I get the sense from some in the creative subjects that the simple practice of putting something down in the form of a written curriculum is too restrictive or too cold and methodical to be worth doing. While schools tend to provide math and reading teachers things like off-the-shelf resources, scope and sequences, and pacing guides, these kinds of instructional materials probably don’t exist for my subject (PYP Design); Anyone familiar with the work that goes into a Programme of Inquiry or a transdisciplinary curriculum can immediately understand how an off-the-shelf resource of STEM or Makerspace lessons would be difficult to use with any fidelity.

The reality is that a Design curriculum that fits my (Zach’s) purposes has to be designed in-house, and it takes a ton of time to do it right. Which brings me to the titular question of this blog post – is it even necessary to develop a curriculum for Design/STEM/Maker-centered learning, subjects that are primarily concerned with open-ended, ill-defined tasks? Can’t we just ask the students what they want to learn about and forgo entirely the tedious nitpicking and word-smithing that comes with the territory of curriculum design? After all, isn’t that more “authentic”?

Well, call me cold and methodical, but I think we do need a curriculum. Over the past year since I started working in this role as a PYP Design teacher I have found it enormously important to develop something that can be used by me – and the teachers that come after me – to improve students’ learning experience in the design classroom. In this blog post I’d like to show you what I’ve been doing to plan for learning through curriculum and instructional design. Hopefully you come away with a few ideas to incorporate into your own Design or maker-centered curriculum.  

Does Design need standards? 

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I’ve found it useful to incorporate standards (we’ve adopted the BC Applied Design, Skills, and Technologies) into my developing curriculum. As you can see from a sample of my standards document below (the naming and categorization systems are my own, cat. by IB/PYP Approaches to Learning), these standards are quite generic, which means that they need to be unpacked. In addition, since each of these standards is further enabled by the learner’s crystalized knowledge, I have to further identify and embed content into each standard to ensure that each skill is actually practiced; Generating ideas about what? Researching what (with what)? Evaluating what? 

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Does Design need assessments? 

Instructional Design 101: Design instructional activities around specific outcomes that are aligned with your assessments. But wait, isn’t it impossible to predict what a student will choose to do in creative subjects like design? Let me briefly show you what I’ve started to do to allow for creative flexibility (with help from my assistant principal) and how I am going to look to grow in the area of authentic design assessments in the coming year. 

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Starting with basic rubrics like the sample above – which were often vague and unhelpful – I’ve moved onto creating  “Can Do” statements (below) for students, linking what students should be able to do with the evidence or artifact that I will be checking to ensure that students are meeting the learning objective. While these are all in the initial stages of development, I do not think that by including them in an instructional program I’m disabling creativity. Actually, by having real conversations around checking for understanding I think I’ve been able to imagine more ways that students can show what they know.

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In addition to the tools I’ve just shown here, I also regularly engage students in ongoing spaced retrieval practice (see effectiveness in, for example, Karpicke, 2009; Endres & Renkl, 2015) on the content they’re working on. These could be quick oral or written quizzes – on a whiteboard perhaps –  on the semantic content we’re learning (i.e. “What is an axle?”, or “What are three ways that sellers make their products more attractive to sell on the market?”). Without planning for these types of formative activities, I find that students are doomed to simply rehearse what they already know in design rather than acquire and be empowered by new knowledge.  

Does Design need units? 

Without designing bounded units, there is the danger of creating a learning program that is full of disjointed STEM challenges and random skills practice in isolation. In my program I’ve settled on four units per grade level, which I am hoping represents the sweet spot for my context. 

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For each unit I’ve developed a standards-aligned overview that describes the learning engagements as well as a slides presentation that I actually use for mini-lessons during the unit.  

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How did I choose the content of the units? By trying as much as possible to integrate my design units into the units of inquiry (science and social studies) that students are learning in homeroom. For some grades, I’ve been able to find deep, authentic connections for every one of their units. For others, not so much, which means that I’ve had to develop stand-alone design units that instead include other forms of integration, as described in this recent post.

The thing is, I believe that it is my role to develop students’ capacity to be critical, creative, design-thinkers and problem-solvers, but the research literature seems to suggest that it is insufficient to try to simply teach generic skills like critical thinking in isolation of knowledge (Huber & Kuncel, 2015; Willingham, 2007); When you try to divorce knowledge from thinking you end up thinking with nothing. We can grow students’ capacity to be highly proficient at these generic 21st century skills by developing deep wells of crystalized background knowledge, which I think can best be facilitated when you are intentional about what kinds of knowledge you are aiming for kids to use…. through a curriculum. 

While this might all look good, it’s definitely a work in progress. By using standards, creating assessment tools, and developing descriptions of units, as well as improving my instructional tools and materials, I feel that I have so much to work with in my second year in this role. If you’re a Design/STEM/Makerspace teacher, I’d love to hear what you’re developing for your classrooms. Feel free to comment below, and follow me on Twitter.

– Zach Groshell @mrzachg



Endres, T., & Renkl, A. (2015). Mechanisms behind the testing effect: an empirical investigation of retrieval practice in meaningful learning. Frontiers in Psychology, 6(July), 1–6. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01054

Huber, C. R., & Kuncel, N. R. (2015). Does College Teach Critical Thinking? A Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research, 86(2), 431–468. https://doi.org/10.3102/0034654315605917

Karpicke, J. D. (2009). Metacognitive Control and Strategy Selection: Deciding to Practice Retrieval During Learning. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 138(4), 469–486. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0017341

Willingham, D. T. (2007). Critical thinking: Why is it so hard to teach?, 8–19.


7 thoughts on “Does Design/MakerED/STEM even need a curriculum?

  1. I think overviews such as you are designing are a great idea. They are open enough for student learning to be authentic but provide structure to ensure design principles are being followed and knowledge and practice is extended. It’s like having a map. There are many ways of reaching the end, but knowing where you are headed helps to keep you on track.


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