How Might Middle School Students Be Involved in Classroom Curriculum Planning?

Many educators support the idea that young adolescents should and can be involved in classroom curriculum planning. Such involvement could include helping to determine curricular goals, content, methodology, activities, materials, and means of assessment—all of which are components of a curriculum and are included in curriculum planning. This paper begins to explore ways that young adolescents might become involved in classroom curriculum planning.

Calls for Student Involvement in Classroom Curriculum Planning
Turning Points, the Carnegie report on preparing American youth for the 21st century (1989), calls for active involvement of young adolescents in teaching-learning situations which are organized around themes, where the student will “inquire, associate, and synthesize”… “where students have opportunities to discuss, analyze, express opinions, and receive feedback from peers” [and in which teachers] “view themselves as facilitators through which young people construct knowledge themselves” (p. 43).

In This We Believe, the National Middle School Association’s position paper (1995), numerous statements call for the involvement of students in curriculum planning:

“Because of young adolescents’ drive toward independence, curriculum that challenges must enable them increasingly to guide the course of their education. Consonant with their varying capacities to handle responsibility, students must be nurtured in making choices and decisions about curricular goals, content, methodology, activities, materials, and means of assessment. In addition, they should have opportunities for involvement in team governance which emphasizes student initiative and responsibility” (p. 22).

Ways Students can be Involved in Classroom Curriculum Planning
Students can be involved in planning within any type of curriculum design. In the previous section, various components of curriculum and curriculum planning were named: curricular goals, content, methodology, activities, materials, and means of assessment. Young adolescents could make choices and decisions about each and inviting young adolescents to participate in classroom curriculum planning sends the message that their ideas will be taken seriously. Essentially, all the teacher needs to do is ask students to participate.

One model that can be used to involve students in classroom curriculum planning is called “negotiating the curriculum” (Boomer, Lester, Onore, and Cook, 1994). “Negotiating the curriculum” is similar to many of the ideas and methods used in teacher-student planning, a method that has been used by teachers for many years (Noar, 1948; Miel, 1952; Zapf, 1959). When negotiating the curriculum, four questions are presented which will assist learners in focusing in on the problem, question, or issue of the intended study, whether determined by the teacher or by the students and teacher together.

  1. What do we know already? (Or where are we now and what don’t we need to learn or be taught?)
  2. What do we want and need to find out? (Or what are our questions? What don’t we know? What are our problems, curiosities, and challenges?)
  3. How will we go about finding out? (Where will we look,? What experiments and inquiries will we make? What will we need? What information and resources are available? Who will do what? What should be the order of things?)
  4. How will we know and show that we’ve found out when we’ve finished? (What are our findings about what we have learned? Whom will we show? For whom are we doing the work and where next?) (p. 21).
  5. The first two questions speak to curricular goals and content. By asking these questions, even when the theme or topic has already been decided, students are able to inform the teacher of knowledge they already possess and provide direction as to what content needs to be learned. Asking students to list or tell what they already know reinforces their view about self as a successful learner, builds upon prior learning, and begins to provide the linkage to new learning that will be integrated into existing personal knowledge and understanding. This idea is supported by past and emerging research in which positive effects have been reported in the areas of mathematics, science, the arts, language arts, and social studies (Cawelti, 1995).

The second question is used so students can identify their own questions and concerns about a topic. Students’ questions give the teacher assistance in determining what should be learned.

The third question, “How will we go about finding out?,” gives students the opportunity to suggest activities, materials, and resources which might be helpful in the learning endeavor. When young adolescents are invited to participate in the planning of their own learning, they do suggest varied learning activities as well as those they like and in which they do well. This includes activities that are visual, auditory, kinesthetic, interpersonal, mathematical, artistic, and so on. The last question, “How will we know and show that we’ve found out when we’ve finished?,” is directed at the demonstration of student learning and evaluation. In asking a question like this, students are being invited to reflect on their learning by determining what knowledge they have gained and what about their work is important to share. When we ask young adolescents to explain what they have read in literature, to talk through how they have solved a math problem, to draw a web, to explain their position on a social studies issue, or to discuss a final integrating project about an issue or problem, we are asking them to use critical thinking and processing skills, to synthesize content, and to make obvious their own meanings. This kind of interaction benefits both the speaker and the listener (Cawelti, 1995).

In addition, this last question asks students to be a part of the assessment and evaluation process. They might be asked to identify what makes a good project, and their ideas can become the basis for rubrics which are used to evaluate projects. Students could suggest questions that might be used on the unit test. Students could be asked to keep a portfolio of their work so they could show how they had met grade, district, or even state expectations. Students can also take responsibility for leadership in student-parent-teacher conferences.

