Living a Responsive Curriculum

My son Jacklayinginthegrass and I set off on one of our many adventure walks, taking advantage of the quickly diminishing summer days. Suddenly, Jack veered from the footpath, ran to a patch of lush green grass, and laid down with a giant grin. He yelled, “momma, come lay on the grass with me!” I couldn’t help but laugh with the energy of his spontaneity and quickly joined him. I looked up at the perfectly blue October sky, felt the soft grass tickle my skin and I smiled at the simplicity of our shared moment. My son is only three and yet emits such a wonderful wisdom on the art of enjoying life, of feeling life and of living every moment.

When approaching my second toolkit challenge, for my “Designing Inclusive Learning Environments” grad class, I felt it was necessary to discuss the concept of supporting an inclusive learning environment through a responsive curriculum. I wrote a post recently titled Learning to “leave” the classroom : Differentiating School Programming, discussing how I see Education should provide students with multiple pathways to learn and ultimately choice in their learning continuum. And in order to support multiple learning pathways, teachers need to connect curriculum in a responsive way to the students.

Why a responsive curriculum?

If I acknowledge and firmly believe that every student who enters a classroom arrives with their own past experiences, knowledge about the world, interests and curiosities, and varying areas of understanding, in order to best differentiate for them I need to facilitate the curriculum to meet their individual learning needs. Doing so honours each student as an individual human being. Not trying to fit human beings into a curriculum. I am teaching students before me today. Not students from last year, five years ago, or students in the future. So then the challenge lies in how do I create a Responsive Curriculum for my students?

Imagine going to see a physician for a leg pain, and then arriving and the doctor already has a prescription in hand before even knowing asking you about your experience in the first place. How often have I planned a Unit, or a lesson plan or thought I had a great inquiry challenge for my students, but had first started with looking at the curriculum. Then later wondered why the students just weren’t hooked? I assumed I should start with the curriculum and then adapt it to meet my learners. Teachers are here to teach the curriculum, right? However, I had it backwards. Instead, I should be asking: how do I help foster a learning experience where the students inform the choices that develop the curriculum of the year?

Because ultimately I need to honor the learner and where they currently are in life’s continuum.

So when does the curriculum come into play? 

Supporting and encouraging a safe and caring environment and school culture is an important element to responsive curriculum. When students feel accepted they are more willing to share their thoughts and experiences with others. By encouraging sharing of backgrounds, teachers then need to listen and make spontaneous decisions as events unfold. An Educator works in mindful and deliberate improvisation of moments and in a constant state of watchfulness (Clifford & Friesen,1993). As students share thoughts, ideas and curiosities then we need to listen and allow for moments to unfold. We need to allow for real life experiences and to to help make relevant connections of meaning for the student. Why are we learning this? How is this relevant to my life? Capitalize on experiences to help shape events and help foster meaningful connections to the world. Educators needs to flex, go with the flow, pause, redirect and make connections to the curriculum as needed. An Educator will help guide an inquiry by steering the wheel if things seems to be taking a wrong turn

Connect the Curriculum to the Inquiry as it unfolds

One method for a responsive curriculum is responding to learner curiosities and passions by later finding connections with the curriculum not necessarily first. In “Voices Inside Schools”, Pat Clifford and Susan J. Marinucci state: “While mandated curricula describes topics in terms of discrete units, they generally do not insist that each topic be covered in uniform blocks of time through the course of the year. In Alberta, students and teachers are accountable to outcomes, but not to methods.[…] Where does this [student created inquiry] question fit? How can we do justice to the curriculum by following it in lively and meaningful ways? Even if the question is not explicitly named, it can often be mapped on to curriculum documents in powerful ways.” (2008, pg.685). They also discuss an example of a class of students who inquired into desalination, which had originally stemmed from student generated questions relating to a recent current event of a tsunami. By trusting and honouring her students interests, she later found a curriculum link after the student led inquiry, by connecting desalination to a Science outcome.

Perhaps mandated curriculum could include areas for personal inquiries? Jim Parsons and Larry Beauchamp, in a report for Alberta Education, discuss School Board autonomy in “From Knowledge to Action” in “Chapter 7: Responsive Curriculum for a Digital Age”. They discuss Singapore as an example of responsive curriculum, stating they are providing multiple pathways of learning and providing “white space” within the curriuculum  (essentially an open canvas) for teachers to customize their planning to meet the needs of their current students (Alberta Education, 2012). Think of the possibilities if there was little blank canvas of wiggle room allowed to allow student curiosities to flourish?

