Power of a Student-Designed Curriculum

“Children should be given a voice not only about the means of learning but also the ends, the why as well as the what.” — Alfie Kohn


In an education world dominated by mandated curricula and standardized testing, it is often difficult to imagine the effectiveness of a student-designed curriculum.

Prior to my days as an administrator of an elementary school, I had the privilege of working as a high school math, science, and physical education teacher.  As I currently try to get back into shape, I have begun to reflect on the motivation to be healthy as well as events that took place during my final year of teaching high school; in 2006, I was involved in one of my proudest accomplishments as an educator.

At my previous school, grade 10 girls’ physical education classes were the classes that PE teachers were not requesting to teach.  The students were labeled as challenging, unmotivated, often absent, etc.  These classes were often given to new teachers or temporary teachers (this is a whole other topic).   I, too, struggled to find ways for these students to become motivated to participate in the various athletic units that we were supposed to be teaching.  We tried many different strategies (many of them ‘carrots’ that just wore off and when the rewards disappeared, so did the motivation) including co-ed PE and different streams of PE.   After a few years of observing and participating in this challenging class, I decided to do something that should have been done many years ago – instead of trying to change the students, I would try to change the way PE 10 Girls was taught.

In the spring of 2006, I was teaching 2 blocks of PE 10 girls and instead of forcing them to do things they disliked, we spent a few classes focused on the following question:  “If YOU could design a physical education class for girls, what would it look like?”  They had to describe scheduling, activities, assessment and any little details that came up in discussions.  At the end, the goal was to actually implement the class the following year.  The students knew that they were in grade 10 and therefore, the class they were designing was unfortunately not going to be open to them the following year.

I was overwhelmed by the discussions that took place during the few weeks that this went on (in between classroom sessions, we actually began to implement some of their ideas too).  Following the first dialogue, here are the thoughts about the problems with the current program that the students came up with:

  • they don’t like to sweat first period because they just got ready for school; they also don’t like to sweat too much during 3rd period as then they would have to sit through 4th period “all sweaty and red in the face” (note: we were on a linear schedule so students had PE every second period; the blocks also tumbled so they would have it on a different period each day)
  • they were sick of being forced to learn rules and participate in sports they disliked; they felt these sports had no relevance to them
  • they did not like being assessed on skills for sports – the girls who were already involved in those sports outside of class just got the better mark
  • they did not like being forced to run — there were other ways to get in shape!
  • they liked it better when the teachers were involved in the class rather than sitting on the sidelines
  • most were not motivated by grades — many just wanted to get a high enough mark to get credit for the course
  • they did not like the feeling of not being good at something and then forced to participate in an activity in which their lack of skills were ostracized; they would rather not participate than be out there and look silly

As you can see, there were some definite problems with the current curriculum.  Following this discussion, they had to come up with answers to the original question.  Here are the strategies that they came up with:

  • more individual activities (less focus on zero sum games – win/loss)
  • they wanted to stay/get in shape but in ways of their choice (ideas included more dance, gymnastics, aerobics, power walking, stretching, yoga, pilates, circuits, etc)
  • they wanted to see lighter workouts in periods 1 and 3 and harder workouts in periods 2 and 4
  • they would rather focus on heart rate than times during runs, etc
  • they wanted say in the activities that were offered
  • they felt they should be assessed on effort and projects (projects on issues that matter to their health), not on skill level (they said some people came to class with more skill than others and they should not be punished for not being taught those skills earlier)
  • they liked the idea of guest instructors from the community
  • they weren’t sure but pondered the idea about students teaching mini-classes
  • rather than wait and see if this worked the following year, they wanted to see if it worked NOW!

Immediately following this discussion I started to become a PE facilitator rather than the PE teacher.  I organized the schedule 2 weeks at a time (1 week in advance) and included the students in all decisions.  I brought in university students, community members, senior students, and businesses to teach dance, yoga, pilates, gymnastics, and aerobics.

The rest of the year was a phenomenal success!  Attendance was rarely an issue and students were pumped to see their ideas implemented!  I became more involved in the classes as I took the classes with the students – I think I was able to actually touch my toes after a few yoga sessions!  I also taught a few classes of box aerobics, circuit training, core strength and gymnastics.

