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Curriculum design: What we can learn from afar, and why it’s imperative to be our own agents of change

Written By: Gemma Goldenberg
14 min read


This academic year, I have been fortunate enough to learn about curriculum design in two contrasting parts of the world: Canada and Colombia. These experiences have both broadened my perspective on what a curriculum can and should do, and reinvigorated my belief that curriculum design is a key driver for instigating change.

In May, I visited several schools in Vancouver, British Columbia, as part of a study tour with Whole Education. In the latest PISA rankings (OECD, 2015), British Columbia’s students scored higher than any other jurisdiction in the world for their reading, as well as being ranked second for science and sixth for maths globally.

Canada has a diverse population, and yet has been successful in narrowing the gap. Within 3 years, newly-arrived migrant children have the same PISA test scores as their Canadian-born peers and there is relatively little difference in academic performance between economically advantaged and disadvantaged students – 9% compared to 20% in France and 17% in Singapore (Coughlan, 2017). In addition, with the highest rate in the world of adults with a college degree (Coughlan, 2017), whatever is happening in Canada’s schools is inspiring students to continue learning into adulthood. I was keen to discover what I could learn from their curriculum approach.

Curriculum design in British Columbia, Canada

In Canada, there is no single national curriculum, as education is organised by individual provinces or districts, who each devise their own curricula. Following 3 years of trial and feedback, British Columbia (B.C) have recently implemented their newly redesigned curriculum in years k-9 (ages 5-15). It will be rolled out across years 10-12 over the next 2 years. The new curriculum has been created to enable deeper learning, and to better prepare pupils for the future by being more personalised, and based within real-world contexts.
BC’s ‘know-do-understand’ curriculum model distinguishes between what pupils will know (academic content), what they will understand (the big ideas, or key concepts that form the foundation of each subject area), and what they will do (the skills, attributes and strategies they will develop).

To emphasise the importance of students’ skills and strategies, core competencies have been introduced as a key element of the new curriculum. Three key competencies are developed across all subjects and age ranges:

  • Communication
  • Thinking (critical and creative)
  • Personal and social competency

Rather than feeling like a ‘bolt on’ to the academic content for each subject, these competencies are at the core of the curriculum and are the driving force behind each learning opportunity in the classroom. The teachers I spoke to explained that assessment is based on curricular competencies rather than content, with pupils taking on the majority of the responsibility for assessing their own learning and progress within each competency area. I observed students carrying out a ‘learning check-in’ where they wrote in their ‘reflective journals’ about what they had been learning, why it was important, and how they were doing so far.

This competency approach lends itself well to project-based and enquiry-based learning. The most inspiring classrooms I visited were hives of activity, as learners worked independently and collaboratively on meaningful projects within a real-life context. In one school, classrooms were emptied to enable teams of secondary aged students to create their own businesses on a set budget. This involved choosing and renting a space in the school, as well as resources and furniture. They requested mentors from their chosen field and set up rules and norms for their business team.

In another school, pupils aged 8 to ten years explored the enquiry question ‘How can communities be structured so that they meet the needs and wants of all citizens?’ The students had been involved in formulating the enquiry which stemmed from research into the different landforms throughout British Columbia and how these natural communities meet the needs of the plants, animals and insects that live there. They then looked at their own and neighbouring local areas and how decisions made in those communities affect whether human citizens are living in harmony with nature.

Students considered what sort of community they would design to meet the needs of all residents including humans, plants and animals. This involved research into community planning and sustainable zoning, transportation and how to meet the needs of the most vulnerable citizens. Teachers organised visits from engineers and construction workers who helped the pupils make decisions about resources. Students formed their own ‘council meetings’ to share ideas and resolve issues and finally constructed models of their community and the landscape on which it was built.

At the end of the project, students reflected upon what they’d learnt, the challenges they had faced and why the enquiry was important, as well as what they would like to do next time. The class created a visual journey of their learning in the form of a display of photographs and notes documenting each phase of the enquiry. What was noticeable was the vested interest pupils had in their learning and how closely it linked to their locality and everyday life. In addition, a range of subject areas from maths, literacy and science to geography and social studies had been threaded together, along with the key competencies, under one cohesive enquiry focus.

