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Dr. Spencer Kagan

The Embedded Curriculum

Dr. Spencer Kagan

To cite this article: Kagan, S. The Embedded Curriculum. San Clemente, CA: Kagan Publishing. Kagan Online Magazine, Spring 2002. www.KaganOnline.com

As educators, we know there's a clear-cut distinction between curriculum and instruction. Curriculum is what we teach. Instruction is how we teach. Right? Wrong!

For many, the distinction between curriculum and instruction has been etched in stone. In teacher training courses across the nation, students take some courses in curriculum and other courses in instruction. Many schools and districts have two sets of experts. Some occupy positions called "curriculum specialists;" others are "directors of instruction." Outside consultants are hired to give either curriculum workshops (math, science, language arts, social studies) or workshops on instruction (how to use cooperative learning, how to align instruction with the latest in brain science, how to apply the elements of effective instruction). So on the one hand we have our curriculum to deliver. On the other hand we have instructional strategies which can help us make that content engaging. Curriculum on the one hand v. Instruction on the other.

The traditional notion of the distinction between curriculum and instruction can be symbolized by the following formula:

Teaching = Curriculum (What We Teach) +
Instruction (How We Teach)

Upon closer analysis, this traditional notion of curriculum and instruction as mutually exclusive components of education is actually a misconception. Not only is it false, but it limits our role as educators.

Curriculum v. Instruction — A False Distinction
When we examine how curriculum and instruction play out in actual classrooms the distinction breaks down. Let's look at a simple classroom example: Two teachers are giving a math lesson. Alice has students practice naming prime numbers by working alone, writing a list of prime numbers. Carol teaches right next door. She has the same content and the same ability level students. She chooses a different approach to instruction. Carol has students practice naming prime numbers by using RoundRobin and RallyRobin. First, in teams of four, the students take turns naming prime numbers, and then the teammates break into pairs and take turns naming as many prime numbers as they can, repeating some that had been named in the team, and adding new ones if they can.

Although both teachers are delivering the same academic content, because they are using different instructional strategies they are actually delivering different curriculum. There is a different curriculum embedded in the instructional strategies of Alice and Carol. Embedded in Alice's instruction is a curriculum which includes practice writing and working independently. Embedded in Carol's instruction is a curriculum which includes taking turns, oral presentation of ideas, listening skills, and working in different sized groups. If Alice and Carol used only their respective teaching strategies all school year, students in Alice's class would become better at writing their ideas and independent work, while students in Carol's class would become better at speaking in front of others, taking turns, and listening to others.

There is no escaping it. Every choice of an instructional strategy is also a choice to deliver an embedded curriculum. There is a curriculum embedded in every instructional strategy. The traditional distinction between curriculum and instruction breaks down!

An Indelible Moment
The embedded curriculum is not limited to structures or even instructional strategies in general. Sometimes, without even knowing it, a teacher delivers a lesson far more powerful than the academic lesson in the lesson plan book. There is a whole additional curriculum we deliver each day — a curriculum that can be far more important to a student than the explicit academic curriculum. A personal experience from my high school days illustrates the point.

As a high school student, I was exceptionally good at geometry. There was something about the logic of it that held great appeal to my adolescent mind. It was possible to prove things to be true which were not obvious. I loved it.

One time during study hall, I had a great moment. For a long time I had been staring at a figure, trying to see how I could solve a difficult proof. In a flash it occurred to me that if I extended an imaginary line beyond the figure, it would provide the basis for an elegant proof. I remember my heart pounding as I went to the board the next day to present my proof in front of the whole class. Only three students had solved the problem and the teacher had called me up to present my proof. When I drew the imaginary line and presented my proof there was a hush among the other students. The teacher actually gasped and then announced that I had accomplished the proof in far fewer steps than had the textbook author. She said she would write the author to include my proof in the next edition!

The curriculum was geometry. Or was it? Today I remember little of the course content — I cannot remember the steps to that proof or to a proof of the Pythagorean Theorem, but I remember that moment at the blackboard. That moment at the blackboard is indelible. Having something of value to share with a group has become a cornerstone of my professional life. The embedded curriculum that day in geometry class was far more important that the academic curriculum.

The Embedded Curriculum — Often the Most Important Curriculum
It is often the case that the embedded curriculum will serve our students throughout their life more than the academic curriculum. The student is much more likely to benefit from listening skills than from being able to list prime numbers. I am not putting down traditional academic curriculum. It is very important. I am simply pointing out the importance of the embedded curriculum.

Students work together in groups to create a project on photosynthesis. They learn and remember the academic content better because they are so engaged. But they are learning teamwork and relationship skills as well. What is more likely to serve most students well throughout their life — understanding photosynthesis or understanding how to work well with others and maintain good relations?

