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Pedagogical patterns: Solving problems in curriculum design

Written by: Katie Cork
7 min read

I don’t need to tell you that teachers face a myriad of problems as they design a curriculum, develop a scheme of work or plan a lesson. The list of requirements is potentially endless, including the need to engage students, to incorporate effective collaboration, to develop mastery of content and subject-specific skills, to give effective feedback, and to provide opportunities for student-centred learning. As hours in the classroom add up, teachers learn – sometimes through CPD, sometimes through academic study, but often through trial and error – the activities that are effective in delivering the curriculum, so that when it comes to developing or revising a curriculum or scheme of work, they are able to do this so that it is well-designed and meets its aims. 

What are the aims of curriculum design? For some, they are ensuring that students are prepared for the assessment outcome at the end of the curriculum content – in other words, ‘backward design’, as developed by Wiggins and McTighe (Biddell, 2014). For others, curriculum design must go beyond short-term assessment outcomes. In ‘What makes great pedagogy? (National College for Teaching and Leadership, 2012), James and Pollard are reported as stating that well-designed, pedagogically sound curricula must lead to an enduring understanding and capability in the area of learning, personal fulfilment and well-being, and a positive contribution to the economic prosperity of the nation or to greater social justice and inclusion.  

Sound pedagogy is at the heart of this aim. Alexander (Alexander, 2004) defines pedagogy as meaning ‘ideas, values and evidence’ about ‘children, learning, teaching, curriculum and culture’.  

A tool for ensuring that curricula are based on pedagogy, and which helps to address the aims mentioned earlier, is a pedagogical pattern.  First developed in the 1990s, and used extensively in teaching computer science and technology-based courses, pedagogical patterns provide a method for communicating pedagogy; they try to capture expert knowledge and experiences of teaching and learning. By first identifying a pedagogical problem (what is the issue in teaching this concept?), and then by suggesting a pedagogical solution (a teaching and learning activity), they enable teachers to think more deeply about their curriculum design and engage with pedagogy.  

A pattern structure comprises four elements: title, problem, context and solution, as shown below in Figure 1.

Figure 1 shows three boxes of text in a row, with an arrow pointing from the left box to the middle box and an arrow from the middle box to the right box. The left box says: "Problem: Because topics are complex, the students may be able to repeat definitions and other material verbatim without real understanding. They might also not be able to extract the key ideas from the supporting material.". The middle box says: "Context: You teach complex material. You want to know whether the students understood the topic and to get them to engage.". The right box says: "Solution: Therefore, invite the students to express the key ideas using their own words. If a student used her own words, you will be better able to judge the level of real understanding. Take into account that this might be difficult for introverted people. Consider starting by asking the students to explain the topic first to their neighbours.".
Figure 1

This pattern comes from a set of patterns developed by Joseph Bergin called ‘Active Student’ (Bergin et al., 2002). It supports the aims of curriculum design by focusing on students developing an enduring understanding and capability in their learning, and in recognising that some students may find this harder than others; it therefore acknowledges the needs of children as holistic learners.  

Patterns borrow a language and structure from pattern design in architecture; here, patterns are defined as ‘a problem which occurs over and over again in our environment, and then describes the core of the solution to that problem in such a way that you can use this solution a million times over without ever doing it in the same way twice’ (De Moura Filho and Derycke, 2005). In education, patterns are worded so that individual teachers can use their own creativity to implement the pattern in a way that is most comfortable for them and most useful for their students. 

Putting more than one pattern together creates a ‘pattern language’, a linked series of patterns that describes a way to design a scheme of work, a series of lessons in a topic or individual lessons on a sub-topic.  

I have used pattern language when designing curricula and lessons for Key Stage 4 and 5 psychology. An example of a pattern language that I have used is given in Figure 2; it focuses on students being active. Having been taught research methods in psychology for several weeks, students are at the stage where they are able to design, conduct and write up their own research. I used a ‘real world experience’ pattern for the design and conduct phase, an ‘exhibition’ pattern (Sipos, 2002) for writing the report, and an ‘invisible teacher (peer feedback)’ pattern to continue the active student theme, as students were responsible for assessment using agreed criteria.  

