Curriculum Theory

Cognitive psychology “is the branch of psychology that studies mental processes including how people think, perceive, remember and learn” (Cherry, 2012, para. 1). It focuses on how people get information, use and store it. Additionally, “cognitive psychologists are interested in generating theories that give insight into the nature of learning, specifically how individuals generate structures of knowledge and how they create and/or learn reasoning and problem-solving strategies” (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2009, p. 118). Within this domain, most theorists can agree that the most effective learners are those who can transfer information quickly into a long-term memory. However, theorists debate the structure of the mind and the way in which knowledge is processed as well as the most effective manner in which to accomplish the solidifying of new knowledge. Curriculum Theory

Several theorists believe the most difficult aspect of education is meeting the needs of individual students as each possesses a unique learning personality (Gardner, 2006; Perry, 1999; Zemsky, 2009). Rapaport (2008) shares William Perry’s scheme of intellectual and ethical development which focuses on four main stages. Each student progresses through each phase, starting with “dualism” which states that there is an absolute answer. Next they come to “multiplicity” where they believe there is no way to determine what is right to “contextual relativism” which is the ability to use evidence to determine a position. Lastly, they come to “commitment.” What is the page number for these stages?“It is this final stage that instructors hope their students will achieve: when they will go out in the world and cope with uncertainty, define their own values and identity, make educated choices, evaluate options, create new knowledge, and become lifelong learners” (Plunk & Rohdeick, 2010, p 1). Elaborate on this direct quote before moving to the next point. To achieve this ultimate goal, educators must adapt their teaching to teach their diverse learners.

Within the context of instruction, instructors can learn how to implement Universal Design for Instruction (UDI) (Burgstahler, 2012). This concept proposes that there are nine principles which guide this theory which are equitable use, flexibility, simple and intuitive, perceptible information, tolerance for error, physical effort, size and space, community of learners and instructional climate.

Equitable use mandates that every student needs the opportunity to meet the objectives of the lesson plan. Flexibility allows for making necessary adjustments within the instruction. Simple and intuitive requires the decrease ambiguity and complexity in information, breaking knowledge into smaller, more digestible, pieces. Perceptible information provides the information in different approaches which allows for different sensory strengths and weaknesses as used by the learners. Tolerance for error demands that faculty remember that not all students start at the same place and learn at the same pace. Each student arrives in the classroom with a unique set of backgrounds, experiences and abilities. Low physical effort requires that the instructor prepares the best way to maintain student attention and to reduce fatigue. Size and space demands that instructors prepare a way for both materials and physical space to be used during a lesson. In the development of a community of learners and the instructional climate, the goal is to encourage a friendly and learning-centered environment (Darby, 2012).

UDI promotes educators to focus on the individual strengths of each student. Every student brings to the field unique backgrounds, interests, skills and intelligences. Gardner (2006) investigated the cognitive differences within intelligence which makes each individual unique. He proposed that there was more than simply an intelligence but a variety of intelligences. Eight intelligences were identified in his earlier works including verbal/linguistic, logical/mathematical, visual/spacial, bodily/kinesthetic, musical/rhythmic, interpersonal, intrapersonal and naturalistic (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2009). Later, Gardner offered a ninth intelligence of existentialist (Cortland, 2012). Through the understanding of multiple intelligences, instructors can “highlight the importance of the individual student” (Gardner, 2006, p 51). As students feel their value and worth through the molding of lessons, they will have more success and greater desire to continue on to be successful students and hopefully develop into lifelong learners (Gregory & Chapman, 2007).

Based on Gardner’s work of multiple intelligences, cognitive theorists investigated the probability that people had different “ways of thinking and learning methods” (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2009, p. 127). These varied approaches are called learning styles. The University of South Dakota (2012) proposes that there are three main learning styles. These fall into verbal, kinesthetic and auditory. However, other theorists believe there are more than three styles which fall into two main categories of social learners and solitary learners. Based on these two foundational categories, seven learning styles emerge: visual (spatial), aural (auditory), verbal (linguistic), physical (kinesthetic), logical (mathematical), social (interpersonal) and solitary (intrapersonal) (Anonymous, 2012).

Preferred learning styles assist the individual in how they learn. The alter experiences, identify the method with which information is retrieved and even can change chosen words. Your preferred styles guide the way you learn. They also change the way you internally represent experiences, the way you recall information, and even the words you choose. “Research shows us that each learning style uses different parts of the brain. By involving more of the brain during learning, we remember more of what we learn. Researchers using brain-imaging technologies have been able to find out the key areas of the brain responsible for each learning style” (Anonymous, 2012, para. 12).

