Thinking Flexibly about Flexibility

Hello, everyone. Happy new year! I’m back at the blog after a much-needed winter break.

This week I’ve been thinking more about digital curriculum materials and adaptations (ideas I talked about in this post and this post). When I talk about this area of my research interests to new people, I usually frame it as a question of how a digital medium might be used to create curriculum materials that are more flexible, thereby helping teachers to make adaptations according to their needs and contexts.

A natural follow up to such a description is, what does it mean for curriculum materials to be flexible? Oddly enough, I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that, despite giving that description a lot. It is a question I asked myself a few days ago, though. What are the kinds of flexibility that would be useful to teachers?

To this point, I’ve always been pretty focused on the idea of teachers changing the order in which the content is presented. Maybe kids need to be able to measure to the nearest half-inch to do an art project next week, for example, and so a teacher wants to teach a lesson on that. If she moves the lesson a unit earlier in the sequence, what are the repercussions of that? In what other ways would the sequence need to be adjusted to make sure it still follows a coherent progression? I’ve always thought — and still think — that is must be possible to design a system that gives intelligent feedback to teachers about potential impacts of sequence changes. It’d be a way to reveal the curriculum designer’s intentions, as described by Hoyles and Noss (2003) (and much later and less thoroughly by me, in this post).

I’m not the only one interested in the idea of building and maintaining coherent sequences of content — other researchers have talked about ways to do that in both mathematics (Confrey, Gianopulos, McGowan, Shah, & Belcher, 2017) and science (Shwartz, Weizman, Fortus, Krajcik, & Reiser, 2008). I haven’t lost interest in that idea. In recent days, however, I’ve been thinking about other kinds of changes and adaptations teachers might want to make to curriculum materials, and realizing that my thinking about flexibility, to this point, has been pretty inflexible.

In a recent conversation with some curriculum development colleagues, we were discussing one of the most pervasive and ongoing tensions in curriculum development work. On one hand, we aim to always provide adequate features and information to support all teachers in implementing lessons. On the other hand, we want to communicate that the suggested discussion questions, samples of student work, and other information are intended to support teachers in thinking about the lesson — not to script it. More information is — in some ways — more support, and yet it can also seem like an attempt to take the agency away from teachers, which is something we don’t want.

This led me to wonder whether there were certain types of information that are potentially useful to some teachers, but perceived as scripts or mandates to others. Feiman-Nemser (2001) points out that teachers have different professional development needs across the course of their careers. Newer teachers, for example, may benefit from more information about how a lesson might play out than more experienced teachers. Could the number of sample discussion questions shown be something teachers would adapt to their needs? What about whether or not information about how to support to English-language learners is shown? This could be a whole different class of adaptations that has nothing to do with how content is sequenced.

I was also reminded a few weeks ago that there is research showing that teachers interact with curriculum materials in different ways at different points of the planning and implementation process (e.g., Sherin & Drake, 2009). I have been pretty focused to this point on adaptations that teachers might make while planning, but limiting my thinking to planning activity disregards the importance of in-the-moment decisions that make up so much of a teacher’s work. Listening to students’ thinking can lead a teacher to change a task or learning goal in the moment. Such a change is an adaptation to curriculum, but could it also necessitate an adaptation to the curriculum materials? If so, how could curriculum developers support such an adaptation?

All in all, I find myself thinking in a whole new way about the idea of how curriculum might be made more flexible. What other kinds of flexibility have I not thought about yet?


Confrey, J., Gianopulos, G., McGowan, W., Shah, M., & Belcher, M. (2017). Scaffolding learner-centered curricular coherence using learning maps and diagnostic assessments designed around mathematics learning trajectories. ZDM – Mathematics Education, 49(5), 717–734.

Feiman-Nemser, S. (2001). From preparation to practice: Designing a continuum to strengthen and sustain teaching. Teachers College Record, 103(6), 1013–1055.

Hoyles, C., & Noss, R. (2003). What can digital technologies take from and bring to research in mathematics education. In Second International Handbook of Mathematics Education (pp. 323–349).

Sherin, M. G., & Drake, C. (2009). Curriculum strategy framework: Investigating patterns in teachers’ use of a reform‐based elementary mathematics curriculum. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 41(4), 467-500.

Shwartz, Y., Weizman, A., Fortus, D., Krajcik, J., & Reiser, B. (2008). The IQWST experience: Using coherence as a design principle for a middle school science curriculum. The Elementary School Journal, 109(2), 199–219.


2 thoughts on “Thinking Flexibly about Flexibility

  1. Are there things as simple as how people like info? My hubby likes lots of pictures with less text, I like lots of text, other people like videos. Is it the lessons themselves that are flexible or the ways in which you communicate the content to the teacher that should be flexible? Another dimension could be the teacher’s own strengths and how they like to bring out those strengths in their lessons.

    Liked by 1 person

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