Pedagogy Trumps Curriculum

I was thinking about what can hold us back from doing what we know is right for kids, despite our great desire to do so. I ran through the usual culprits of time, too much to cover, too many programs to fit in, new curriculum etc. These are all very real and good reasons that need to be improved, but I think there is more.

I have been reflecting on a lot of school visits that I have done and  many of the classrooms I have seen.  I am always inspired by the amazing teachers that are creating powerful learning experiences for kids. What stands out to me though, is  that in spite of all these expectations and things we must do, no one has ever brought me to a classroom to highlight how a teacher follows the pacing guide or to check out at how accurately someone is implementing the curriculum.  When administrators are excited about visiting classrooms it is because a teacher is creating  personal learning opportunities for their students.  They want to show off how teachers have redesigned their classrooms for more flexible spaces.  The are glowing about the projects that kids are doing and how they are engaged in learning that is authentic and empowering.

These experiences that are changing how kids learn in schools today rarely come straight from a textbook.  They come from teachers who know their kids and design experiences that meet the needs of the learners in their classrooms, based on the desired learning objectives. As Dylan Williams so beautifully articulates,  “A bad curriculum well taught is invariably a better experience for students than a good curriculum badly taught: pedagogy trumps curriculum. Or more precisely, pedagogy is curriculum, because what matters is how things are taught, rather than what is taught.”

So, I as I think about curriculum and how it influences learning in classrooms, I wonder…

Why are administrators creating mandates about programs and fidelity to curriculum if they really value how teachers are connecting with kids, or that they are creating learning experiences that allow for more personal learning and empowerment?

What if more teachers were trusted and trusted themselves to make more choices about HOW kids learn since they are the ones that know so much about their kids, their strengths, their weaknesses, their dreams?

I don’t think it is quite this black and white as either of these wonderings but I often see that there is a misunderstanding or a lack of a clear vision that leads to some practices that aren’t necessarily in favor of the kids or the educators.  I think these are conversations that need to be had to come to a clear understanding of desired teaching and learning. Will Richarson’s article, 9 Elephants in the Classroom that Should Unsettle Us, highlights so many things that we do in education, mainly because we always have, not because it’s what is best for kids. One in particular stands out to me as I think of curriculum and how it can hold us back from teaching kids in really powerful ways. One of my favorites is #6:

“We know that curriculum is just a guess. The way we talk about “The Curriculum” you would think that it was something delivered on a gold platter from on high…But we know that much of what every student in 1894 was supposed to learn isn’t really what every student in 2015 needs to learn.”


Think about what we could do in schools if we would have more conversations and learning focused on a deeper and shared understanding of desired learning environments and  pedagogy rather than the programs or curriculum that are to be implemented. It’s not easy to flip the switch and it takes a lot of work but I know it’s possible to do better for the kids in our schools.

Here is an example from one of the best educators I know and one of my best friends, Stephanie Buelow. She went back to the classroom after 3 years as a literacy coach. She knew the mandates and the curriculum so well and could have taught the curriculum with fidelity. But she made the conscious decision to teach the students in her classroom, rather than the curriculum. She got to know them–their passions, strengths and interests. She collaborated with her partner teacher and she relentlessly sought feedback from her students.

Although the test at the end of the year was a high priority for Steph’s administrators and the rest of the school was practicing to pass the test by reviewing the questions aligned to standards that kids were “weak” or pulling groups of “bubble kids”, Steph maintained her focus on powerful learning and teaching. She empowered students to understand the importance of the skills that they were developing in their own lives. She offered choice and encouraged their voices. She co-created projects based on areas of strength and growth and designed lessons that piqued students’ interests. The lessons were fun and engaging but also designed to target the skills and achieve the learning outcomes that 6th graders were supposed to master…and they did.

Steph will never talk about the scores and focuses on  how much she learned about being a better teacher and how connected she felt to her students. However, when the test scores came back 91% of her sixth-graders met or exceeded proficiency in reading , an extraordinary gain of 34% over the students’ fifth-grade level of 57% proficiency (Buelow, 2011). Especially noteworthy was that 87% of students classified as economically disadvantaged met or exceeded proficiency. Her students outperformed students in her school, as well as the entire state, by about 30% on the standardized test results.

I know that accountability is a reality and no matter how much we want to say the tests don’t matter, the reality is that in our current system is they do. The irony, however, is that we will never achieve the results we want by focusing on performing well on a test.

A bad curriculum well taught is invariably a better experience for students than a good curriculum badly taught- pedagogy trumps curriculum. Or more precisely, pedagogy is curriculum, because what matters is how things are taught, rather th


Buelow, S. M. (2011).Harnessing the power of students’out-of-school interests and knowledge: Integrating popular culture in a 6th grade English language arts curriculum (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of Hawai’i at Manoa, Honolulu, HI.

5 Replies to “Pedagogy Trumps Curriculum”

  1. Great post! I agree with you on so many points, especially about the classrooms we celebrate! As a principal I was horrified when I was expected to monitor compliance with a pacing guide instead of actual instruction that would lead to improved student learning. I made it a point to honor and celebrate the work my teachers did that connected with students. This is so important.

  2. Thanks for your comments, Amy! It is so important that leaders celebrate teachers who are taking risks and share the learning openly.

  3. Thanks so much for sharing this… I’m teaching instructional leadership to preservice principals next semester and a large portion of our syllabus covers the ins and outs of curriculum. I’m really looking forward to pushing my students’ thinking about what instructional leaders truly need to value in order to best support students!

  4. Hi Lyn, I am so happy to hear that! How and what educators learn in higher ed/ preservice programs heavily influences practices in schools. When principals create the conditions and support teachers to design authentic learning experiences, it can be so powerful. I’d love to hear more about your course and how it goes.

  5. I do not like the term “pedagogy”. because in current use it describes practice that is divorced from anything that is known about child growth and development and is used as a tool of misinformed curriculum. Rightly understood, curriculum should be included, and not separate from pedagogy. Too often “pedagogy” includes tricks to get children to learn inappropriate material which is mandated by misinformed curriculum.

    The starting place for education is children. Learning that is guided by what we know about child growth and development, according to a curriculum which is similarly informed is not learning that has to be forced by grades or fear of failure but is learning which is closely aligned with the nature of children. The best place for this learning to begin is in a classroom which is under the direction of a well trained teacher; trained in understanding of child growth and development and trained in curriculum development as distinct from curriculum delivery.

    If I am right, and I think I am, children, all children, are natural learners. It’s what they do and they cannot not learn. Almost from day one, when a child enters the world, he or she is learning according to a natural curriculum. What the child learns is largely dependent upon the kind of home environment the adults in the child’s life have established. This, then, carries on into the school. Hence I am not surprised when I hear of more children, in school, being left behind, because it is in school where children are introduced to practices that anyone in their right mind wouldn’t choose to do, given the choice.

    The remedy is to somehow get bureaucrats and politicians as far away from any influence over what happens in schools as possible and the have well trained teachers in charge of what happens in their own classrooms according to the needs of their own students and not some mythical average.

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