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7 Principles of Good Curriculum Design

A curriculum breathes life into a school’s or teacher’s philosophy of education; it is purpose enacted.  Different philosophies of education – personal empowerment; cultural transmission; preparation for work or preparation for citizenship – place different emphasis on aspects of curriculum design.  Curriculum design involves seven key principles which operate in tension with each other.

The following seven principles of curriculum design are taken from Dylan Wiliam’s (2013) Principled Curriculum Design booklet published by the SSAT (The Schools Network) Ltd.  The short “definitions” are my take on what Wiliam wrote.

Too many people are currently rushing headlong into rewriting curriculum policies or schemes of learning without stepping back and having the deep discussion that should be a precursor to curriculum development.  The alignment of a philosophy of education, curriculum design and enactment (pedagogy) should be the goal; not meeting an artificial one or two year timescale.  Discussion of the curriculum must become inexorable.

A downloadable version of the PDF is available here.

(If you want to read more about the application of these principles in to curriculum, I cover it in greater depth in my most recent book – Educating with Purpose: The Heart of What Matters)


The 7 principles provide a shared language and set of foci to stimulate thought, debate and decision making.  They are:

Balanced – Promotes intellectual, moral, spiritual, aesthetic, creative, emotional and physical development as equally important.

Rigorous – Seeks to develop intra-disciplinary habits of mind; the subject matter is taught in a way that is faithful to its discipline.

Coherent – Makes explicit connections and links between the different subjects/experiences encountered.

Vertically Integrated – Focuses on progression by carefully sequencing knowledge; provides clarity about what “getting better” at the subject means.

Appropriate – Looks to avoid making unreasonable demands by matching level of challenge to a pupil’s current level of maturity/knowledge.

Focused – Seeks to keep the curriculum manageable by teaching the most important knowledge; identifies the big ideas or key concepts within a subject.

Relevant – Seeks to connect the valued outcomes of a curriculum to the pupils being taught it; provides opportunities for pupils to make informed choices.

There is a reason why any curriculum discussion must be preceded by a discussion of the purpose of education; the emphasis, priority or dominance given to some principles has consequences.  Our purpose shapes our curriculum or at least it should do.  For example, where the purpose is primarily preparation for work, the principle of relevance and pupils making informed choices about which aspects of the curriculum most suits future career direction would tend to be given a greater emphasis.  However, if cultural transmission is the underlying philosophy, with the teaching of a body of knowledge, then relevance would be less of a priority.

The tension between the principles can probably most easily be viewed through looking at coherence and vertical integration.  Coherence – which seeks to align learning across subjects/the curriculum – can easily lead to the disruption of progress within a subject (vertical integration).  As links between different subjects are made they tend to distort or disrupt progression within the subject.  The primary curriculum often has a greater coherence than the secondary one.  The predominantly one teacher per class structure lends itself to making links across subjects which can support reading for understanding/comprehension and knowledge sequenced across subject; a real strength.  Pedagogies (the enacted curriculum) also transfer, vocabulary development of tier 3 language through pre-teaching and mathematical skills, taught in time to be utilised in other subjects, is a positive outcome.  However, from a subject perspective, History may not be taught chronologically and Science or Geography can be taught as isolated topics, lacking an underpinning conceptually framework.  The rigour – habits of minds; ways of thinking within disciplines – are consequentially not sufficiently developed; not so great.  At a secondary level, we often see the reverse.  Greater vertical integration and rigour (though not always) but limited or no discussion between departments to create curriculum coherence between subject.  There isn’t necessarily a right or a wrong; there needs to be an acceptance that priorities have consequences.  Schools must think through what they believe, value and then how best to implement it.

Our system’s current drive to place cultural transmission as the overriding philosophy of education will wane; worryingly every action has an equal and opposite reaction.  My hope is that the reaction will not be so extreme we knee jerk to something else completely.  Like the principles underpinning a curriculum, the philosophies of education are not mutually exclusive; they operate in tension, overlapping and competing for time and space.  The lasting benefit of many people’s current work is that when we are seeking to transmit culture we will be more capable and skilled to do it effectively, than we have previously.


Wiliam, D. (2013) Principled Curriculum Design. SSAT (The Schools Network) Ltd



6 thoughts on “7 Principles of Good Curriculum Design

  1. Thanks for a well written article. I think you have nailed it with those 7 principles


    Posted by 11plusswot | January 15, 2020, 3:41 pm
  2. Hi LeadingLearner,
    Great post! I appreciate your message. The one page reference document is a great resource for curriculum developers to have in their toolkit.
    I would like to suggest that you consider stretching one of the domains. The domain explaining curriculum integration would better serve learning communities if it can be refined to include, horizontal integration as well. Vertical and horizontal integration ensure coherence and provide learners with multiple points of entry to connect with the topic.
    UNESCO International Bureau of Education (defn) on promising practices for articulation of curriculum:
    Organization of knowledge (conceptual and procedural) according to the sequence and continuity of learning within a given knowledge domain or subject over time (vertical articulation to improve coherence) and the scope and integration of curricular contents from different knowledge domains within a particular grade level (horizontal articulation or balance to develop integration between subjects, disciplines or knowledge domains).
    Source: http://www.ibe.unesco.org/en/glossary-curriculum-terminology/v/vertical-and-horizontal-articulation-curriculum
    Teach and be well,
    JD Williams, BEd, MPEd, OCT
    Principal Consultant, Pinnacle Ed Services

    Posted by PES Founder | February 9, 2020, 4:04 pm


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