Why Curriculum Change Is Difficult and Necessary

Summer 2006

By Olaf Jorgenson

A speaker I once heard at a conference on curriculum development compared instructional change to moving graveyards; nobody pays much attention until you try to do it! Years later, after serving in several independent and public schools that collectively embrace a long tradition of academic freedom, this metaphor rings true. But I've discovered that faculty resistance to formalized instructional improvement and curricular change builds not because teachers lack desire or capacity to improve, but because, collectively, teachers value their autonomy, worry about their ever-increasing workload and time constraints, and are, by nature, averse to risk and change.


Why is instructional change necessary in our schools? First, because in the past decade there has been an upwelling of developments featuring research-based, classroom-proven "best practice" teaching strategies — accompanied by pioneering discoveries about learning and learners — which are simply too compelling to ignore. The stand-and-deliver model of teaching and learning, with the teacher at the center of instruction, is increasingly incompatible with today's youth; in some schools, it is giving way to more varied methods founded on research about how children learn.

Secondly, the students who attend independent and public schools alike come with more learning challenges than ever before, and the trend shows no sign of reversing (Evans, 2004). The changing needs of children demand that teachers expand their role beyond purveyors of information, to become facilitators, coinvestigators, guides, and coordinators. Independent school educators need to evolve with the emerging research on teaching and learning, and adapt their craft to the changing needs of students. Academic freedom has its place, of course; but, frankly, we know too much to ignore what is possible for our students.

And, thirdly, these changes are taking place rapidly, against a backdrop of the shift from an industrial economy to one based on the instantaneous, global traffic of information. Today's schools are not designed to prepare children for our explosive knowledge economy or its demand for outcomes over process; the traditional model of teachers dispensing discrete, disconnected bodies of information (curricula) presented in isolation from the other subject areas, is increasingly obsolete as a way to prepare children for our world. But for educators to simultaneously recognize these shifting dynamics, figure out how to address them through instructional change, and then implement meaningful, sustainable changes, is a daunting task. Teachers and school leaders today must, as Tony Wagner puts it, "rebuild the airplane while they're flying it" (Wagner, 2006).

As a first-year head of school in 2003–2004, determined to learn more about instructional change in independent schools, I consulted with four sitting heads of school and one retired president, serving private K-12 day and boarding schools in four states and encompassing more than 70 years' combined experience with curriculum management and school leadership. Further, in the week prior to the start of school in 2004, I hosted a presentation to our faculty by Robert Evans, a clinical psychologist and noted authority in managing school change. What arose from a year of subsequent discussions with these individuals are insights about effecting change in independent schools, accompanied by strategies that can help school leaders better implement instructional improvement, given the obstacles to change inherent in many K–12 independent schools.


For good reason, America's public school system has long demanded extensive training, certification, and ongoing professional development of its teachers. Our public schools serve a staggering array of children — gifted, learning differenced, second language, special education, behaviorally challenged, highly motivated, and disengaged — all of whom routinely gather as members of the same (often large) classroom group, and pose myriad complexities to the individual teacher charged with serving and challenging each of them. Professional preparation to help these teachers deal with diverse learning styles and disparate needs, and ongoing professional development offering training in effective instructional practices and current research on teaching and learning, have become a way of life in public schools.



