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Teachers as curriculum designers

Written By: Victoria Cook
5 min read
Teachers as curriculum designers

This research review was produced as part of a project funded by The Comino Foundation.


In Europe, teachers are increasingly expected to take an active role in curriculum design (de Almeida and Viana, 2023), being variously positioned as curriculum developers at the macro, meso and micro-levels. The officially prescribed core or intended curriculum sits at the macro level, which is then interpreted at the meso level by educational institutions and at the micro level by teachers. Recent research has begun to explore the knowledge, skills and support needed by teachers engaging in curriculum design at these different levels. 

Curriculum design at the macro level 

At the macro level, the intended curriculum is officially prescribed in policy documents, frameworks and guidelines (Porter and Smithson, 2001). De Almeida and Viana (2023), who refer to this national curriculum as the core curriculum, investigated the kind of knowledge, skills and support needed by teachers engaging in curriculum design at the macro level in Portugal. Since 2016, eighteen teachers’ associations, composed of retired and active teachers, have been charged with the design of the core curriculum for primary and secondary education in Portugal. From their research conducted with all eighteen teachers’ associations, de Almeida and Viana concluded that professional learning opportunities for teachers engaging in curriculum design at the macro level need to focus on increasing teachers’ knowledge and skills of curriculum theory, specifically relating to curriculum design, development and evaluation. Furthermore, teachers also required expert support with pedagogical and didactic content knowledge and the knowledge and skills to create externally consistent curricula. Crucially, their findings suggest that teachers require support with all stages of curriculum design, and it is important that this support is offered from the very beginning of the process.

School-based curriculum design: the meso level

At the meso level, schools and teachers in different countries have varying degrees of autonomy to develop a school-based curriculum and pedagogies that best fit the needs of their students. In England, a common question for secondary schools is whether Key Stage 3 should last for two or three years. Ofsted (Harford, 2020) have clearly stated that they have no preferred length of Key Stage 3, but rather the focus for schools should be on what they want pupils to learn and offering a rich, ambitious and well sequenced curriculum. They are clear that a two-year Key Stage 3 does not necessarily mean a narrow Key Stage 3 as long as students have the opportunity to study a broad range of subjects. That said, offering a two-year Key Stage 3 simply so that students can study their GCSE courses over three, rather than two, years is described by Ofsted as a ‘worst-case scenario’ because some students will never again get the opportunity to study subjects such as art, music or languages at school. At the school-level, the requirement to offer a broad curriculum must be weighed against competing demands, for example interpretations of wider educational policies such as Progress 8 and EBacc measures that do not include the performing arts (Fautley and Daubney, 2019) and which research suggests has led to the marginalisation of the performing arts in the secondary school curriculum (Nicholson, 2022). 

In the context of curriculum reform in Wales (Welsh Government, 2015), teachers are expected to actively engage with curriculum making and design decisions. In response to the challenges of curriculum reform, teachers may opt to use ‘off-the-peg’ or ready made materials as they decide how best to deliver the curriculum to ensure that it is done so in a manner that is meaningful and relevant to their students. Whilst this may appear to present a challenge to professional autonomy, in a recent small-scale case study of a primary school in Wales teachers viewed commercial mindfulness materials as a useful addition to their pedagogy. Rather than presenting a tension, the teachers in the study said that the materials enabled them to use mindfulness approaches flexibly; where and when they deemed them appropriate (Hughes and Lewis, 2020). 

Research suggests that dialogue, underpinned by a culture of collective sharing and learning, may enable school leaders’ top-down vision of curriculum innovation to be successfully enacted by teachers. Wang et al. (2022) studied the interactions amongst key stakeholders during the process of school-based curriculum development in a new primary school in Singapore. They concluded that a collaborative culture shaped the chains of interactions between school leaders, teachers and students. For example, interactions between senior leaders and teachers included brainstorming and collective decision-making, whilst interactions between teachers included cross-discipline collaborations. School leaders also had regular dialogues with students to collect feedback on current programmes. These chains of interaction coexisted and interlinked, forming ‘an ecology of dialogic interactions amongst the stakeholders’ (p. 291). Furthermore, the interactions were both dynamic and reflective, enabling continual change and adaptation that is central to the process of curriculum design. 

The micro level

At the micro level, the interpretation of the intended curricula by teachers creates what has been termed the ‘planned curriculum’ (Grundén 2022, p. 274). Exploring primary mathematics teachers’ planning in Sweden, Grundén found that the intended and the planned curriculum differ greatly between teachers, with teachers planning their teaching based on their experiences and their groups and students. Textbooks also play a particularly important role in the planning process, usually forming the basis of teachers’ planning based on a false assumption that textbooks are in line with the National Agency of Education and the national curriculum in Sweden. Grundén argues this confusion may negatively influence teachers’ achievement of agency, with teachers’ focusing their planning on the content of the textbook and the ultimate goal of ‘finishing’ the textbook. If teachers are to achieve the level of professional agency that is expected of them, Grundén argues that teachers must therefore have the opportunity to discuss and problematize assumptions and power relations in curriculum making. 


Curriculum development operates at multiple levels and the knowledge, skills and support needed by teachers engaging in curriculum design at these different levels may vary.  Research has highlighted the need for further professional learning opportunities around curriculum design at the macro level and the importance of dynamic, reflexive dialogue between all those involved in the curriculum decision-making process in schools.  Furthermore, the use of ready made materials does not necessarily present a challenge to professional autonomy, but rather may provide a valuable support for schools seeking to decide how best to deliver the curriculum for their students in their contexts.

Reflection question

  • What knowledge, skills and support is needed for those engaging in curriculum design in your context? 
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