Elliott Seif

Philadelphia, PA

Interests: 21st century learning,...

  • Posted 5 Years ago
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Strengthening Curriculum and Instruction in a 21st century world

This commentary examines criteria for selecting effective curricula and instructional models in a 21st century world, and also provides eight examples of relatively unknown yet powerful curricula-instructional programs that should be considered for adoption.

In the same way that it is hard to build a building without an architectural blueprint, so too it is hard for a teacher to be effective without strong curricula-instructional frameworks. Curricula/instructional frameworks lay out the goals, methods, strategies, approaches, assessments, and resources needed for successful teaching and learning. The better the framework, the more likely will be the sturdiness of the foundation and the effectiveness of instruction. The more that curricular-instructional models available to teachers are consistent with the goals and practices of the teacher and school, and the needs of students, the more likely it is that teaching will have good results.

Just imagine how an architectural blueprint influences and affects the construction of a building. Building construction based on a poor design may make it difficult to walk from one part of the building to another, make communication among building occupants difficult, make furniture arrangements impossible, make lighting too dark or too light, make the building safe or unsafe. In the same vein, a poorly designed curriculum may lead to too many unclear, vague goals that do not match student needs, include too much to teach, limit “deeper understanding” of a subject, teach the wrong skills, provide few connections between its different parts, have little meaning for learners, foster passive learning, and make alignment of content among teachers and grade levels difficult. When teachers work from poorly designed curricula and instructional frameworks, they have to work very hard to redo the curricular and instructional practices encouraged by these frameworks, and many times powerful learning is difficult if not impossible to create within the given framework.

What are the components of successful curriculum/instructional frameworks for teaching in a 21st century world? Some framework characteristics might include:

  • Meaningful, worthwhile core goals focused around essential questions, big ideas, understandings and key 21st century skills;
  • An emphasis on developing student understanding, concepts, and content relationships and connections over time;
  • A focus on important skills, attitudes and values, such as positive attitudes towards learning, the importance of effort, research and study skills, openness to new thoughts and ideas, scientific experimentation, curiosity, self-reflection, thoughtfulness, creativity, application and transfer, multiple forms of communication, and conflict resolution/collaboration;
  • The use of multiple types of readings and resources that foster the development of literacy skills and can be integrated into instruction;
  • “Deeper” learning instructional strategies that go well beyond coverage and superficial textbook learning, “drill down” to promote understanding and thoughtfulness, encourage effective writing and discussion, and promote student interest, motivation, inquiry, research, and active engagement;
  • Multiple types of both formative and summative assessments, including authentic performance tasks, teacher observations, self-reflections, writing of all types, and on-going feedback strategies designed to improve student work;
  • A framework organization that is clear and coherent;
  • Appropriate and realistic use of technology as a helpful tool for reaching goals;
  • Realistic learning time frames that distinguish between core and supplemental learning;
  • Support and enrichment activities;
  • Alignment among goals, materials, strategies, and assessments;
  • Links with goals, curricula and instructional approaches across grade levels and subjects.

Teachers, schools and districts need to regularly review their curricular programs in order to update them and create programs more attuned to this new age that we live in. Ultimately, this will make a huge difference for children in this new age.


The following curricula and instructional models exemplify powerful “21st century” program elements built around many or most these criteria. You are probably unfamiliar with most or all of them. They, and programs like them, should become familiar to educators and achieve greater use throughout the educational community.

NOTE: Many of their descriptions are adapted from the program’s website.



SERP-Word Generation for the Middle School

SERP - Word Generation is a research-based, highly motivating “vocabulary” development program for middle school students designed to teach words through language arts, math, science, and social studies classes. The program consists of weekly units, each of which introduces 5 high-utility target words through brief passages describing controversies currently under debate in this country. The paragraphs are intended to help students join ongoing "national conversations" by sparking active examination and discussion of contemporary issues. The target words are relevant to a range of settings and subject areas. The cross-content focus on a small number of words each week will enable students to understand the variety of ways in which words are related, and the multiple exposures to words will provide ample opportunities for deeper understanding.

