From the Ideological to the Concrete:

Ideas from Paulo Friere, Understanding by Design and the Ontario Curriculum
And their Application to Layered Curriculum

by Heather Clayton (2004)

One of the exciting privileges of being an educator is the ongoing opportunity to be exposed to and challenged by new and not so new ideas.  As a new Special Education consultant in the fall of 2003,  I was inspired by the ideas of Kathie Nunley I heard at the ASCD conference in Toronto.  As she spoke about the adolescent brain, and then Layered Curriculum™ as her response, it was an “AH-HA” moment for me.  Phone calls that I had been receiving from teachers and parents since I had started my job, around the challenges of reaching all students, and providing entry points at all levels of learning, flooded back to me.  The core ‘truths’ for Layered Curriculum, the importance of choice, higher level thinking as a goal, and student accountability for their learning, seemed to answer many of the concerns that I was hearing.  I have since spent a year investigating related material and especially looking at the links to our Ontario Curriculum materials.  This paper will reflect that journey by looking at connections between philosopher, Paulo Friere (whom I studied during my education degree), theorists Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe who have written Understanding by Design, and finally, the Ontario Curriculum Planner and Achievement Charts, to which our teachers in Ontario are entirely accountable.  Therefore, the paper is a movement from the abstract ideological to the concrete.  I believe the core of these ideas is fully supported and complimented by the tenants of Layered Curriculum.

Paulo Friere has been called one of the most influential thinkers about education in the late 20th century.  He is most known for his concern for the powerless as written in The Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  Friere posited five main ideas:

1.                  The importance of dialogue and the fact that the dialogue was two way, contained in a respectful relationship.  It meant that people worked with each other.

2.                  He spoke of “praxis” – action that was informed by knowledge and should be linked to values.  But it wasn’t knowledge for knowledge sake; rather, it was to empower people to use the knowledge to make an impact on their world.

3.                  He spoke about building hope for the oppressed. As consciousness is increased, society can be transformed.

4.                  Friere emphasized the importance of linking education with the real world experiences of the students.

5.                  Friere tried to highlight and minimize the differences between teachers and learners.

Friere was often criticized for his extreme ‘either/or’ positions, particularly around subjects such as the oppressed.  However, there is much in his philosophy that links with Layered Curriculum.  First, oral discussion and defense are key to Layered Curriculum. Learning occurs through dialogue as ideas are defended and questioned.  Second, the goal of the Layered Curriculum model is to develop critical thinkers who can use their knowledge to impact the world. Third, his considerations and definitions of the ‘oppressed’ may remind us of students in our classes, struggling to access information and express their knowledge in a limited system of instruction and evaluation.  Layered Curriculum increases entry points and opportunities for all students. 

Finally, his comments about the importance of real experiences which resonate with the students to provide valuable learning are supported by teachers all over North America who are trying Layered Curriculum and are excited by the real learning that relevant hands on experiences are providing.  A teacher recently told me that she had given a particular geography unit test for several years,  but this year taught the unit in a Layered Curriculum format and the marks on the test were significantly better.

Paulo Friere was primarily concerned with the empowerment of learners.  By using choice, accountability and higher level thinking, Layered Curriculum is a concrete, practical reinforcement of many of Friere’s ideas. 

Stephen R. Covey, author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, states that we need to “begin with the end in mind”.  This statement summarized the model for thinking about and planning units developed by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe.  In their book, Understanding by Design, they propose a ‘backwards design’ which counters much of how teachers traditionally planned.  The two main ‘backwards’ ideas include the fact that it is important to start with the goals and objectives and derive the performance tasks from them.  Often teachers are caught trying to use a particular textbook or some common practice and they develop their unit from that point.  Similarly, assessments should be designed at the start, not thought about once the teaching has ended.  Both changes result in more coherence throughout a unit, which in improves student learning and performance.

Wiggins and McTighe identify 3 stages in Backwards Design and Layered Curriculum clearly has similarities and links with each stage.  In this paper the focus will be the first two stages.

Using a diagram, much like an egg, the layers of learning are outlined, leading to the core which the enduring understandings.  These are the big ideas we want students to remember and integrate into their lives when many of the details have been forgotten!  To identify these ideas,  Wiggins and McTighe apply four filters.   In the chart below I have listed the filters, along with how that might link with Layered Curriculum.


Comparison with Layered Curriculum

1.  Larger concepts…the application of the essential ideas to ongoing life.

The goal of ‘A’ layer is to get students to critically interact with learning and apply to everyday issues.

2.  Is the learning authentic, moving the learner from passive to active participation?

Through oral defense, debate and kinesthetic tasks students are active learners.

3.  Identify and correct misconceptions.

On-going, face to face contact with teachers, gives students daily feedback.

4.  Engagement is a key to learning.

Allowing students choice and giving them responsibility increases the engagement of students.


 Each of the layers of understanding is linked to types of assessment.  Performance tasks and projects seem to link more directly with the enduring understandings than the quizzes and tests, but clearly all have a place.  Teachers using layered curriculum comment over and over at how the involvement in meaningful tasks and projects in their units seems to improve student performance on traditional unit tests.  A Layered Curriculum unit, designed intentionally, based on expectations, where all of the ‘B’ and ‘C’ layer activities are stepping stones toward learning and ‘enduring understandings’ of the ‘A’ layer, fit nicely with the methodology of  Wiggins and McTighe.  The challenge for the Layered curriculum teacher is to consider the activities carefully, planning from the outcomes and objectives, and being able to see how each activity links to and builds towards those enduring understandings.