Research comparing different student-centred approaches to science teaching has shown that the guided enquiry-based approach used in this school is particularly beneficial for student outcomes and their interest in science. In contrast, more open approaches that provide students with little input regarding the successful implementation of a research project affect student outcomes negatively (Kang and Keinon, 2018).

In talking about the importance of curriculum coherence, Dylan William (2011, p. 7) has asserted that “The entire curriculum should be designed in such a way as to promote the development of capabilities across subjects.” As well as “emphasize a small number of ‘big ideas’ rather than attempting to include all aspects of the subject that might reasonably be learned by students of a given age”. Teaching less and doing it better, rather than covering everything in brief, is a brave move and not one to be taken lightly. Doing something well often requires the abandonment of something else. But letting anything go in a school is difficult as well as scary. Yet the freedom to do this is clear to see in B.C’s approach. The academic content of their primary curriculum is noticeably less crowded than our national curriculum here in England. This enables learning to happen in greater depth, as well as allowing more classroom time to invest in developing pupils’ social skills.

Focussing on the ‘big picture’

The focus on personal and social competency was evident in all of the schools I visited. A Kindergarten classroom display shared children’s ideas about how they could be kind to themselves, their environment, and this place. Other displays were focussed on happiness and acts of kindness. Many classrooms utilised yoga, mindfulness and meditation to help children self-regulate, and ‘zones of regulation’ (Kuypers, 2011) provided a framework enabling children to self-monitor the emotional state they were in and develop strategies to move out of each zone.

It was clear that ample time is given over to building and maintaining relationships with peers, creating an ethos of class and school communities and building the type of ‘tribal classroom’ advocated by Cozolino (2014) which is thought to be so vital for pupil wellbeing. Students were encouraged to reflect on what strengths they could bring to their class community and to each take on a class job or responsibility.

All of the classes I visited were split-grade, so there was usually an age range of at least 2 years within each class. I asked teachers whether this created problems when planning lessons, as different children must be working towards different objectives. Teachers explained that as the core competencies remain consistent throughout all age groups, learning is seen as a fluid continuum rather than a new list of objectives to be achieved at each age.

The structure of the curriculum also specifies that each subject area starts with the ‘big ideas’ within that discipline, before moving onto more detailed content. For example, some of the ‘big ideas’ behind English are that ‘Language and story can be a source of creativity and joy’ and ‘Playing with language helps us discover how language works’. These big ideas are the same whether the child is 5 years old or ten. So, although a child’s depth and sophistication of understanding will vary according to their age, all children within the equivalent of a key stage, if not longer, will be working to understand the same key concepts.

This ‘big ideas’ approach, along with the key competencies and focus on social and emotional learning, all contribute to a tangible feeling of working in depth at something meaningful, over a sustained period of time. The focus is on the bigger picture, the long term real-life goals, rather than ticking minutiae off a list. Therefore, the teachers I met did not have the frantic air of racing through pages of coverage, instead they are chipping away over time, sculpting something that will last. This is an approach I had already seen in another international curriculum project.

Taking curriculum design into our own hands

The scope and potential of what a good curriculum can offer is something I have thought about frequently in my school position as curriculum lead. Whilst a new national curriculum does not appear to be on the horizon for us, we needn’t pack our bags and move to Canada or Colombia in order to reap the benefits of their approaches.

The most powerful part of the Escuela Nueva training for me was when the facilitator reminded us that although at times it may feel like we work within a very restrictive system, we are all the agents of change in our own classrooms. We may be told the things that must be covered in each school year, but it is up to us how we deliver that curriculum, how we design the learning and where we place our attentions and priorities. As Prof. Mick Waters declared at a curriculum conference in April 2018, as teachers, we are the point at which the curriculum meets the child, and that is what counts. Interestingly at the same event, he too said that ‘abandonment’ is a key lever for change.