The Word Generation program is designed to build academic vocabulary, i.e., words that students are likely to encounter in textbooks and on tests, but not in spoken language. Interpret, prohibit, vary, function, and hypothesis are examples. Academic vocabulary includes words that refer to thinking and communicating, like infer and deny, and words that are common across subjects, but hold different meaning depending on the subject, like element and factor. Both types of academic vocabulary are likely to cause problems with comprehension unless students have been taught how to deal with them.

For more information, go to: http://wg.serpmedia.org

For information about other SERP programs in development, go to: http://www.serpinstitute.org/2013/

Other literacy development programs you might want to examine:

Children’s Literacy Initiative (CLI) http://www.cliontheweb.org

Reading and Writing Workshop: http://readingandwritingproject.com/about/overview.html

100 Book Challenge: http://www.americanreading.com/products/100bc/

Touchstones discussion Project: http://www.touchstones.org

Jr Great Books Program:  


Educurious http://educurious.org




Design Thinking

Design Thinking is a structured approach to generate and develop new ways to solve difficult problems and challenges. Design Thinking starts with a challenge, and then works through a series of steps to help find creative solutions to the challenge, such as empathy, interpretation, brainstorming and choosing alternatives, building models, and planning for implementation. The process can be used to help solve school challenges or world-wide challenges. It includes learning additional skills such as finding reliable information, developing surveys and questionnaires, and building interview skills. It can be adapted to be used with students at all ages.

Other creative thinking programs you might want to explore:

Creative Problem Solving: http://www.creativeeducationfoundation.org

The Future Problem Solving Program: http://www.fpspi.org



Champions of Caring: Journey of a Champion Middle and High School Programs

The Journey of a Champion Middle Grades curriculum is a year-long course of study divided into 4 modules. It promotes academic excellence, character development, service-learning and citizenship. The curriculum is a catalyst for encouraging caring, thoughtfulness and good judgment through service and civic participation.  Students gain civic engagement skills as they design community and school service projects. Civic skills developed include: 

  • Designing and implementing community interviews and surveys
  • Service-learning/community project development and assessment
  • Self-reflection
  • Public speaking
  • Persuasive writing skills
  • Conflict resolution and problem solving
  • Leadership and team building
  • Professional etiquette and work readiness
  • Building a personal portfolio

The Journey of a Champion High School Program is a character education and service-learning curriculum for students in grades 9-12. Through this program, students learn how to act as responsible, caring and involved citizens who respect themselves and others and succeed academically.

Journey of a Champion invites students to learn about and reflect on the challenges they and their contemporaries face. It places those challenges in a historical context and leads students to develop strategies and skills that will help them confront those challenges. The journey "destination" is students creating and planning sustainable service and civic participation. The curriculum affects positive change in students by:

  • Developing character through community involvement
  • Engaging students in active learning that demonstrates the relevance and importance of academic work for their life experiences and career choices
  • Increasing awareness of past and current social issues
  • Broadening and deepening perspectives of diversity issues, causes and solutions to conflicts, respect for self and others in their communities
  • Enhancing critical thinking skills, with particular emphasis on conflict resolution, decision-making, and problem solving.

For more information, go to: http://www.championsofcaring.org

Other programs to look at:

Second Step: http://www.cfchildren.org/second-step.aspx




Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE)

Entrepreneurship education is a tool that can equip young people to not only start businesses and create jobs, but also to be opportunity-focused, flexible employees ready to fill existing jobs.