It is interesting to note how Layered Curriculum utilizes some of the key concepts of philosopher, P. Friere, and how it lends itself to the ideas of Wiggins and McTighe’s Understanding by Design.  As a teacher/consultant in Ontario, it has also been important to look at the links between Layered Curriculum and the Ontario Achievement Chart and the Curriculum Unit Planner.  In considering the Achievement Chart, I have used Bloom’s taxonomy as well as Layered Curriculum to see how the levels line up.  (See attached Chart).  It is difficult at times to unravel the strands of thinking into separate categories.  It is clear that our goal as educators is to move students through all types and levels of learning and a model like Layered Curriculum does that well.  While the planner is a practical, electronic tool, for the purpose of this paper, I wish to consider the principles of instructional design and the application of these principles as stated on the website. According to the ministry website and power point presentation the key questions we need to ask are:

1.                  What do I want students to learn?

2.                  What evidence will I accept of that learning?

3.                  How will I design instruction for effective learning for all?

This speaks again to the importance of front-end thinking and planning based on what students need to know.  Evidence of learning could be a variety of things and indeed, in layered curriculum encompasses many styles of learning.  The final question is the one that provides that greatest challenge for all teachers as our classrooms grow more diverse each year.  The huge benefits of Layered Curriculum are the push to a variety of instructional tasks and evaluation methods, engaging all students in learning.  In the instructional elements of planning it is important to start with expectations: what do we want the students’ ‘enduring understanding’ to be.  To achieve this we need performance based tasks that encourage meaningful learning.  Assessment and evaluation is to help students improve and meet the expectations.  Through Layered Curriculum, students orally defend a large portion of their learning in day to day, face to face interactions. Teachers have daily contact and opportunities to meet with students.  They are guided and supported much more directly as they demonstrate understanding and achievement.  Developing teaching and learning strategies emphasizes that all must have the rich experiences.  Layered Curriculum, which naturally lends itself to activities based in the Multiple Intelligences, seems to provide many opportunities for helping all to succeed.  All students should be able to access ‘A’ layer: all students can critically think.  The focus on topics, themes and resources is what is necessary in any unit and again it appears that Layered Curriculum would facilitate that focus nicely.


As we move from the ideological to the practical in considering the theorists and models discussed, key ideas continue to surface:

¨      The importance of dialogue and real-life practical learning, as well as the students’ ownership in the process of learning, all impact the engagement of the student.

¨      The key in planning to identify enduring understandings and then to set up a unit to reinforce those understandings.

¨      The fact that all, even the most oppressed, need to be able to access the learning in our classrooms.

¨      Finally, the importance of not only allowing all student the opportunity for critical thinking but the key which is to apply those critical thoughts in ways that will make a difference in our world.

Layered Curriculum, which encourages student choice, accountability and a push toward high level thinking, is one model that seems to address these concepts in a clear, practical and user-friendly way.


Achievement Chart

Knowledge: remembering or recalling appropriate, previously learned information to draw out factual (usually right or wrong) answers. Uses words such as how many, when, where, list, define, tell, describe, identify to draw out factual answers, testing students recall and recognition.

Comprehension: grasping or understanding the meaning of informational materials. Use words such as describe, explain, estimate, predict, identify, differentiate, to encourage student to translate interpret and extrapolate.

 C Layer


Knowledge and Understanding:

Knowledge of content (facts terms, definitions)

Understanding of content


Expression and organization of ideas and information in oral, visual and written forms.

Use of conventions, vocabulary and terminology of the discipline oral, visual and written forms.


Use of planning skills such as gathering information and setting goals.

Application: applying previously learned information (or knowledge) to new and unfamiliar situations.  Use works such as demonstrate, apply, illustrate, show, solve, examine, classify, experiment to encourage students to apply knowledge to situations that are new and unfamiliar.

Analysis: breaking down information into parts, or examining information. Use words and phrases such as : what are the differences, analyze explain compare, separate etc.


Applying prior knowledge and skills to combine elements into a pattern not clearly there before.  Use phrases such as combine rearrange, create, design, invent to encourage students to combine elements into a pattern that’s new.

  B Layer


Use of processing skills (analyzing, generating, integrating, synthesizing, evaluating, detecting point of view).


For different audiences and purposes in oral, visual and written forms.


Application of knowledge and skills in familiar contexts.

Transfer of knowledge and skills to new contexts.

Knowledge and Understanding:

Subject specific content acquired in each grade (knowledge) and the comprehension of its meaning and significance (understanding).


Judging or deciding according to some set of criteria, without real right or wrong answers, use words such as assess decide, select, explain, conclude

  A Layer


Transfer of knowledge and skills to new contexts.

Making connections within and between various contexts.


Communication for different audiences to inform, persuade in oral visual and written forms.


Use of critical/creative thinking processes (eg. Inquiry, research, decision making process)


Covey, Stephen R.  The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1989.

Friere, Paolo. The Pedagogy of the Oppressed.  New York: Continuum, 1970.

Nunley, Kathie F.  Layered Curriculum. 2nd Edition .Brains.Org. Amherst, NH: 2004.

Wiggins, Grant and McTighe, Jay.  Understanding By Design. Alexandria, VA:

ASCD, 1998.