Research on teaching and learning has advanced in the last decade perhaps more than in the previous half-century combined. Here is a small sample of instructional innovations — supported by research and tested in classrooms — that transcend fads and jargon, and that all K<–12 educators should understand and fold into their teaching:
  • Multiple intelligence theory: Howard Gardner's pioneering research — the now-familiar notion that there are at least eight different ways to measure human potential, rendering traditional I.Q. testing far too limited — has been extended by many researchers to offer direct applications in the classroom. Gardner asserts that schools (and our culture) heavily prioritize linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences, and fail to recognize or reinforce other aptitudes and gifts in children. Multiple intelligence theory has extended our understanding of what "success" in school means — and the classroom applications of the theory present a mandate for educators to rethink assessment in light of the many ways children can excel (or be slighted) in schools. Teachers need training in ways to present learning in a wider variety, incorporating cooperative learning, music, role play, project- and problem-based activities, and more, and many schools are re-evaluating how to do this; but many schools and teachers in practice are still delivering and assessing instruction in largely traditional ways. (Gardner, 2002; Armstrong, 1994).
  • Differentiated instruction: This approach emphasizes the importance of adjusting teaching strategies to the needs of different groups and individual student learning styles and levels of readiness. Differentiated instruction postulates that, contrary to prevailing practice, teachers should be flexible and modify curriculum and instruction in relation to the different abilities and aptitudes among students in each class, rather than expecting students to fit a curriculum. Differentiated instruction encompasses varied teaching strategies, including flexible grouping, ongoing assessment that measures teaching effectiveness in addition to student progress, and a variety of student products as measures of achievement. Strategies for differentiated learning benefit novice and veteran teachers alike, with real-life application resulting in testimonials documenting improved student achievement, better classroom management, and breakthroughs with children struggling to overcome learning differences and to earn recognition for talents that might not emerge in a direct-instruction or lecture/textbook/worksheet-based classroom. (Tomlinson, 2001; Sizer, 2001; Holloway, 2000).
  • Formative and "backwards design" assessment: By beginning with the end in mind ("backwards design"), educators can rethink assessment as a method of improving instruction, rather than just measuring it. In this approach, educators plan curriculum by focusing on assessment first and subsequently shaping relevant instructional strategies. Based on reviews of research on effective assessment, backwards design further challenges conventional approaches to teachers' instructional planning and delivery because it requires ongoing self-assessment and reflection, and shifts the emphasis in assessment from content mastery to demonstration of understanding, and from a focus on recall of information to a broader repertoire of assessment strategies that includes alternative, as well as traditional, measures of learning. (Wiggins & McTighe, 1998).
  • Opportunity to Learn (OTL): A student's opportunity to learn is the single most important student success variable that schools can control. This seems straightforward, but researchers have discovered that, in many schools, the learning continuum is divided into three disparate entities: the intended curriculum, the implemented curriculum, and the attained curriculum. The intended curriculum is content specified by school or external measures (e.g., national content standards). The implemented curriculum is content actually delivered by teachers. And the attained curriculum is what students learn. While most parents (and educators) assume congruity between the three entities, the discrepancy between them is, in practice, often surprisingly pronounced, in part because when teachers use the textbook as the "curriculum" for a course and cannot cover all the material, they commonly make "independent and idiosyncratic" decisions about what should be covered — directly influencing the students' opportunity to learn. Research on OTL establishes a compelling argument for curriculum articulation. (Marzano, 2003).
  • Cognitive neuroscience, or "brain research": While a fair amount of what's "out there" in terms of so-called "brain-based" teaching strategies lacks much grounding in actual science, there have been several remarkable instructional breakthroughs as a result of the rapidly advancing scientific study of learning. For example, scientists working independently on language acquisition and neural plasticity (the brain's ability to "re-learn" and adapt to new stimuli), respectively, paired their work to investigate the relationship between spoken and written language acquisition in children with low literacy ability. Their efforts led to the formation of a company called Scientific Learning, and the development of a supplemental reading program called "Fast ForWord." Fast ForWord's results, validated by extensive independent studies, demonstrate valid, reliable, and significant gains in children's reading ability — as much as three grade levels after only six weeks of intensive train - sh;improvements that are permanent and do not require follow-up intervention. (See http://www.scilearn.com for independent research and testimonials supporting the Fast ForWord program.) The work of curriculum developers such as Scientific Learning, emerging from and supported by valid research on how children learn, is a glimpse of things to come in the area of cognitive neuroscience applied to classrooms.
  • Demographics and learning: A child's demographic background and context fundamentally influence student achievement in school. The impact a child's demographics have on her or his learning is revealed in new studies that offer strategies for teaching more effectively within the frameworks of poverty, middle class, and affluence. Ruby Payne's qualitative work on the culture of generational poverty offers essential insight into the predispositions, biases, behaviors, and values that characterize (and determine) how children and families from different demographic groups perform in schools, and the extent to which an educator's own background impacts his or her treatment of children in the classroom (Payne, 1998).
  • Inquiry science methods: Research on inquiry-based approaches to science education, focusing on the notion that students learn science best when they "do" science, rather than reading about it or watching demonstrations, has resulted in astonishing findings supporting the effectiveness of hands-on, "minds-on" science. Recent empirical studies documenting dramatic student achievement gains on standardized science testing as well as improved scores in reading, writing, and mathematics (paired with dramatic increases in student and teacher excitement about science!) have led a number of independent schools, including my own, to pursue training and materials for implementing kit-based K–8 science instruction. (Klentschy, Garrison, & Ameral, 2001; Einstein Project; Jorgenson & Vanosdall, 2002).
By comparison, children in independent schools are more homogeneous: in prep schools, highly competent and motivated with involved parents; in therapeutic schools, uniformly grouped and heavily resourced; and so forth. This might explain why training in instructional methods — beyond subject area expertise and a pedigree from a top-tier university — has not customarily been expected of independent school teachers. Added to this is the appeal of "academic freedom," the mantra and cherished rallying cry especially among teachers at the secondary level in independent schools, where teacher licensing, prescribed curricula, lesson planning, an articulated scope and sequence of instruction, and other such perceived bureaucratic confinements have not been the norm.


