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Signature Pedagogies, Part 2: Types of Curriculum & How They Impact How We Teach

Signature pedagogies are the teaching models and activities that help students develop skills relevant to the discipline that represent the kinds of activities they would do in a profession related to that discipline (Schulman, 2005). For instance: students in science classrooms should be performing experiments using the scientific method; students in social studies classrooms should be analyzing primary sources; students in career and technical education classes should be engaging in real-world project-based learning. The goal of signature pedagogies is to teach students how to think, perform, and act with integrity in future careers. (Read more about signature pedagogies and why they’re important here).

It’s important for both teachers and the administrators who evaluate them to understand how to use the signature pedagogies of their discipline. While they may share some common traits, a math class should look different from a reading class, which should look different from a physical education class. One factor that impacts the signature pedagogies for a given discipline is the type of curriculum found in that content area.

In my work, I tend to see four main types of K-12 curriculum: spiraling, building blocks, topical, and chronological. A fifth type, the thematic curriculum, occurs less frequently (and has many different variations on how it is implemented). Each type of curriculum introduces content and skills in different ways, usually based on what it is that students need to know and be able to do to be successful.

The Spiral Curriculum

In a spiral curriculum, there are a base-set of skills that students practice at increasingly more difficult levels. The skills may be independent of or interdependent on one another. The most classic example of a spiraling curriculum is the English Language Arts curriculum in upper elementary and beyond. Students practice many of the same skills (e.g., summarizing, predicting, determining importance) through their entire K-12 career; what changes is the type and difficulty level of the text.

Music performance courses (such as band and chorus) are usually also examples of a spiraling curriculum. Students continue to learn about rhythm, pitch, tempo, etc., but with increasingly more challenging pieces of music as their own skills progress.

In this type of curriculum, students can frequently move on to a new or different skill whether or not they “mastered” the previous skill. For instance, a student who has not quite mastered pitch can still easily work on rhythm.

The Building Blocks Curriculum

In a building blocks curriculum, students must master the current content and skills before moving on to new content and skills. Mathematics is the prime example of a building blocks curriculum. A student cannot learn multiplication if they do not understand addition, and they cannot understand how to reduce fractions if they do not understand multiplication. Many subjects that require a strong background in mathematics (such as chemistry, physics, and programming) are also examples of building blocks curricula.

Learning to read or speak a new language is also an example of a building blocks curriculum. For instance, when English speakers learn to speak Spanish, they first begin with learning basic nouns and verbs and the present tense. Students must master the basics before they can move to more difficult tenses and complex sentences. For this reason, learning to read in your native language using a phonetic approach could also be considered a building blocks curriculum. Students start by learning letter sounds, then often move to short vowels, then long vowels. Eventually, they learn how to read a consonant-vowel-consonant and how this pattern impacts the sound of the vowels. A student who cannot read the word “cat” cannot begin to decode “catastrophe.”

Topical Curriculum

In the topical curriculum, content and skills are grouped into similar categories that are independent of one another, and students can move between topics whether or not they have mastered previous topics. Many of our elementary science curricula use the topical curriculum approach. For instance, in the Virginia Grade 5 science curriculum, students learn information about force, motion, and energy—which has no connection to what they learn about living systems. A student could miss an entire unit on electricity and still do fine on a unit assessment about space.

Geography is another example of a topical curriculum, given that students learn about different parts of the world. Similar to the Grade 5 science curriculum, a student could be absent for the entire curriculum on Europe and likely still master the content for a unit on Africa. In a topical curriculum, it generally does not matter the order in which the topics are covered, given that they are interdependent of one another.

Chronological Curriculum

A chronological curriculum can often also be thought of as a cause-and-effect curriculum. Students start by learning about a specific time period or event, then the impact that event had on future events, and so on. The best example of this is a history curriculum. For instance, in an American history class, students will learn about the Civil War, which leads to understanding the Reconstruction era, which in turn leads to understanding Jim Crow laws and then the Civil Rights era.

In a chronological curriculum, it is crucial that the topics are covered in a specific order. It is difficult to understand the causes of the Civil Rights era without first understanding Jim Crow, which is difficult to understand without knowing about the Civil War, and so on.

The Thematic Curriculum

We tend not to see the thematic curriculum as often as the other four types in American K-12 education, at least not since the era of accountability. The thematic curriculum is exactly that—it takes a theme or big idea, and then has students examine that theme or big idea from multiple perspectives, usually across the disciplines. For instance, a theme might be “Inventions and Innovations.” In this unit, students might read about the use of magnets in ancient China, analyze the impact of the printing press through primary source documents, and create a working circuit board, then hold a debate about the potential future trajectory of AI. These types of thematic curricula are generally seen at higher levels of education, because students have already learned the basic facts necessary to make sense of the themes.

Concluding Thoughts

The type of curriculum influences how we pace and teach the curriculum—and how we provide extra support or enrichment for students with regards to the content and skills. For districts or schools that want to implement an integrated or interdisciplinary curriculum, the types of curriculum frequently impact what can be taught when, depending on what disciplines are being integrated. They may also impact to what extent a curriculum can be integrated across multiple disciplines.

Moreover, the type of curriculum influences the signature pedagogies, or how we teach math versus English Language arts versus health and wellness to prepare students for future careers in that discipline. As this series continues, we will look at each major discipline and discuss how the underlying disciplines philosophies and types of curriculum impact the signature pedagogies-–which should in turn influence what we look for in classrooms, what feedback is given to teachers, and professional learning plans for a team, school, or district.

Kate Wolfe Maxlow is the Chief Creative Officer at eObservations and DCD Consulting. She has worked as: an elementary school teacher; an instructional coach; a Director of Innovation and Professional Learning; and a Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment. She can be reached at,, or at

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