Investigating the Role of Curriculum Materials


“Investigating the Role of Curriculum Materials” was a study led by University of Michigan graduate student Susanna Farmer with guidance from her advisor Dr. Deborah Ball. The project examined the various factors that influenced an educator’s success in shifting to a project-based learning curriculum model.

Principal Investigator:

Susanna Farmer, University of Michigan graduate student, with guidance from her advisor Dr. Deborah Ball

Year of Funding:



The purpose of this project was to better understand the work teachers do to use guidance from curriculum materials as the basis for project-based classroom instruction. For this study, a researcher followed six second-grade teachers as they taught Project PLACE, a second grade project-based social studies and content literacy curriculum. These teachers, who were new to project-based learning, saw the detailed lesson plans in the curriculum as an important resource for helping them transition to project-based learning, and they remained committed to using these plans throughout the year. Even so, as they taught the Project PLACE units, they commonly departed from elements of the guidance included in the plans.

Analysis of these teachers’ instruction suggested that using the guidance from the curriculum materials involved a process of active translation from the written guidance to instructional designs and interactions. To translate the written guidance, teachers had to prioritize among different elements contained in plans, especially as they encountered common problems of teaching such as time constraints. The work of translating also involved selecting and employing teaching techniques that were not detailed in the plans. The Project PLACE units played out differently across the six classrooms observed; these variations were related to differences in teachers’ repertoires of instructional techniques as well as to individual decisions teachers made about what to prioritize from the lesson plans in their particular instructional situations.

This study has implications for the design of professional development connected with the use of project-based curriculum materials. Professional development can support teachers’ use of the curriculum materials by preparing them to translate the guidance in the materials, helping them think together about how to determine the significance of various parts of the lesson, anticipate and plan for issues that might arise, and consider possible techniques to use. In addition, professional development can provide opportunities for teachers to observe techniques that can be used to implement lesson plans, consider the pros and cons of these techniques, and discuss which techniques might be useful in which kinds of instructional situations. 

This study also has implications for the design of project-based curriculum materials, raising questions about how curriculum developers might best communicate the priorities of a project-based curriculum to teachers while acknowledging that various instructional situations will call for different ways of prioritizing the guidance within the curriculum.