Any or all of the questions used in “negotiating the curriculum” can be used to involve students in classroom curriculum planning. Following are some examples of how teachers might involve students in curriculum planning using the “negotiation” process.

Examples of Student Involvement in Classroom Curriculum Planning
A teacher can involve students in curriculum planning in many ways. For example, if the Civil War is a part of the course content, students could be asked, “What do you already know about the Civil War?” and, “What questions do you have about the Civil War?” In doing this the teacher will come to know what questions or aspects of the Civil War are significant to students. Students could also be asked to contribute ideas for activities that might help them understand the conflicts and issues that led to the Civil War. For example, some student might have a relative who is an “expert” on the Civil War or there might be another student whose family has memorabilia from the war.

No matter what the subject area is, students have questions and ideas which can make the teaching-learning situation become more personalized. By asking for their input, the teacher sends a message that students and their ideas are important.

A team of teachers could make an attempt to study a theme or topic from the perspective or lens of each subject area involved. For example the art, math, and technology teachers might work together on the theme “Our Community Architecture.” The teachers could involve students in planning using the questions described in the section on “negotiating” the curriculum. Students could be asked to list what they know about building types and the experience they might already have building something, even if it was only with legos or tinker toys.

Students could be asked to identify skills an architect would need in order to design a building. For example, it would be necessary to know how to measure and how to compute area and surface area in order to determine how much building material is needed. Such skills could then be taught in the context of this unit.

There are many excellent resources about planning units with student involvement. Some of these are Stevenson & Carr (1993); Brazee & Capelluti (1995); Pace (1995); and Siu-Runyan & Faircloth (1995).

Some educators organize the curriculum around significant problems and issues collaboratively identified by the educators and young people, without regard for subject area lines. Educators who use curriculum integration as defined by Beane (1993; 1997) are concerned with enhancing personal and social integration, and students are asked to be active participants in the identification and planning of the curriculum. By using a carefully organized curriculum planning process, students identify shared, common questions about self and world, name themes or topics to be studied based on their questions, create activities to answer the questions they have about the themes, and participate in the evaluation process. Teachers who choose this curricular design attempt to involve students whenever and wherever it is appropriate in the teaching-learning situation. See Alexander, with McAvoy, & Carr, (1995); Brodhagen (1995); and, Smith, Kenney, & O’Donnell (1996).

Young adolescents can and should be involved in classroom curriculum planning. They have good ideas that can enhance the teaching-learning situation. However students are involved, though, the teacher continues to be the person who is responsible for students’ learning of necessary knowledge and skills and for keeping a thorough record of what students have learned.


Alexander, W. M. with Carr, D., & McAvoy, K. (1995). Student-oriented curriculum: Asking the right questions. Columbus, OH: National Middle School Association.

Beane, J. A. (1990a) A middle school curriculum: From rhetoric to reality. Columbus, OH: National Middle School Association.

Boomer, G., Lester, N., Onore, C., & Cook, J. (1994). Negotiating the curriculum: Educating for the 21st Century. London: Falmer.

Brazee, E. N., & Capelluti, J. (1995). Dissolving boundaries: Toward an integrative curriculum. Columbus, OH: National Middle School Association.

Brodhagen, B. L. (1995). The situation made us special. In M. W. Apple & J. A. Beane (Eds.), Democratic schools (pp. 83-100). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development. (1989). Turning points: Preparing American youth for the 21st century. New York: Carnegie Corporation.

Cawelti, G. (Ed.). Handbook of research on improving student achievement. Arlington, VA: Educational Research Service.

Miel, A., & Associates. (1952). Cooperative procedures in learning: New York: Bureau of Publications, Teachers College, Columbia University.

National Middle School Association. (1995). This we believe. Columbus, OH: author.

Noar, G. (1948). Freedom to live and learn. Philadelphia, PA: Franklin.

Siu-Runyan, Y., & Faircloth, C.V. (Ed.). (1995). Beyond separate subjects: Integrative learning at the middle level. Norwood, MA: Christopher Gordon.

Smith, C., Kenney, M., & O’Donnell, M. (1996). Student-directed theme planning. In Integrated thematic teaching (pp. 61-67). Washington, DC: National Education Association.

Stevenson, C. & Carr, J. (Eds.). (1993). Integrative studies in the middle grades: Dancing through walls. New York: Teachers College Press.

Zapf, R. (1959). Democratic processes in the secondary classroom. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.