Within UDI both multiple intelligences and learning styles are supported as instructors are encouraged to approach teaching from a variety of means. Teachers should use multiple methods of instruction which will target the individual learning styles of each student. Professors need to detour away from the traditional method where instruction was mainly conducted through the regurgitation of facts acquired through lectures and textbooks. Baron (2010) suggests several methods to move teaching from reception to participation. Among these suggestions are varying the activities, create multiple opportunities for students to interact with each other, use problem solving assignments as the foundation for most activities, have students participate in brainstorming activities, and have students reflect on material.

In implementing a new program or curriculum such as UDI, teachers encounter reluctance with a touch of fear as they are faced with the new information (Hopkins, 2005). This fear can immobilize teachers, keeping them from ever using their new knowledge or to give a new program a sufficient try. It is essential for teachers to participate in the implementation process from the beginning in addressing their fears and reluctance in tackling and using the new knowledge in their classrooms.

In using UDI (Universal Design for Instruction), teachers need to have training on the implementation to understand the different aspects related to this teaching technique. Based on the foundation of understanding students’ learning styles, characteristics, interests and multiple intelligences, teacher can manipulate the content, product and process of learning. Through this training, teachers understand that education is a balance between knowledge transfer and students (Thousand, Villa & Nevin, 2007). Additionally, teachers need to know learning about the student is not a quick or one-time effort but a semester long activity. Their learners will mold and grow which will require vigilance in monitoring.

To break down fear barriers, a debate can be used. “Ask half the faculty to brainstorm all of the reasons that we should try differentiated instruction and how it might work. Invited the other half to generate all the aspects that would be negative and why differentiated learning would not work. Then, ask the groups to switch positions and brainstorm again. This is a way to legitimize the naysayers and also solve problems around some of the genuine concerns and barriers up front” (Gregory, 2008, p 124).

Providing successful learning experiences is the foundation of differentiated learning. Administrators and teachers need to understand that change is a process which requires a daily journey of improvement. This process will also require teachers and administrators to face their fears of the unknown. Implementing UDI will not be an event which is completed as one checks off a task from a to do list. It will require nurturing, patience and understanding as well as motivation, momentum and a desire to meet the needs of every student.

Anonymous. (2012). Overview of learning styles. Retrieved January 17, 2012 from

Baron, L. (2012). Redesigning teaching to meet all students’ needs: responsive and productive courses. Retrieved January 13, 2012 from

Burgstahler, S. (2012). Universal design for instruction (UDI): definition, principles, guidelines and examples. Retrieved January 17, 2012 from

Cherry, K. (2012). What is cognitive psychology? Retrieved January 11, 2012 from

Cortland: State University of New York College at Cortland. (2012). Multiple intelligences: Howard Gardner. Retrieved January 17, 2012 from

Darby, A. (2012). Understanding universal design in the classroom. Retrieved January 13,           2012 from

Gardner, H. (2006). Multiple intelligences. New York, New York: Basic Books.

Gregory, G. (2008). Differentiated instructional strategies in practice: training, implementation, and supervision (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Gregory, G. & Chapman, C. (2007). Differentiated instructional strategies: One size doesn’t fit all. (2nd edition). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Hopkins, G. (2005). Training teachers who are terrified of technology. Retrieved January 17, 2012 from

Ornstein, A. C., & Hunkins, F. P.   (2009).  Curriculum: Foundations, principles, and issues. Allyn & Bacon.

Perry, W. G. (1999). Forms of ethical and intellectual development in the college years. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Plunk, K. & Rohdieck, S. (2010). The assumptions we make about diversity. Retrieved January 13, 2012 from

Rapaport, W. (2008). William Perry’s Scheme of Intellectual and Ethical Development. Retrieved January 13, 2012 from

Thousand, J., Villa, R. & Nevin, A. (2007). Differentiating instruction: Collaboratively planning and teaching for universally designed learning. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

University of South Dakota. (2012). What’s your learning style? Retrieved January 17, 2012 from

Zemsky, R. (2009). Making reform work: the case for transforming American higher education. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.

By Tracy Atkinson

Tracy Atkinson, mother of six, lives in the Midwest with her husband. She is a teacher, having taught elementary school to higher education, holding degrees in elementary education and a master’s in higher education. Her passion is researching, studying and investigating the attributes related to self-directed learners. She has published several titles, including Calais: The Annals of the Hidden, Lemosa: The Annals of the Hidden, Book Two, Rachel’s 8 and Securing Your Tent. She is currently working on a non-fiction text exploring the attributes of self-directed learners: The Five Characteristics of Self-directed Learners.

Tracy Harrington-Atkinson

Tracy Harrington-Atkinson, mother of six, lives in the mid-west with her husband. She loved storytelling and sharing her stories with her children. As they grew, she started writing her stories down for them. She is a teacher, having taught from elementary school to higher education, holding degrees in elementary education, masters in higher education and continued on to a PhD in curriculum design. Her husband, Kerry and Tracy breed miniature dachshunds and love to spend time with their growing family. She has published several books including Calais: The Annals of the Hidden, Rachel's 8 and Securing Your Tent.