Like BC, our own national curriculum also talks about the ‘big ideas’ for each subject area. These are written as a paragraph, titled ‘purpose of study’ before each list of objectives. However, these helpful and insightful sections of text are great for guiding curriculum planning and focussing on the big picture, but they are easily missed and often skipped over in search of ‘the objectives I need to cover this term.’ In our classrooms too, it is easy to slip into this approach, getting caught up in the details of what will be covered in national assessments or units of work and missing the bigger picture.

When planning topics, I always ask teachers to consider what they are teaching and why. If they can’t see the big ideas underlying a topic and why its relevant and important for the children in their class, they probably shouldn’t be teaching it at all. Yes, the national curriculum may say that we need to teach about the Anglo-Saxons in KS2, but it doesn’t dictate whether we spend an hour or an entire term on it, whether we teach it in isolation or relate it to something meaningful and relevant for a child who was born in 2010. We are in a position of significant power, where we are able to decide as schools what we think is vital for children to learn, how we want them to learn, and how we want to design topics, projects and lessons to best enable that learning.

By working collaboratively within and across age phases and subject departments, staff can identify overarching aims and big ideas they want to develop across the whole school and can create a holistic and cohesive school curriculum. This school curriculum should reflect a school’s values, its unique pupils and the local community it serves. A curriculum can be defined as ‘the entire planned learning experience that children encounter.’ (Waters, 2013, p.267) The national curriculum is only a small part of this, the rest is comprised of events and routines, approaches, trips and other extra-curricular opportunities. These are not add-ons, but intrinsic to learning and are often the things pupils remember most, long after they have left school.

If we rethink curriculum in this way, in terms of values, big ideas and concepts; an engine that helps power young people into becoming lifelong learners- rather than as a plan for coverage, a set of documents and lists – we can unlock the power a great curriculum can yield. We need not choose between academic rigour and social competence, or between subject knowledge and skill development. The best curriculums combine all of these, enabling each one to inform and develop another. There is a great deal to be learnt from looking at other countries’ approaches, but all of this can be applied to some extent within our own educational context, as long as we are able to see ourselves as agents of change.

Curriculum design in Colombia, South America – The Escuela Nueva model

In January, I along with other teachers and school leaders, was given training on the Escuela Nueva (New School) pedagogical model which was originally developed in the 1970s to improve rural schools in Colombia. Having started as a grassroots initiative, the model was later incorporated into national policy in Columbia and has since been replicated in 16 countries, reaching over 5 million children around the world. The Escuela Nueva (EN) model has been shown to improve children’s academic attainment and drop-out rates as well as life skills (Psacharopoulos et al., 1992; Kline 2002). The aim of this project was to see whether the model could prove beneficial in the UK and how it could be adapted to fit in with our education system.

The Escuela Nueva (EN) curriculum is flexible, pupil centred and designed to promote active learning, continuous evaluation, and strengthening of the relationship between school and community. As in B.C, curriculum content is noticeably relevant to pupils’ daily lives, with a strong focus on both social-emotional and citizenship skills. A key strategy in promoting these curriculum approaches is the use of self-instructional learning guides, on themes such as ‘How can we live well together in society?’ and ‘What is a student government?’

These guides are developed by educators at FEN (Fundacion Escuela Nueva), and distributed to schools for use in the classroom. The guides are key to delivering the curriculum effectively, serving as a combination of textbook and workbook for students to go through at their own pace.

The structure of each learning guide is carefully designed to first stimulate student’s interest in the topic, establish and build on prior knowledge, then share knowledge and experience on the topic with others. It then moves onto constructing new knowledge (always based on real, familiar circumstances), consolidating learning through activities, and then applying new learning to situations in their daily lives. In doing so, these learning guides clearly incorporate knowledge from evidence on the benefits that, for example, retrieval practice and consolidation have on the learning process. They also reduce workload for teachers as well as the time spent on giving routine instructions.

Learning guides have been effective in tackling educational inequalities in parts of the world where the quality of teaching is inconsistent and teacher training may be limited or non-existent. They have also been successfully used with internally displaced and vulnerable populations affected by emergency situations and conflict (FEN, 2018).