What is more important, learning a new history fact, or sharpening one's skills at analytic thinking? If we can deliver the history content with a structure that has analytic thinking as an embedded curriculum, we have served our students far better than if we focus exclusively on the academic curriculum. We need to balance our emphasis on academic curriculum with an emphasis on the embedded curriculum. The academic curriculum is only half of the curriculum story, if that.

I have written before in this column about how some content is best delivered as an embedded curriculum. Faced with school violence and a breakdown of values, our nation has been emphasizing character development. If we treat character as curriculum, we are likely to teach lessons on virtues such as integrity, honesty, respect, and citizenship. If, on the other hand, we understand the power of the embedded curriculum, we are likely to choose instructional strategies that allow students to acquire those virtues. If we teach a lesson on honesty in the fall, even a great lesson, will students actually be more honest when we assess that virtue at the end of the school year? Not likely. If on the other hand we use instructional strategies all school year which pull honesty from our students, they will acquire that virtue. A lesson on the importance of cooperation will not make students more cooperative, but use of cooperative learning structures all school year will.

At Kagan Publishing and Professional Development, for years we have been developing structures — instructional strategies which can be used as part of any lesson, at any grade level, to deliver any curriculum. Many of our structures take but a few minutes to learn but can be used for a lifetime. Part of the reason we are so committed to spreading the word about structures is that they contain a very rich embedded curriculum. By using a range of Kagan structures, teachers deliver a rich curriculum that is not delivered with traditional methods.

When we review with Numbered Heads Together, students not only remember the content better; they learn to help each other and work as a team. When we have students do a Team Statement, the content becomes more meaningful and the students learn important synthesis skills as well. Synthesis skills are embedded in Team Statement. Each structure delivers a different embedded curriculum.


Sample Structures and their Embedded Curriculum

Structure Embedded Curriculum
Rally Interview Listening, Oral Presentation, Taking Turns

Numbered Heads Together

Coaching, Checking for Understanding, Teamwork Skills
Team Statements Synthesizing Diverse Points of View, Consensus Seeking
Logic Line-ups Deductive Reasoning
Find My Rule Inductive Reasoning, Hypothesis Generation and Testing


Logic Line-Ups teaches deductive reasoning whereas Find My Rule teaches inductive reasoning. The new active brain imaging technologies indicate these activities are centered in opposite hemispheres of the brain. We can conclude that different structures actually develop different parts of the brain!

Over the years we have developed nearly 200 structures, each with a different embedded curriculum. It's ironic: All these years we thought we were dedicated just to developing instructional strategies; it turned out, without realizing it, we were also writing curriculum. And since the curriculum embedded in the structures includes the development of character virtues, social skills, thinking skills, the multiple intelligences, and emotional intelligences, all along we have been developing some of the most important curriculum today's students can learn.

Rewriting Education's Basic Formula
Given this analysis, there is a need to rethink the formula for teaching:

The Old Formula:

Teaching = Curriculum (What We Teach) +
Instruction (How We Teach)

The New Formula:

Teaching = Curriculum (What We Teach) +
Instruction (How We Teach +
An Embedded Curriculum)

As we reconceptualize the importance of instruction, focusing on the embedded curriculum, we can't help but make wiser choices and deliver a richer total educational experience.

Breaking the Replacement Cycle
The power of the embedded curriculum cannot be overstated. Through embedded curriculum, we can break the replacement cycle — a cycle that has plagued educational reform for years. The replacement cycle is the common practice of replacing one educational innovation with the next. It might play out like this: A school or district decides to emphasize character development, and does so for a few years. After a few years, multiple intelligences becomes a popular innovation and the school replaces its character development program with a multiple intelligences program. This is foolish and wasteful. We know two years of character development is not enough for students to develop all the virtues. Why then does the replacement cycle exist? Why do solid programs get shelved in favor of next year's new thing?

The problem is that we have taken a curricular approach to instructional innovation, teaching lessons designed to develop the various intelligences or the various virtues. When a new innovation comes along, there is not enough time in the day to teach the academic curriculum, plus the character curriculum, plus the new MI curriculum. So we drop the character curriculum in favor of the new MI curriculum, or whatever this year's new thing is. Powerful, important, proven innovations get dropped in favor of newer innovations. A curricular approach to educational innovation has a half-life.

If instead of creating separate lessons, we embed the curriculum in how we teach, we can break the replacement cycle. If the virtues (or the intelligences, or cooperative skills, or emotional intelligence...) are embedded in how we teach, we do not need separate lessons. They are not a competing curriculum and so do not get dropped when we implement a new innovation. The curriculum embedded in how we teach is an enduring curriculum.

A Final Word
We can never divorce what we teach from how we teach. In fact, the most important and enduring curriculum we deliver is embedded in the instructional strategies we choose on a moment-to-moment basis in our classrooms.