Figure 2 below shows an example of an Active Student pedagogical pattern language: ‘real world experience’ plus ‘exhibition’ plus ‘invisible teacher (peer feedback)’.


Figure 2, Pattern 1 shows three boxes of text in a row, with an arrow pointing from the left box to the middle box and an arrow from the middle box to the right box. The left box says: "Problem: A lot of concepts in psychological research methods are difficult to understand in the classroom, separated from a practical research environment. Restricting students to classroom environments deprive them of exercising the issues in their rightful habitation - namely the real world". The middle box says: "Context: You are teaching a course in which concepts can directly be applied outside the learning environment, but the teaching has remained in the classroom. You are looking for a method of applying learning to the real world". The right box says: "Solution: Therefore, involve the students in real world situations, by inviting them to work in groups to conduct a piece of research in a real-world environment. This allows the students to experience the real project life, from the time pressure of a deadline to the pride of demonstrating the result.".
Figure 2, Pattern 1


Figure 2, Pattern 2 shows three boxes of text in a row, with an arrow pointing from the left box to the middle box and an arrow from the middle box to the right box. The left box says: "Problem: At the end of a topic or activity, you want to engage the students to report or reinforce what they have learned. If students write up reports or answer questions and submit them to the teacher, their knowledge is not distributed and remains between the student and the teacher.". The middle box says: "Context: If students are to share their knowledge with peers, they need a forum in which to do this.". The right box says: "Solution: Give students a forum to exhibit what they know! The students can make posters from their material. From the posters you can make an exhibition. While they are looking at the posters made by other students, they get a full understanding of what they have learned.".
Figure 2, Pattern 2


Figure 2, Pattern 3 shows three boxes of text in a row, with an arrow pointing from the left box to the middle box and an arrow from the middle box to the right box. The left box says: "Problem: You want students to develop confidence about their knowledge and also engage in learning from their peers". The middle box says: "Context: Usually the teacher is the central point of assessment. Often the students only trust the teacher and (maybe) themselves, but this approach is a rather reactive way of learning and ignores the fact that students are knowledgeable too. However, students are often not confident about the relevance of their experience and are unsure about the value of their own knowledge.". The right box says: "Solution: Therefore, invite the students to evaluate the artefacts of their peers. The students will provide feedback to their peers by drawing on their own experience.".
Figure 2, Pattern 3


Pedagogical patterns offer a format and a process for sharing successful practices in a way that allows them to be used by a variety of people in many different ways (Eckstein et al., 2001). Researchers who work in the pedagogical pattern field make their work freely available through the Pedagogical Pattern Project website, an international project with individuals from more than 12 different countries (see references); alternatively, a quick Google search will provide many resources. Existing patterns are easily adapted to meet the needs of different subjects whilst retaining their core pedagogy. For new and experienced teachers alike, they are a useful addition to any toolkit for designing effective curricula.   



Alexander R (2004) Still no pedagogy? Principle, pragmatism and compliance in primary education. Available at: (accessed 2018).
Bergin J, Eckstein J and Manns N (2002) Patterns for active learning. Available at: (accessed 2018).
Biddell G (2014) Using backward design for curriculum planning. Available at: (accessed 2018).
De Moura Filho C and Derycke A (2005) Pedagogical patterns and learning design: When two worlds cooperate. Available at: (accessed 2018).
Eckstein J, Lynn M and Voelter M (2001) Pedagogical patterns: Capturing best practices in teaching object technology. Wiley Software Focus 2(1): 9–12.
National College for Teaching and Leadership (2012) What makes great pedagogy? Available at: (accessed 2018).
Sipos M (2002) Active summary. Available at: (accessed 2018).
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      Author(s): Bill Lucas