As we neared the end of the year, a student said, “I never thought about this until now but… what is my mark?”  I responded with “what do you think you should get?”.  This conversation happened with each student (most were harder on themselves than I would have been so we negotiated a “better grade”).  In addition to this, I was there participating with the students in each class so I was continually assessing the efforts and participation of the students.  I had students fill out a ‘course evaluation’ at the end of the year and every one was positive; the only feedback they wanted to see was a class like this offered for them in grade 11.

We decided to change the name of the class from ‘PE 10 Girls’ to ‘Lifestyles Fitness 10’ and it was offered to the current grade 9’s to select for the following year.  Over 75% of the girls wanted to take the class but I only had one period scheduled for me to teach and no other teacher wanted to do it… we accepted the first 35 students.

The next year built on the successes as I continued to facilitate with a new group of students.  I brought in members from outside the school to guest teach, I had students bring in fitness DVD’s, and we also participated in projects and presentations about information that was important to the students (crash diets, eating disorders, peer pressure, bullying, nutrition, impact of media, etc).  We scheduled activities like power walking, yoga, stretching, pilates in periods 1 and 3 and activities like jogging, aerobics (Tae-Bo was a fave!), dance, and circuit training in periods 2 and 4.  Assessments were based on student conversations around their efforts in class activities as well as projects; we also came up with criteria at the start of the year about what good learning and participation would look like.  The schedule continued to be decided weeks in advance (especially to schedule guest teachers) and a few students stepped up as representatives to help with scheduling.

As a teacher, I don’t think I realized how great this class became until after it was over.  The best compliment came when a group of students approached me after school one day and said, “we want to start a LifeStyles Fitness 11 class next year”.  I approached my department head and he said as long as the numbers were there, he would make it happen.  When the course selections came back in to the counselors, we were able to offer both classes for the following year!

I wish I could take the credit for this… but this was all from the students.  It is amazing what students can accomplish if we just listen.  The grade 10 girls PE students weren’t the problem; the PE 10 Girls class was the problem.  Once the real problem was determined, we could work on a solution.

I realize that I was able to do this because I was teaching a course without a standardized test; however, this is yet another example of how effective learning can be if we moved away from a world of mandated curricula and testing to a world in which students and teachers had more voice and flexibility into the means and ends of learning that takes place in a class.

*Notes:  By no means was this process perfect; there were a number of learning conversations that took place with the students (although I think the learning that took place – both my learning and the students’ – made it perfect to me).

At the end of the school year, I accepted a job as an administrator so I was not able to teach the classes.  I had lunch with a PE teacher from the school last week and I was saddened to hear that the course is not offered anymore.

I have to admit that I did not look at the ministry curriculum once during this process… oops!  Sometimes we need to put the official curriculum aside and make decisions on what’s best for kids; we felt this change was necessary.

Thanks to Joan Young and the Twitter Exercise Motivation Team (#temt on Twitter) for the inspiration to remember the importance of physical fitness and the motivation to write this blog.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Chris Wejr

Proud father of twin girls and a son. Currently working as the Principal of Shortreed Elementary School (K-5) in Aldergove, BC, Canada. Passionate about instruction, strengths-based education and leadership, reconciliation, assessment, and human motivation.


  1. thank you for posting.. i think what you write of here – is key to edreform.

    students – not only redesigning existing classes.. but choosing topics/projects.

    today kids need to know what to do when they don’t know what to do. that can be learned through any project. and learned even better if it’s one they choose.

  2. I love this post. When we give students the opportunity to help facilitate the learning, not only is it more rewarding, but it is actually easier to do! Kids guiding the way they learn and taking ownership of the class causes less stress but gives greater rewards as well. Great way to go!

    Excellent post!

  3. This is an inspiring story & I’m glad I read this.

    I’m a spec ed elementary teacher who works with struggling students…they all too often tune out…and I have been trying to figure out ways to engage them.

    My personal inquiry this summer has been all about student motivation and engagement. Your post just confirms what I keep hearing: not sticks and carrots, but rather community, voice, connection with where the students are at.