But times, and children, are changing. Students come to independent and public schools alike less prepared to learn, contending with more (and more complex) personal challenges (learning differences such as attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders, dyslexia, and autism, for example), and with less intact family support than in any previous era in our nation's history (Evans, 2004). At the same time, we know more about teaching and learning than ever before. Consequently, the militant call for academic freedom in independent schools is less and less defensible as a reason not to actively pursue strategies for instructional improvement.



As Tony Wagner (2001) observes, teachers are like craftspersons: the profession "attracts people who enjoy working alone and take great pride in developing a degree of expertise and perfecting 'handcrafted products'" — their special units and courses — whose identity may be threatened by attempts to impose structure on what they love to do. "The educational 'fads of the month' that have swept through schools for the past 30 years have served to reinforce the belief of many teachers that innovations are the fleeting fancy of leaders who are here today and gone tomorrow — and so are not to be believed" (Wagner, 2001, 378).

But research on teaching and learning has advanced in the last decade perhaps more than in the previous half-century combined, and the resulting discoveries contribute to a growing foundation for "best practices of instruction," most of which find their way into teacher certification programs for public school educators and eventually into the national education conference circuit. However, unless veteran independent school educators actively pursue innovative advances in the profession, they may be unaware of an array of research-based "best practice" methods that are transforming teaching and learning in classrooms nationwide, in public and private schools alike.

Among those research-supported advances in teaching and learning that have proven their value in the classroom are the theory of multiple intelligences, differentiated instruction, formative and "backwards design" assessment, opportunity to learn (OTL), cognitive neuroscience ("brain research"), demographics and learning, and inquiry science methods (see sidebar). This sampling is a fraction of the work completed and underway to assist teachers in better serving children and families in our schools — and it's important to acknowledge that many independent educators are already employing updated research-based best practices in their work today, and that numerous independent schools are in fact pushing for instructional change. Still, many are not.


Why should schools go through the instructional review process? There are four basic reasons why curriculum articulation — which is an ongoing process involving regular dialogue among teachers from different grade levels and subjects to review what is taught and assessed, when, and why — is a vital practice for effective schools:

  • To develop a seamless and published scope and sequence of instruction, without gaps or redundancies between grade levels or within department course offerings, that accurately represents what teachers teach and assess and what students are expected to learn from kindergarten to commencement;
  • To increase school-wide awareness of the school's curriculum and of instructional strategies, priorities, and talents among and between colleagues, as they emerge over time in the ongoing school-wide dialogue;
  • To record a written scope and sequence of instruction that will help new colleagues prepare for their teaching assignment when they come to the school, and which will also illustrate the school's instructional program for prospective students, accreditation teams, and others;
  • To provide the basis for an ongoing discussion each year about what we teach, why we teach it, how we assess it, and how we might want to do things differently to better serve our students and capitalize on our own talents.
In my experience, the curriculum articulation process is diagnostic, from a pragmatic standpoint, helping to identify gaps and redundancies in a school's instructional continuum. But it can also be rejuvenating for faculty. Few professional development opportunities are more stimulating than gathering with colleagues in a deliberate effort to discuss and discover how to teach more effectively. Articulation can refresh veterans, inform newcomers, and inspire naysayers on a faculty more readily than any motivational speaker or instructional "expert" I've ever observed. Of course, the process must be structured and orchestrated to be successful, often launched by the administration but then directed and driven by faculty leaders. Here are the key objectives of any curriculum articulation process, addressed to faculty members:
  • Identify minimum competencies. What are the fundamental skills and information that students should gain as a consequence of satisfactorily completing a course?
  • Gauge the preparedness level of your incoming students. In what ways are students entering your class well prepared by their previous courses to meet or exceed the minimum competencies, and in what areas are they deficient?
  • Identify what is actually taught, in what sequence, in each grade/subject. This oversimplifies what is termed "curriculum mapping." The goal is for teachers and departments to honestly record what is taught and when it is taught. An accurate "map" shows where there are overlaps, gaps, deficiencies, overemphases, etc.
  • Compare goals with the national standards to identify priorities and gaps. This is a crucial and somewhat subjective part of the process — it requires that teachers and teacher teams make decisions about what they value specific to the school's instructional goals and mission, compared with what students need as reflected in the national standards, knowing that, in most cases, it is not feasible to teach the entire range of national standards in every course or grade level.
  • Record the scope and sequence of the curriculum: Once a school has articulated its curriculum objectives, it's important to carefully record them, for reference and for future discussions.
  • Conduct ongoing evaluation and revision: Curriculum articulation never stops, as needs, standards, students, teachers, and priorities change.


How do independent school leaders help faculty colleagues develop a receptive attitude toward curricular and pedagogical change? The most immediate — and most commonly reinforced — perception of instructional improvement is that the process leading to it — consisting of reflection, dialogue, research, experimentation, and ongoing repetition of each phase of the cycle — involves "more work." In many ways, it is demanding and time-consuming to engage in self-evaluation, to make time to meet and compare notes with colleagues, to try new approaches and continually work to refine and improve them. Unfortunately, most schools (public and private) tend to launch into ambitious instructional improvement programs by rallying teachers toward noble change initiatives in "one-shot" in-services hosted the week before school starts, with little or no follow-up during the year; or in grueling after-school committee work that usually generates a massive curriculum document that few teachers actually ever consult again once the committees disband.

To the contrary, effective instructional improvement should focus on the process, rather than the product. It is in the collaborative dialogue exploring, considering, and refining a school's methods — the journey toward better teaching — by which teacher professional growth takes place; surely not merely in following the outlines and maps in the final polished and articulated curriculum document.

It does take planning and a commitment among and between teachers to reflect on and share their instructional practices, set goals, and seek resources to meet them. Once it's carefully planned and strategically launched, however, instructional improvement can be both rejuvenating and revolutionary. It can unify and support teachers in a way that, in the long run, makes the teaching life easier and more rewarding.


Schools and educators are suited to slow change. Much more like clergy or families than businesses — because teachers are charged with raising the young and cultivating values that sustain — the work of schools and teachers is intensely personal and demands a degree of continuity and posterity. In this way, resistance to change in schools is normal and, to a degree, necessary; there needs to be a balance between a long-lasting, predictable ethos that transcends generations and the healthy adaptations that acknowledge different needs from one generation to the next. In this sense, change can be interpreted two ways: as a risk, insult, or threat to the traditions and autonomy of teachers; and, simultaneously, as an opportunity for reflection and improvement on the status quo (Evans, 2004).

Overall, then, the single greatest obstacle to implementing curricular change and, over time, establishing a culture that values continuous reflection and improvement in a school, is the general predisposition of educators to resist change itself. Wagner notes that "most educators are risk-averse by temperament.... Most people have entered the teaching profession because it promises a high degree of order, security, and stability" (2001, 378). Organizational change, however, requires friction: disagreement, open conflict, anxiety, disequilibrium. "In schools...," Evans adds, "conflict avoidance is a way of life. Teachers are, after all, people who thrive in — and often prefer — the company of children and adolescents and who try to accentuate the positive. Would we want our children taught by people who didn't?" (2000).

The combination of risk aversion with the cherished autonomy of the independent school teacher's role, added to the prevalent suspicion of cyclic professional "fads" in education previously mentioned, constitute a potent antidote against change of any sort in private education.


While preparing to design and implement an instructional improvement program — planning change — independent school educators need to acknowledge a faculty's right to have three understandings made clear from the very start of the process: Why is a change necessary? What are we changing to? How will we get there? (Evans, 2004) The answers to these questions will vary from school to school, but in addressing the first one, Lois Hetland of the Harvard Graduate School of Education puts it compellingly as follows:
Learning something new means questioning those things we do well automatically. It means questioning our tacit expertise....It is the willingness to risk some clumsy movements that allows us to become explicit and intentional about what we do. And that, as far as I can tell, is how we can best honor the mystery of learning in our teaching (1996).
In this spirit, the goal for faculty members is to create conversations about what students and teachers (in that order) need from instructional design and delivery, and how they can best be enriched and challenged throughout the course of their experience at the school through structuring and delivering curriculum and instruction. Administrators and teacher leaders charged with facilitating successful change measures will necessarily strive to remain relentlessly optimistic about the outcomes of the reflective review process, while both anticipating and respecting some mistakes and frustration, which are natural aspects of the change experience.


Contingent upon adequate time (weeks, months, even years) for preparation, communication, and planning, here are strategies that the school leaders I interviewed and I have used in different school settings to enable effective changes in curriculum and instruction.
  • Aim for "subtle shifts." Changing curriculum and instruction should be a gradual process, a matter of modifying single lessons rather than entire units. Successful instructional change is a matter of reflecting, planning, communicating, planning some more, making a "subtle shift" in practice, reflecting some more, and then repeating the process.1 At Hawaii Prep, preparing to expand our kit-based science program at our K-8 campus, we sent a team of teachers, administrators, and community members to a weeklong training program (Leadership Assistance for Science Education Reform at the Smithsonian Institute). Rather than purchasing kits for science instruction in every classroom in grades K-8, we're inviting teachers to try individual units on a pilot basis, and, so far, several teachers have plunged into the program on their own initiative. In time, we believe others will be drawn to kit-based science by the infectious enthusiasm and by the success they witness in their colleagues' experiences — but it won't be a curriculum program that's forced upon everyone all at once, which would have a low threshold for buy-in among our talented and accomplished (and autonomous) faculty.
  • Start small. Work with individual teachers at first, or with small clusters of motivated individuals who buy into a proposed change and are excited to become experts in the new process and practices. Enthusiasm fueled by early successes and spread by word of mouth among students and teachers is contagious! This strategy shortcuts all the energy and time spent trying to convince skeptical, reluctant, and resistant faculty members to jump aboard an "untested" change. Build it — with "it" meaning an instructional innovation that works — and they will eventually come.
  • Be patient. Instructional change agents should anticipate anxiety. Individuals respond uniquely (at times unpredictably) to new ways of doing things, no matter how sensible or appealing the new ways might be. Expecting colleagues to hold to the same levels of performance and pliability one has for oneself leads to repeated frustrations and slows the process on a number of levels. Over time, favorable changes unite a critical mass of teachers whose collective enthusiasm overcomes initial resistance and gently diffuses the pervasive this-isn't-how-we've-always-done-it attitude. It takes time — often years — to successfully implement instructional change across a department, division, or entire school.
  • Make time for instructional review within the school day. Schools that place a high value on curriculum review and professional dialogue about instruction build it into the workday, rather than adding more meetings during the afternoons, evenings, or weekends when many teachers are involved in co-curricular activities or wish to enjoy precious family time or time alone. This is a vital consideration. Above all else, teachers need time to realize meaningful instructional improvement. The simplest way to create more time is to extend the length of the school year and add periodic in-service days for articulation; but, in some independent schools, this order of change could provoke a battle that might then undermine the good intentions of a curriculum review before it even gets underway. At other schools where I've worked, faculty members were afforded opportunities for collaboration on a regular basis when the school redistributed instructional time incrementally. For instance, adding two minutes to the beginning and end of the school day, and one minute less at the beginning and end of lunch, is hardly noticed, but it adds 30 minutes per week of instructional time in schools with a five-day week. This would allow for 60 minutes of instructional review every two weeks to be built into the regular workday, with a minimal disruption to the existing schedule.
  • Provide ready access to the resources necessary for change. For example, a number of excellent organizations host websites and conferences dedicated to instructional improvement, including the superb resources provided by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (www.ascd.org). It's important to anticipate increased needs that will emerge as a consequence of instructional change. At Hawaii Prep's K–8 campus, for example, with the move to more kit-based science instruction this year, we provided a part-time resource teacher to assist with setup and materials support to facilitate the new program's implementation. While the new position is a strain on the budget, we see it as a resource essential to the success of the initiative — and balanced against the big picture of potential benefits for children and teachers across the years ahead, plus considering the hundreds of hours already invested in the instructional change, a part-time resource teacher is a small price to pay. Plan ahead and make sure your new programs (and teachers) aren't starved for support.
Following these core strategies, curriculum change and instructional improvement may not be quite as complex or contentious as moving graveyards. But it will certainly safely bury a lot of fears. Ultimately, we are obliged to find ways to teach so that opportunities to learn are maximized. The children and families we serve in America's independent schools deserve no less.