NFTE fosters the creation of entrepreneurship skills, businesses and the development of an adaptable, driven and opportunity-focused workforce that ultimately promotes economic stability.  External research has shown that NFTE graduates start and maintain businesses at substantially higher rates than their peers. Other research findings indicate that students develop:

  • Increased interest in attending college
  • Greater occupational aspirations
  • Improved scores in independent reading

Working with schools in low-income communities where at least 50% of the students are eligible for free or reduced price lunch, NFTE targets young people who are at risk of dropping out of school, and helps them graduate with their own personal plans for success. The program, Highly Academic, is a semester or year-long class with a NFTE-certified teacher who guides students through one of the curricula: Entrepreneurship: Owning Your Future  or Exploring Careers for the 21st Century. Lessons include the concepts of competitive advantage, ownership, opportunity recognition, marketing, finance, and product development - and all tie back to core math and literacy skills. Lessons include field trips, games and experiential activities. Classes regularly have guest speakers. Students are paired with coaches who help students work on their business plans, and business plan competitions are judges by local entrepreneurs and business people.

Each young person who takes a NFTE class works toward completing a business plan, then goes on to present and defend it in a classroom competition. The winners of these competitions go on to compete in citywide or regional competitions, with the hopes of reaching our annual national competition.

For more information, go to: http://www.nfte.com

Other Economic-Entrepreneurial Programs:

General information about entrepreneurial education programs can be found at: http://www.entre-ed.org

Information about Economic and Financial Education resources can be found at: http://www.councilforeconed.org



Full Options Science System (FOSS)

Science is an active enterprise, made active by our human capacity to think and “search for the truth”. Scientists value open communication, investigation, and good evidence for drawing conclusions. Scientific knowledge advances when scientists observe objects and events, think about how they relate to what is known, test their ideas in logical ways, and generate explanations that integrate the new information into the established order. Thus the scientific enterprise is both what we know (content) and how we come to know it (process). The best way for students to appreciate the scientific enterprise, learn important scientific concepts, and develop the ability to think critically is to actively construct ideas through their own inquiries, investigations, and analyses.

The FOSS program was created to engage students in these processes as they explore the natural world. FOSS program materials are designed to meet the challenge of providing meaningful science education for all students in diverse American classrooms and to prepare them for life in the 21st century. Development of the FOSS program was, and continues to be, guided by advances in the understanding of how youngsters think and learn.

FOSS K–6 is a complete program consisting of 26 modules for self-contained elementary classrooms. The components exclusive to K–6 are

  • Teacher guides for K–6
  • Equipment kits for K–6
  • Teacher preparation videos for K–6
  • FOSS Science Stories and Spanish Editions

FOSS Middle School components consist of nine units for students and their teachers in departmental science grades 6–8. Each unit requires 9–12 weeks to teach. The Middle School program includes the following five interconnected components:

  • Teacher guides for middle school courses
  • Equipment kits for middle school courses
  • Lab Notebooks for students
  • Resources books for students
  • CD-ROM for middle school courses.

Two components that apply to both FOSS K–6 and FOSS Middle School are the FOSS Assessment System and FOSSweb.com.

For more information, go to: http://www.fossweb.com

Other programs to consider:

Active Physics: (high school): http://its-about-time.com/htmls/ap.html

GEMS (K-8):




Cognitively Guided Instruction

Cognitively Guided Instruction (CGI) is a professional development program that increases teachers’ understanding of the knowledge that students bring to the math learning process and how they can connect that knowledge with formal concepts and operations. The program is based on the premise that children throughout the elementary grades are capable of learning powerful unifying ideas of mathematics that are the foundation of both arithmetic and algebra. Learning and articulating these ideas enhance children's understanding of arithmetic and provide a foundation for extending their knowledge of arithmetic to the learning of algebra.

CGI is guided by two major ideas. The first is that children bring an intuitive knowledge of mathematics to school with them and that this knowledge should serve as the basis for developing formal mathematics instruction. This idea leads to an emphasis on working with the processes that students use to solve problems. The second key idea is that math instruction should be based on the relationship between computational skills and problem solving, which leads to an emphasis on problem solving in the classroom instead of the repetition of number facts, such as practicing the rules of addition and subtraction.

With the CGI approach, teachers focus on what students know and help them build future understanding based on present knowledge. The program aims to improve children's mathematical skills by increasing teachers' knowledge of students' thinking, by changing teachers' beliefs regarding how children learn, and by ultimately changing teaching practice. In 1996, CGI was extended into the upper elementary school levels to assist first through sixth grade teachers in integrating the major principles of algebra into arithmetic instruction.

