I praise you, because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful, I know that full well. (Psalm 139:14 NIV)
In the last few decades, it has become increasingly popular to provide an individualized education for students. Typically, when we think about adapting curriculum, we think about students with unique learning needs such as special education students, English Language Learners, or accelerated learners. With the rise of online learning, especially since the global pandemic, it has become easier to obtain that desired individualization for every student by choosing online learning. The nature of online coursework, with its inherent flexibility, makes the perfect springboard for customizing content, presentation, and assessment for each individual student’s needs. Furthermore, research has shown that providing adaptable curriculum to all students through best practices is beneficial for everyone.
In order to cater to specific student needs, it is necessary for teachers to be thoughtful during the curriculum development, execution and review processes. Education blogger Heather Cacioppo (2021) suggests that curriculum adaptation “is an ongoing dynamic process that modifies and adapts the program of studies to meet the learning requirements of a student with special needs. It enables the teaching team to welcome learners of all abilities and ensures that every student is challenged to learn.” By adapting rigor, content, context, and timing, teachers can provide differentiation to customize learning for students.
Why Should Curriculum Be Adapted?
An adapted curriculum provides opportunities for students to:
- reflect and be culturally responsive.
- foster critical thinking based on interests.
- engage in deep, meaningful conversations with plenty of teacher engagement.
- master concepts across curricular content domains.
- collaborate with other students to work on shared tasks.
- develop social-emotional skills.
- obtain a sense of confidence and success.
An adapted curriculum provides opportunities for teachers to:
- individualize learning approaches.
- meet students where they are.
- apply content knowledge in practical ways.
- extend learning beyond a test. (Figueras-Daniel, 2019)
Often schools or districts invest in ready-made curriculum that must be adapted for optimal effectiveness. Out of the proverbial box, this kind of curriculum assumes that all students come to the table with at-grade-level knowledge and skills. However, we are aware that real-life classrooms bring us learners with very diverse knowledge and capabilities. Because of this, a teacher must be ready to “level the playing field” and meet each student where they are at. In adapting this type of curriculum, teachers must increase or decrease rigor as appropriate. This may include working out the timing of each lesson, so that teachers can identify which students will need extra time and which students could benefit from enrichment. This may also be done by adding a few lessons to provide a foundation, or engaging in pre-teaching to connect the students to the curriculum in an authentic way.
While the prepared curriculum may include some ideas for differentiation, it will not be customized to meet the needs of your specific students. The suggested differentiation likely will not include variation for personalities, areas of interest, cultural values, or other specialized demands. It will take thoughtful consideration by educators to ensure that a high-quality curriculum is offered to all students, no matter their learning style or preferences. It is helpful to remember three points when unpacking an existing or pre-packaged curriculum: structure, key components, and tensions (Lengar Kang, 2019).
“…real life classrooms bring us learners with very diverse knowledge and capabilities.”
Teachers must understand that all curriculum is designed with its own teaching methods, structure, and organization. First, teachers must observe these features and compare and contrast them to the existing curricula, when applicable. Teachers must be familiar with the critical features of the material and familiarize themselves with which areas are essential and which areas are for potential enrichment. It is also crucial to remember that packaged curriculum is designed for ideal students in an ideal classroom. It does not recognize teaching conditions, prior knowledge and skills of the students, or the school’s environmental limitations. Most importantly, the curriculum must reflect the mission and vision of the school community. For those educators working in Christian education, this means incorporating biblical worldview into all curricula. All of this is essential to consider when adapting the curriculum.
When looking at packaged curriculum, student personalities are not the only thing to consider. Adapting curriculum also includes adapting for the individual teacher as well. In order to be successful, the curriculum should also mesh well with the instructor’s teaching style. Instructors will feel more confident about their teaching if they have been allowed to translate materials using their own teaching processes so that they are able to apply their own strengths and skills, leading to a more authentic presentation.
Once initial adaptations to a curriculum have been made, educators must not grow content. Teaching teams should continuously review and reflect on the material’s effectiveness, as well as gather feedback from their students to make use of the information for future implementation. This can be performed on a yearly cycle or after each unit has been taught and notes made on changes for each lesson for future use. Think of the curriculum as “living documents” that should be revised as instructional needs change (Lengar Kang, 2019).
