Educative curriculum materials, Part 2: supporting and inviting adaptation

Welcome back for part 2 of our series on educative curriculum materials!

To briefly recap last week’s post: I argued that creating educative curriculum materials requires a delicate balance between the provision of lots of highly specific information and leaving space for teachers to exercise and develop pedagogical design capacity. And I shared a worry and a hope: A worry that we have leaned too far toward the over-specified end of the continuum between specification and flexibility, and a hope that perhaps digital delivery can help us find a better balance. But how?

Davis & Krajcik (2005) suggested that one way might be through use of multiple forms of media, rather than just one: “By delivering educative curriculum materials online, we have the opportunity to provide more information along the lines of the design heuristics presented here, using many different media. For example, because complementing text with other media can promote more effective learning and because teachers learn from realistic descriptions of practice, online educative curriculum materials could incorporate audio and visual records of teachers’ enactment of lessons” (p. 9).

Their text seems to suggest they were thinking of video as a way to provide additional information that was not already present. In the case of a lot of curriculum materials, though — in mathematics, as well as other subjects — I think that video could instead be a translation of information we already attempt to provide.

Let me explain.

When I first started thinking about how the educative curriculum materials I’m familiar with could be made to better support pedagogical design capacity, I began looking into research on teacher agency. Several researchers have explored how teachers make agentic choices in the context of various reforms. A common theme in these papers is that one reason reforms don’t succeed is that they fail to allow teachers to contribute their expertise toward the reform effort. Instead, they are given directives rather than autonomy. I think this quotation sums it up well: “Historically and continuing today, two aspects of teachers’ agency are limited within educational reform efforts, namely, their capacity to shape and define the course of the reform effort and their level of control or volition” (Severance, Penuel, Sumner, & Leary, 2016, p. 532).

When translated to apply specifically to the context of use of educative curriculum materials, I think Severance et al.’s (2016) above quotation would say something like this: Historically and continuing today, one or both of the following aspects of teachers’ agency are limited with regards to using reform-oriented curriculum materials, namely, their pedagogical design capacity and their opportunities to exercise it. That is, educative curriculum materials don’t always support the development of pedagogical design capacity while also inviting it.*

As noted last week, I think materials developers (myself included) make valiant attempts at the support piece. That’s what all the information we pack into educative curriculum materials is for. When we script student dialogues or discussion questions with sample answers, the intent (most of the time, at least) is to provide a model of how a lesson might go, to allow teachers to imagine what might happen in their classrooms. But there’s research that suggests this isn’t always the effect that the scripting has. I know there is a study somewhere — comment if you know it! — that discusses a teacher who had her students read aloud sample student dialogues rather than having an open discussion. Parks and Bridges-Rhoads (2012) found that a preschool teacher using a highly scripted literacy curriculum applied those scripts in her mathematics teaching, which limited opportunities for students to explain their mathematical thinking. Grossman and Thompson (2008) noted that highly structured materials were very useful for new teachers, but further found that the teachers found it difficult to abandon the structured activities and practices even as their grew into awareness of their instructional limitations.

So, sometimes the script-like elements aren’t functioning as a support for developing pedagogical design capacity. Instead, they’re being interpreted in ways that limit how and when teachers make design decisions for instruction. In short, in an effort to support pedagogical design capacity, we are doing exactly the opposite of inviting it. We may actually be suppressing it.

On the other hand, simply removing the support and not providing any model of implementation does not seem right either. Only giving an overview of a lesson, with many details to be filled in, would certainly invite pedagogical design, but it wouldn’t support it.

So how do we support and invite use of pedagogical design capacity at the same time? I think one way is to translate all those sample questions and dialogues into classroom video, for the following reasons:

  • We know teachers learn a lot from watching classroom video.
  • The videos would serve the function of providing a model of implementation — a specific kind of support for developing design capacity.
  • It would be very challenging to reproduce the dialogue from a video while actively teaching. Videos, more than text-based scripts, communicate the idea that this is a sample implementation, not something to be followed rigidly. Thus, it better invites pedagogical design from teachers.
  • It’s also possible to provide more than one video of the same lesson, which can also clearly communicate the flexible versus critical elements of a lesson. This could invite teachers to make changes to the flexible parts while supporting them in understanding overall intent of the lesson.

In short, I think translation of sample questions and dialogues into classroom video is a concrete and widely applicable way to take up Hoyles, Noss, Vahey, and Roschelle’s (2013) call to support teacher adaptation of materials by shifting from scripting to steering.

Of course, I’m making this change sound easy, but it’d be difficult to accomplish in practice. It raises questions of how to obtain and choose among video resources, what text goes on the page instead of the scripted elements, and so on. As for many things, the devil is in the details. Still, it’s been a productive line of thinking for me. It’s made me wonder what other elements of educative curriculum materials could be translated (not eliminated!) in ways that help us support pedagogical design capacity while also inviting it.

*Note: My sincere thanks to Dr. Corey Drake for helping me articulate this idea in a very productive and helpful conversation I had with her today!


Davis, E. A., & Krajcik, J. S. (2005). Designing educative curriculum materials to promote teacher learning. Educational Researcher, 34(3), 3–14.

Grossman, P., & Thompson, C. (2008). Learning from curriculum materials: Scaffolds for new teachers? Teaching and Teacher Education, 24, 2014–2026.

Hoyles, C., Noss, R., Vahey, P., & Roschelle, J. (2013). Cornerstone Mathematics: Designing digital technology for teacher adaptation and scaling. ZDM – International Journal on Mathematics Education, 45(7), 1057–1070.

Parks, A. N., & Bridges-Rhoads, S. (2012). Overly scripted: Exploring the impact of a scripted literacy curriculum on a preschool teacher’s instructional practices in mathematics. Journal of Research in Childhood Education, 26(3), 308–324.

Severance, S., Penuel, W. R., Sumner, T., & Leary, H. (2016). Organizing for teacher agency in curricular co-design. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 25(4), 531–564.


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