There is no set curriculum. Teachers use the CGI framework with existing curriculum materials, or they use CGI principles to help develop their own math curriculum.

For more information, go to: http://www.promisingpractices.net/program.asp?programid=114#programinfo

Other math programs that might be considered:

Project Seed: http://projectseed.org

Interactive Mathematics Program (IMP)(High School): http://mathimp.org/general_info/intro.html




Social Studies School Service

Social Studies School Service offers teachers, K-12, a variety of alternative and unique materials, programs, and curricula for social studies at all levels. The materials have been developed for the many aspects of social studies – government, history, geography, and civics – and often are interdisciplinary, incorporate conceptual understanding, develop research skills, big ideas and essential questions, and use data-based test questions (DBQ’s), performance tasks, and multiple readings. Catalogues of available materials are frequently sent out and shared.

For further information, go to: www.socialstudies.com

Other social studies/civics programs to consider:

Teacher’s Curriculum Institute social studies programs: www.teachtci.com

Center for Civic Education: http://new.civiced.org

Zinn Education: http://zinnedproject.org                                            

A History of US: http://www.joyhakim.com/works.htm

The Choices Program (Middle and High School): http://www.choices.edu




Engineering is Elementary

EIE consists currently of twenty STEM units designed for the elementary grades. Each EIE unit ties in with an elementary science topic and is meant to be taught either concurrently or after students learn the appropriate science content in life science, earth and space science and physical science areas. Each unit has five “lessons” (lessons can be more than one day).

The units attempt to combine learning in a science area with engineering concepts. Engineering projects integrate other disciplines. Engaging students in hands-on, real-world engineering experiences can enliven math and science and other content areas. Engineering projects can motivate students to learn math and science concepts by illustrating relevant applications. They foster problem-solving skills, including problem formulation, iteration, testing of alternative solutions, and evaluation of data to guide decisions.

Learning about engineering increases students' awareness of and access to scientific and technical careers. The number of American citizens pursuing engineering is decreasing. Early introduction to engineering can encourage many capable students, especially girls and minorities, to consider it as a career and enroll in the necessary science and math courses in high school.

For more information, go to: http://www.eie.org/

Other STEM examples:

Engineer Your World: http://www.engineeryourworld.org (high school)

Project Lead the Way: http://www.pltw.org (high school)

Some Final Thoughts


Every school and district should have some mechanism to help staff members regularly review the many available potential curriculum and instructional programs and approaches, and to select those that provide students with opportunities based on the criteria suggested at the beginning of this commentary, such as focused, meaningful goals; targeted key skills, attitudes and values; multiple formative and summative assessment options; a focus on deeper learning; and active student engagement and inquiry.[i]

The programs listed above are only some examples of the many powerful curricula and instructional options that are often neglected and put into place too infrequently in schools and classrooms.[ii] Many others that meet the criteria cited above and match 21st century goals should be considered. Through continual review and renewal, every District should move towards having a set of powerful curricula and instructional programs, tied to appropriate staff development training, that help prepare students to live in a 21st century world.

We also now have the technology to develop curriculum review websites, comparable to Amazon’s book service and reviews or TripAdvisor’s travel site that rates hotels and bed and breakfasts in all parts of the world.  The website should include a comprehensive set of curriculum programs, all reviewed by experts and rated by users. Such a site would provide educators with data that would be helpful in a curriculum review and renewal process.

[i] For additional information about curriculum renewal criteria and strategies, go to www.era3learning.org, then to resources, then to curriculum renewal, and then to the article by Elliott Seif, Reconfiguring Learning Through Curriculum Renewal (unpublished).

[ii] For more information about curriculum selection criteria and additional alternative curricular and instructional programs in many subject areas, go to: www.era3learning.org, then to the resource page, then to the meaningful curriculum section.

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