    How to weave that in amongst curriculum expectations and standardized testing, I don’t know. I’m still puzzling over that one!

    But good for you. I bet those students remember that class to this day as a favorite. And it’s great you had an administrator who didn’t mind your deviating from curriculum in order to create student success!

    Julie Johnson

  4. Wow! P.E. would of had a whole new meaning if I had a class like that!!
    I agree Chris, to create a stimulating and memorable learning environment, students need to become the “engineers” of their education. It is amazing to see the excitment and dedication students have towards learning when a hand is extended to them to shape learning activities that are relevent. Giving up control of this area may be difficult, however if we take risks with our teaching style then we are modeling to our students to take risks as well- think outside the defined criteria. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if students approached their education with the acquisition of obtaining the best knowledge instead of the best mark. I think this starts by givng students a strong, purposeful voice to define how we can best meet their educational needs.

  5. What a wonderful experience for your students, and how empowering! I am guessing that the girls who participated will never forget the trust that you placed in them to thoughtfully change the way they were learning in this class. What would happen to public education if more teachers let go of the reins (at least a little initially) and let their students design how they learn–whether it’s a project at the end of a unit, or the unit itself–the possibilities are endless. Now to take that step!

  6. An excellent post Chris. It’s quite profound to think of asking the students what they want to learn rather than letting “experts” guide what they think we need to teach. Having students involved in their assessment as well is powerful and meaningful. No wonder they wanted to have this class next year!
    To me, this underscores the fact that teachers need to cultivate the discipline of listening to their students – and to have the courage to act on what they may hear. It’s fascinating to me that the student’s marks became less important when the learning was enjoyed. Your post makes me want to be a grade 10 PE teacher and try some of these things!

  7. Thanks for all the comments. Some of my master’s research was on student voice as this is something that I believe is lacking in schools. The best thing about this whole experience is that I learned way more than the students! Not only will they remember this (I hope) but I will too. Kohn speaks of doing stuff “with” students rather than “to” students… I need to do more of this everyday. I like Monika’s comment, “Kids need to know what to do when they don’t know what to do” — it is all part of the process but in order for us to teach responsibility, we must give students responsibility.

  8. Great post Chris. I am so impressed that you have already engaged in student-designed curriculum. This is the way of the future as we begin our conversation on 21st Century Learning.


  9. Great post, Chris. The same courses can be failures year after year and often blame goes to the students or the course itself… but nothing changes… because it takes time, effort, and a shift of technique. Too much emphasis is put on the ‘curriculum’ that has to be followed… and the curriculum is often quickly out-dated. This was a good idea but, unfortunately, the next person didn’t want to put in the extra effort to keep it going… a loss for the school. Let’s hope someone else, somewhere else, makes it work… physical activity of any kind is necessary to all of us – for quality of life. The older we get, the more it is obvious!

  10. Chris,

    Right on man! Too often teachers are either not willing or unsure of how to listen to their students. Such a simple gesture that will pay off more than any single thing you can do in a classroom. In my experience, the moment you involve students in their learning, you will empower them and engage them like never before. Truly is sad that many teachers sit in classrooms full of kids every day and never take the chance to listen…


  11. Chris,

    I’d love to find a way to teach all my classes like this. Even the math with standardized test. But the skill in this rely more on the facilitating than on the teaching, and listening is sometime more difficult than teaching…

    I definitly get my best teaching done when I’m listening to students voice. Your post is a great reminder of that.

    Thanks for taking the time to share all your thoughts on all the many subjects you address in your posts. I realized last week as I was presenting on Web 2.0 for educators (similar prez has you did with sd33leaders) that when you’re sharing with other people you give a great example to other educators to do the same and sharing happens everywhere after and everyone benefits for it. Going back to school after that is strange because the sharing energy is not there. I’d love to keep it flowing among my collegues.

    • You nailed it Steve… if we only listened more. We continually ask, “how can we motivate our students to me more engage in school” when we should be asking THEM “what changes would you recommend to make school a “place” that enhances your learning. Thanks for the feedback and continuing the discussion!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *