probably get more information from the student as well.

Choice Boards

  • Students choose from a menu of options
  • Tasks vary by process and interest
  • Some anchor activities can be required of all students
  • Can be used for homework, projects, and assessment, or as again, as a way to fill idle time.

Here is an example that could be used for learning what verbs are:

Choose a book from the reading area and write down 10 verbs Create a song using five verbs
Choose five verbs and illustrate them Write a short story and identify the verbs in the story
Listen to a favorite song and identify the verbs Draw a picture and write a short description of what is happening using at least three verbs

These are all activities that would help reinforce the idea of verbs.  Students would be able to choose which of these they would like to do.  This example has six, but many are made with nine choices.  Teachers can determine how many activities students have to complete.  The Tic-Tac-Toe choice board is set up with nine choices and students have to do three that will form tic-tac-toe.  I have even seen teachers give extra credit if students do them all, or in Bingo terms, a “cover all”.

As stated, Choice Boards can also be used to fill in for idle moments and review a variety of concepts that are being learned.  Here is an example for older students:

Create a Venn Diagram comparing yourself and a character in To Kill a Mockingbird Illustrate a book cover for a favorite book
Create a comic strip with seven frames that shows how the Earth’s surface has changed. Complete the “President Map” which shows the qualifications to be President, as well as the roles of the President.
Create a game that will teach a concept from class, but requires movement Describe 10 occupations that incorporate area, surface area, or volume. Be very specific on the job title and explain how that job uses area, SA, or volume. At least 3 sentences each.

Choice Boards give students some control over the activities they do, yet you have chosen the activities.  Always be open, however, to the student who comes to you with an idea for an activity.  Sometimes students have great ideas!

K-W-L: Know, Want to know, Learned

  • When beginning a unit of study, list all the things you KNOW about the topic.
  • Next, create a list of things you WANT to know about this topic.
  • After the unit of study is done, create a list of what has been LEARNED.

A K-W-L can be done as a class, or students can create their own.  There are benefits to both and your learning goals will determine which one you may use.

Always remember ALL STUDENTS CAN LEARN!! However, what they learn, how they learn it, and the pace at which they learn it will vary. Under the differentiated instruction idea we are changing our instruction, our expectations, and our assessments based on the needs and interests of the students.

Dig Deeper

Want to read more about curriculum, take a look at the following resources:

Tomlinson, C.A. (2015).  The Differentiated Classroom: Responding to the Needs of All Learners.  Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Wexler, N. (2019) Elementary Education has Gone Terribly Wrong.



Modified from “Foundations of Education and Instructional Assessment” licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0



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Introduction to Education Copyright © 2021 by Jennifer Beasley and Myra Haulmark is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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