How should curriculum designers translate abstract learning outcomes into engaging learning experiences that get results? What is the right balance between depth and breadth or between content and skills? What methods should be used to continuously improve a curriculum over time? To answer these kinds of questions, the authors combined research from cutting-edge fields with their own first-hand experience to carefully curate fifty essential elements that demystify the work of curriculum design.

Written for utility, clarity, and practical value, this book provides indispensable professional development for educators working in a wide range of fields—from teachers and school leaders to educational publishers and instructional designers. The elements included are applicable across primary, secondary, and higher education as well as for workforce development programs. The Elements of Education for Curriculum Designers is an invaluable resource for anyone aiming to help others learn more effectively.

chapter 1|2 pages

Advance Organizers

Introductory devices used to facilitate learning, promote transfer, and enhance recall by contextualizing new information in terms of what learners already know.

chapter 2|2 pages


Techniques of visual and writing style used to increase the appeal and effectiveness of a curriculum.

chapter 3|2 pages


The intentional continuity, consistency, and connectivity of a curriculum both within and across areas of study.

chapter 4|2 pages

Background Knowledge

What learners already know about a given topic at the outset of instruction.

chapter 5|2 pages

Backward Design

A process by which learning experiences are derived from learning goals and assessment evidence to increase curricular effectiveness.

chapter 6|2 pages

Breadth vs. Depth

The degree to which a curriculum prioritizes general exposure or concentrated coverage.

chapter 7|2 pages


Culminating, integrative learning experiences that provide opportunities to synthesize ideas and apply previous learning in real-world contexts.

chapter 8|2 pages

Case Studies

Real-world, problem-based scenarios that encourage students to move from concrete examples to generalizable principles.

chapter 9|2 pages

Content vs. Skills

The degree to which a curriculum prioritizes subject-specific knowledge or transferable application.

chapter 10|2 pages

Course Guides

An essential communication tool that orients learners and external audiences in navigating an academic program.

chapter 11|2 pages


A tool used to document, cross-reference, and align curricula in order to inform iteration and guide implementation strategy.

chapter 12|2 pages

Curriculum Assessment

A process or instrument for determining whether and how well the desired results of a curriculum are realized.

chapter 13|2 pages

Curriculum Maps

A high-level visual tool for documenting milestones in the enacted curriculum over time and ensuring the enacted curriculum satisfies learning outcomes.

chapter 14|2 pages

Curriculum vs. Program

Curriculum is the what and the why of learning, while program is the when, where, and how.

chapter 15|2 pages

Development Cycle

Four stages—analysis, design, development, and testing—that characterize an effective creation process for curricula.

chapter 16|2 pages

Enacted vs. Intended vs. Assessed

Three major curriculum models used to articulate learning goals, align instruction, assess learning, and drive continuous improvement.

chapter 17|2 pages

Essential Questions

Open-ended, thought-provoking questions that require higher-order thinking and promote transfer.

chapter 18|2 pages

Five Hat Racks

Information architecture strategies used to structure a curriculum.

chapter 19|2 pages

Flexibility Tradeoff

A heuristic for weighing the relative benefits or drawbacks of a curriculum's level of adaptability.

chapter 20|2 pages


Techniques used to shape how concepts, skills, and information are presented and how learners understand and retain that material.

chapter 21|2 pages

Grain Size

The level of abstraction at which learning outcomes are articulated.

chapter 22|2 pages


A curricular approach that values, respects, and supports learners, especially when exposing them to challenging ideas or offensive language.

chapter 23|2 pages

Innovator's Dilemma

A model that explains why established, successful curricula still need to be innovated to remain effective in the future.

chapter 24|2 pages


An approach to curriculum design that deliberately connects ideas and methods from more than one subject area to promote transfer.

chapter 25|2 pages


A process of revising a curriculum until an essential number of requirements have been satisfied.

chapter 26|2 pages

Labeling Systems

A technique for clearly, consistently, and efficiently summarizing the key structural elements of a curriculum.

chapter 27|2 pages

Learning Objectives

Granular articulations of the goal(s) of a given learning task, which are derived from higher-level learning outcomes.

chapter 28|2 pages

Learning Outcomes

Succinct statements of what students will know or be able to do at a given point in their learning.

chapter 29|2 pages

Learning Progressions

Purposeful organization of a curriculum into sequenced benchmarks that represent thresholds of progressive competency.

chapter 30|2 pages

Learning Tasks

Activities that require the application and practice of knowledge in order to improve retention, develop accurate conceptual models, and increase automaticity.

chapter 31|2 pages


An approach to curriculum design that keys courses to different standards of proficiency or aptitude.

chapter 32|2 pages

Magician's Code

Tricks of the instructional trade—such as learning goals and rubrics—that should be shared with students only in cases where test performance is paramount.

chapter 33|2 pages

Mental Models

Cognitive representations of how things work.

chapter 34|2 pages


An approach to curriculum design that engages students in applied learning using the fewest instructional prompts, materials, and scaffolds possible.

chapter 35|2 pages


A method of managing curricular complexity by dividing a program of study into self-contained units.

chapter 36|2 pages

Propositional Density

The amount of information or meaning conveyed by the elements of a curriculum.

chapter 37|2 pages


A technique for placing curricular elements close to one another to increase the perception and recall of their relatedness.

chapter 38|2 pages


Productively difficult learning experiences that push students to the edge of their abilities.

chapter 39|2 pages


The ability of a curriculum to be effective in as many contexts and for as many learners as possible.

chapter 40|2 pages


Curricula focused on developing a particular skill set or knowledge in a specific area of study.

chapter 41|2 pages

Spiral Curriculum

Intentional repetition of key skills and concepts at well-orchestrated intervals throughout a curriculum.

chapter 42|2 pages

Stakeholder Assets

The curricular resources required to meet the wide-ranging needs of a large, diverse group of users.

chapter 43|2 pages


A method of using narrative devices to make curricula more engaging and memorable.

chapter 44|2 pages

Student-Facing vs. Teacher-Facing

Differential design strategies to meet the needs of either students or teachers.

chapter 45|2 pages

Student Work Samples

Examples of students' work products that make learning outcomes concrete.

chapter 46|2 pages

Subject-Matter Experts

Individuals who possess authoritative knowledge in a specific domain and collaborate with curriculum designers to produce effective learning experiences.

chapter 47|2 pages


A tool that increases curricular quality and workflow efficiency by providing a consistent structure for instructional inputs.

chapter 48|2 pages


A compilation of content and practice meant to promote learning.

chapter 49|2 pages

Threshold Concepts

Transformative, paradigm-shifting ideas.

chapter 50|2 pages

Usability vs. Learnability

The degree to which a curriculum prioritizes ease of use or effectiveness at achieving learning outcomes.