“Most importantly, the curriculum must reflect the mission and vision of the school community. For those educators working in Christian education, this means incorporating biblical worldview into all curricula.”
Good teaching practices begin before the lesson by laying a solid foundation. Teachers must start by designing an environment that encourages students to learn. Teachers should open by stating the objective of the lesson and sharing an authentic reason that students should be engaged. It is helpful for teachers to proactively instruct on vocabulary, provide study guides or cheat sheets, share a lesson outline, and/or lesson commentary. It is also helpful for the teacher to model notetaking and walk students through the mental processes of learning and making connections. It may also prove beneficial for them to give examples of the expected product, and/or share demonstrations of quality work.
Curriculum Teaching & Support
While executing the lesson, it is important for teachers to provide helpful visuals, clear written and spoken directions, and appropriate wait time between tasks. Teachers will observe that each of their students has a preferred method of expression, and it is a good idea for them to give students options so that they can adequately demonstrate their learned knowledge. Essays, graphs or charts, artistic expressions, written explanations, demonstrations, or video reports are just a few examples of optional student products.
If a student struggles to learn the content by listening and engaging in front of the class, the teacher may assist by giving tips for verbal contributions, and/or teaching optimal body language. A mid-lesson discussion with the student may also help the instructor to decipher the specific challenges the student is experiencing learning the content. The teacher might begin by inquiring at the informational level, and then have the student engage with a student partner or small group so that they can speak to their own peers and reflect in a more intimate setting.
If a student has difficulty reading and comprehending the material, the teacher can provide key points and draw attention to the most important text. The teacher may also look for the same information presented through another medium or allow extra time for the full-length passage. They may choose to provide prepared summaries, highlight key ideas and vocabulary, or supply thoughtful questions prior to the text to ignite the students’ thinking. The teacher may also help the student by curating flashcards or supplementing the material with pictures, graphs, and/or other visual cues.
If a student is struggling with their written expression, the teacher may give them a formatted assessment to test their knowledge or allow the use of a supplemental technology such as a word processing program. The teacher may also make use of a sentence stem or writing prompt or offer for them to express their knowledge through artwork, photographs, video presentation, or some form of dictation.
Technology can greatly help teachers to deliver content in a way that has authentic interaction and ensures readiness. Teachers must be familiar enough with their students to know when they have mastered the content and are ready for the assessment. When these two things work together, the curriculum allows the student to take control of his or her learning. Remember, instructors are not the only ones accountable for successful assessment design.
Teachers are ultimately tasked with building a “crosswalk” between curriculum assessments and state assessments, when applicable (Lengar Kang, 2019). At the same time, educators must understand that assessments are only part of the picture and remember that teachers are simultaneously building other learning skills apart from the specific content of the course.
The key to most effective adaptation is to focus attention on instruction implementation rather than curriculum design. Regular review will keep instruction fresh and applicable to the ever-changing instructional environment. While adaptive teaching and learning will help students to master the curriculum goals, it will also help students with life skills that will benefit them far beyond the classroom.
Bulloch, K. (2023). “How to Adapt Your Teaching Strategies to Student Needs.” Reading Rockets. https://www.readingrockets.org/topics/differentiated-instruction/articles/how-adapt-your-teaching-strategies-student-needs.
Cacioppo, H. (2021). “9 Ways to Adapt Curriculum.” Full SPED Ahead (blog), November 8. https://www.fullspedahead.com/9-ways-to-adapt-curriculum-in-special-education.
Figueras-Daniel, A. (2019). “Adaptive Curriculum and Its Role in Student Success.” Teaching Strategies, November 7. https://teachingstrategies.com/blog/adaptive-curriculum.
Lengar Kang, R. (2019). “Unpacking Curriculum: Adopt, Adapt, Apply.” The Center for Professional Education of Teachers, September 17. https://cpet.tc.columbia.edu/news-press/unpacking-curriculum-adopt-adapt-apply.