Armstrong, T. (1994). Multiple intelligences in the classroom. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Einstein Project, "Cornerstone Study," available online at http://www.einsteinproject.org/?page_id=35&parent_page_id=24.

Evans, R. (2004, August). "The human side of change." Presentation to the Hawaii Preparatory Academy faculty, August 6, 2004. Kamuela, Hawaii.

Evans, R. (2000). "Why a school doesn't run — or change — like a business." Independent School, Spring 2000. Available online at: http://www.nais.org/publications/ismagazinearticle.cfm?itemnumber=144267.

Gardner, H. Intelligence reframed: Multiple intelligences for the 21st century. New York: Basic, 2000.

Hetland, L. (1996). "Understanding goals: Teaching the humanities for understanding in middle school." In M. S. Wiske (Chair), Teaching for understanding: A framework in practice. Symposium conducted at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New York City, New York. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 411 179).

Holloway, J. (2000). "Preparing teachers for differentiated instruction." Educational Leadership, 58 (1).

Jorgenson, O. (2002). "Brain scam? Why educators should be careful about embracing 'brain research.'" The Educational Forum 67(4).

Jorgenson, O., & Vanosdall, R. (2002) "The death of science? What we risk in our rush toward standardized testing and the Three Rs." Phi Delta Kappan 83(8).

Klentschy, M., Garrison, L., & Ameral, O. (2001). Valle Imperial project in science (VIPS): Four-year comparison of student achievement data 1995-1999. Available online at http://www.carolina.com/stc/publications/evidence/vips.pdf.

Marzano, R. (2003). What works in schools: Translating research into action. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Payne, R. (1998). A framework for understanding poverty. Highlands, TX: RFT Publishing.

Sizer, T. (2001). "No two are quite alike: Personalized learning." Educational Leadership 57 (1).

Tomlinson, C. A. (2001). How to differentiate instruction in mixed-ability classrooms. (2nd Ed.) Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Wagner, T. (2001). "Leadership for learning: An action theory of school change." Phi Delta Kappan 82(5), 378-383.

Wagner, T. (2006). Presentation at the Hawaii Executive Conference, March 20, 2006, Kanuela, HI.

Wiggins, G, & McTighe, J. (1998). Understanding by design. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.


1. The expression "subtle shifts" relating to instructional change was coined by The Exploratorium Institute for Inquiry (www.exploratorium.com), a training center offering outstanding workshops, programs, and online support for inquiry science implementation.

Olaf Jorgenson

Olaf Jorgenson is head of school at Almaden Country Day School in San Jose, California.