Student Centred + Experiential + Real Life Relevance + Flexibility.

= Responsive Curriculum.

I was once having a conversation with a table of Grade 8 Art students and the topic of candy was brought up (students talking about candy? Rare!). One girl joked, “what if I created a drawing using skittles?”. I replied, “why not?”. She looked at me like I was crazy, so I then asked her, “Well, do you think it’s possible to create art using candy?”. Sure enough, challenge accepted! The next day a bag of skittles plopped out from her bag and her experimenting began. She tried dipping them in water to see how the dye came out and she tried using a paintbrush. She also smashed them into crumbs and glued the textures onto some paper. A sticky, gooey, yummy mess. Who knew? Trust students enough to try something different.



What might hold an Educator back?

In “Voices Inside Schools”, Pat Clifford and Susan J. Marinucci share and discuss three classrooms using genuine inquiry. The challenge is brought up on how do you cover the curriculum while at the same time, incorporating student driven questions. The key may be connecting curriculum to the inquiry as it unfolds. “Inquiry demands a particular relationship to the curriculum […] Teachers tend to have little flexibility in terms of curriculum topics thay have to cover with their students. Or, perhaps more accurately, they feel they have little room to stretch and flex. Such perceived restrictions come from at least two fundamental misconceptions. The first common misconception is that outlined learner expectations set the ceiling, rather than the floor, for student understanding. The second confusion arises because many teachers assume textbooks and the curriculum are one and the same; thus, covering the course becomes synonymous with covering the textbook.” (Clifford & Marinucci, pg.684 ).

There is no book or magic formula to tell a teacher how, because if we honour the diversity of children, teaching will always change based on the children before us. But we can decide how to approach schooling. Carol Tomlinson put it well:

“We simply have to decide the shape we want our teaching careers to take, and begin moving in that direction. And here is one guarantee. The more promising for students our decision is, the more complex it will be to live out. The more fully professional we want to become, the greater the risks we take. The more artful we want our work to be, the clumsier we will look along the way. But there is one more guarantee. The more willing we are to take the risks, the better the lives of our students are likely to become, and the greater the fulfillment we are likely to feel at the end of the day.” (2003, pg.9).

A teacher who acts as a facilitator, coach and guide of learning will ultimately guide learning into the hands of the learner. This requires trust for all involved. Trust in that making a “mistake” is okay, trust in ourselves as educators to allow spontaneity to occur and the willingness to take a chance and trust that not every single item on the curriculum needs to be covered. Instead, focus should be on the “Big Ideas” and how can I help make them relevant to the student. If I let my students take ownership of their learning in all facets (designing, assessing, questioning), then the “weight” upon the teacher is lessened as learning might become a shared experience that flows, flexes and connects. I need to first meet and form relationships with my students, develop an environment that allows for open sharing of ideas and risk taking, and then listen to my learners to lead us. All the while guiding, listening, coaching and encouraging. Ultimately, guiding students to become self directed, life-long learners.

I could have told my son to keep walking, to stay on the pre-paved path, to ignore the ever so tempting soft grass around him. But how could I restrain his desire to experience the world? Jack will continue to explore and my job is to watch over him, protect him and guide his curiosities, all while still letting him determine his own path in life. I want him to grow up and have the confidence to make positive choices, to question the world, to solve problems and have empathy for help others. How lucky am I that he brings me along for the ride? I see Education developing in the same way. Letting the learner guide where we shall go.


Clifford, Patricia & Friesen, Sharon L. (1993). A Curious Plan: Managing on the twelfth. Harvard Educational Review, 63(3), 339-358.

Clifford, Patricia & Marinucci, Susan J. (Winter 2008). Testing the Waters: Three Elements of Classroom Inquiry. Voices Inside Schools. Galileo Educational Network Association. Harvard Educational Review. Vol.78, No.4.

Parsons, Jim & Beauchamp, Larry. (2012). “Chapter 7: Responsive Curriculum for a Digital Age”. From Knowledge to ActionAlberta Education. Alberta Government.

Tomlinson, Caron Ann. (2003). Fulfilling the Promise of the Differentiated Classroom:Strategies and Tools for Responsive Teaching. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. Alexandria, Virginia, USA.

Turner, Alison. Images, (2013-2014).


One thought on “Living a Responsive Curriculum

  1. Pingback: Learning with Augmented Reality | alisonlearns

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