While the UK does not face the same level of challenge of poor quality, efficiency and coverage in education for which the model was developed, learning about study guides did make me and other teachers attending the training reflect on the time given to teacher talk and routine instruction within our own settings, and the positive impact it would have on students if they developed the skills to guide their own learning from a young age. This would be particularly important in light of research that highlights the importance of learner agency (i.e. learners taking an active role in their learning) for the learning process (e.g., Martin, 2004; Zimmermann, 2008).

We also considered the benefits of the flexibility in the EN curriculum and following this, some teachers in the project decided to develop their own topic-based learning guides through which students could work at their own pace in the afternoons as part of a carousel of activities. The carousel approach gave students more ownership over the curriculum content they would work on each afternoon, and encouraged them to consider how they would organise their time in so doing. The EN approach encourages teachers to afford students this independence and flexibility. Teachers are seen as facilitators but students should be the ones working the hardest, and the ones making the decisions about their learning. The approach prompted us to resist micromanaging students and to allow them the freedom to take more control.

The structure of the learning guides and their clear focus on building on students’ existing knowledge and experience, also led us to consider the extent to which we meaningfully contextualise learning for our students. Do our pupils understand the value and purpose of what they learn in our schools, or do they simply go through the motions of doing the work ‘for us’ rather than realising its relevance to their lives outside the classroom? Similarly, to what extent do parents and families engage with the curriculum and both understand and shape its purpose and direction? A strength of the E.N. model is the way in which families are valued and included in pupils’ learning. As part of the training, parents from our school joined us for a planning session and added a valuable new dimension to the curriculum planning process. We have since launched projects to make stronger links between home and school learning, with parents involved in curriculum projects such as planting and growing. This enables parents to share their skills and expertise as well as pupils to understand that they do not only learn from their teachers but their families and communities too.

In this way, The Escuela Nueva model encouraged me to think carefully about the purpose of our curriculum and provided a new lens through which to view it. What is clear from both the Escuela Nueva approach, and the new curriculum in British Columbia, is that the curriculum is not seen as merely a document that outlines what must be taught in schools. It is a vehicle that enables education to create well-rounded, well-prepared citizens, and act as a lever for social change.

  • Coughlan S (2017) How Canada became and education superpower, BBC News, 2nd August. Available at: (Accessed 4th June 2018).
  • Cozolino L (2014) Attachment-Based Teaching: Creating a Tribal Classroom (The Norton Series on the Social Neuroscience of Education). London: WW Norton & Company.
  • Fundacion Escuela Nueva (2018) Escuela Nueva Teacher Training Manual. Colombia.
  • Kang J and Keinon T (2018) The Effect of Student-Centered Approaches on Students Interest and Achievement in Science: Relevant Topic-Based, Open and Guided Inquiry-Based, and Discussion-Based Approaches. Research in Science Education, 48: 865-885.
  • Kline R (2002) A model for improving rural schools: Escuela Nueva in Colombia and Guatemala. Current Issues in Comparative Education, 2(2): 170-181.
  • Kuypers L (2011) The zones of regulation. San Jose: Think Social Publishing.
  • Martin J (2004) Self-regulated learning, social cognitive theory, and agency. EducationalPsychologist, 39(2): 135-145.
  • OECD Pisa rankings (2015) Available at: (Accessed 13th July 2018)
  • Psacharopoulos G Rojas C and Velez E (1992) Achievement Evaluation of Colombia’s Escuela Nueva. World Bank, WPS896.
  • Waters M (2013) Thinking allowed on schooling. Carmarthen: Crown House Publishing.
  • Wiliam D (2011) How do we prepare students for a world we cannot imagine? In Salzburg Seminar, Optimizing Talent: Closing Educational and Social Mobility Gaps Worldwide, Salzburg. pp. 6-11.
  • Zimmerman BJ (2008) Investigating self-regulation and motivation: Historical background,methodological developments, and future prospects. American Educational Research Journal,45(1): 166-183.
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