Pamela Martin

Layered Curriculum 

Explanation Handout

      The goal of the layered curriculum is to let all students have an equal chance to learn.  This approach allows the teacher to consider each student’s strengths and needs, as well as providing for an individualized learning plan for every student. 

      Layered curriculum is based on research on how the brain learns.  First, it takes into account the biology of the brain. 

      In school, the two most critical parts of the brain are the cortex and the hypothalamus.  The cortex is the top, thin layer; it stores most of our learning.  This is the “goal line” for classroom instruction.  However, it is necessary to navigate through more primitive layers to get to the cortex. 

      One of those layers is the hypothalamus.  It controls some of the most basic emotions and responses—anger, fear, hunger, thirst, fight-or-flight response, and body temperature.  It reacts first in any situation the brain perceives as threatening.  When the hypothalamus is engaged, the cortex is basically ignored. (Think about how illogical or unreasonable the behavior of an extremely frightened or angry person may become.) 

      Another factor in brain biology and learning is that firing neuron pathways becomes easier the more often it is done.  Satisfying the primitive areas allows for more frequent firing of neuron pathways to the cortex. 

      One way of satisfying the hypothalamus is through control, which can be given to students through choices.  Thus, layered curriculum allows students to choose how they pursue learning. 

      Another part of the brain research that is part of this style is called “multiple intelligences.”  As many as ten different ways of “knowing” (and showing) have been identified.  Layered curriculum includes various modalities (methods) of exploring new ideas and displaying the acquired knowledge. 

      Units are divided into three layers.  While working on “C” layer activities, you will gather the basic facts, skills, and understanding of the unit’s topic.  In addition to activities that allow you to explore the topic on your own, this layer includes traditional vocabulary work, textbook readings, and classroom lectures. 

      One part of the “C” layer that is new for most students is the oral defense.  While it sounds intimidating, the oral defense is nothing more than a one-to-one discussion with the teacher about what you’ve learned.  For the first unit, this will probably be the teacher asking questions and you answering them.  As you become more comfortable with this method of assessment, it will become more of a conversation.  A “C” LAYER ACTIVITY IS NOT COMPLETE UNTIL THE ORAL DEFENSE IS DONE; NO POINTS ARE AWARDED WITHOUT IT! 

      Why is this so important?  The goal of this class is learning, rather than merely doing.  Making ten vocabulary flashcards is useless if you stop there; only when they are used as a tool for knowing the terms do those cards have any value.  “Accountability” is an important word in education today; the oral defense helps students become accountable for learning.  Also, after the first time, this type of assessment is generally less stressful than a traditional, formal exam. 

      “B” layer activities allow you to apply or manipulate the material you learned in the “C” layer.  You will usually be asked to create something here. 

      At the “A” layer, you will be asked to make a critical analysis of what you’ve learned, sharing your supported opinion on a related issue. 



Layered Curriculum 

Daily Procedures 



      Layered curriculum does not award points for doing; students earn points for learning.  This is checked, at the “C” layer, through the oral defense:  when an assignment is completed, students answer 2-5 questions about the content.  This informal discussion with the teacher provides a less stressful assessment than formal exams, and so it allows the hypothalamus to stay calm. 

      Each assignment on the “C” layer is worth a specific number of points, which are indicated on the unit sheet.  Most “B” layer assignments will be worth 20 points, while most “A” layer work will be worth 30 points.