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U.S. Department of State

Diplomacy in Action

Chapter 4: Curriculum: Personal & Prescribed


Every class in every school has a set curriculum determined by the school or other authorizing body and this is no different in an inclusive classroom. What may be different is the scope and expectation for all students in an inclusive class to pursue personal interests and make meaningful connections within the curriculum. It is made possible by the range of choices offered in activities and learning strategies. Personal relevance, when students learn something that is deep and profoundly meaningful, is referred to as "felt meaning" (Caine & Caine, 1997) or "hot cognition" (Dole & Sinatra, 1994).

Personalizing the prescribed curriculum is the process which produces the motivation for lifelong learning. Few of us have not felt the cognitive, emotional and physiological thrill of deep felt meaning---- the "Aha!" phenomenon that accompanies the coming together of ideas, theories, feelings and impressions into a synthesizing Gestalt. Felt meaning is "an almost visceral sense of relationships, an unarticulated sense of connectedness that ultimately culminates in insight (Caine & Caine, 1997, p. 113)." It is immensely satisfying and serves as an energy source for future learning.

By explicitly helping students to develop the critical thinking skills of analysis, synthesis and evaluation (e.g. the cognitive processes identified by Bloom, 1956), students develop the tools to frame and ask questions and measure new knowledge against prior learning. This is how students personalize what they learn.

In a first grade science lesson on water, a teacher presented students with the opportunity to explore the properties of materials that determined sinking or floating. After testing various materials such as wood, plastic and metal, one student turned his attention to the condition of the water itself and asked: "Would it be the same if the water was muddy?" Recognizing the potential for personalizing the curriculum, the teacher asked, "How would you find out?" The first grader then set about planning and conducting his own experiment on sinking and floating in muddy water. The teachable moment was skillfully translated into an engaging, participatory and personalized learning experience.

At a high school level, a psychology student noticed that different people had varying levels of tolerance for intrusion into personal space and wondered aloud whether the degree of sensitivity was related in some way to the individual's religious background. After reviewing previous literature on related topics, she designed and conducted a systematic investigation to find the answer to her question within the school's international context.

Teachers frequently ask where to pitch a lesson in an inclusive classroom. We have found that pitching the lesson to the top ability range of the class works well when concepts are presented in a fashion that takes advantage of natural, spatial memory, and are as relevant as possible. When teacher questions are carefully framed and patterned to include increasingly higher levels of thinking, all students have access to the topic under discussion on a multitude of levels. This avoids the issue of "watering down" the curriculum.

We have watched with excitement a 6th grade class (including a number of LD, ESL and gifted children) read an adapted version of Plato's "Crito" and throw themselves into a passionate discussion of when it is morally right to break the law. We watched them compare Socrates' allegiance to the laws of Athens to Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" and later to Gandhi's and Martin Luther King Jr.'s use of non-violent protest. From our observations of student participation, we are confident that every child benefited greatly, although not in the same manner, from pitching a lesson to the very top of the ability range.

In this 6th grade discussion on Plato's Crito, the teacher might have used the following questions:

• What choices did Socrates have? (recall)

• What were the advantages and disadvantages of each choice? Why were the choices difficult   for Socrates? (evaluation)

• If you had been Socrates' friend, what advice would you have given him? (application)

• Do you think Martin Luther King would have made the same choice? If not, why? (comparison and transference)

We have found that teachers can offer the same assignment to all students and differentiate by outcomes.

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