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An Overview of Dr Kathie Nunley's
Layered Curriculum®

By Dr. Kathie F. Nunley (c) 2014

Today's teacher must teach to an overwhelming variety of students. Any high school class may have students who cannot read past a second grade level. These students are sitting alongside others trying to prepare for next year's Advanced Placement class. There may be as many as five different native languages spoken and each student at a different level of English proficiency. Several special education students are likely to be mainstreamed into the class. There are visual learners, auditory learners, tactile learners, and plain old reluctant learners. Sprinkled in are students with attention deficit disorder and hyperactivity.

As a high school biology teacher I am expected to take this eclectic collection of human beings and teach them the curriculum laid out by the state. At first glance this appeared an impossible task, but over the past two decades I have designed and created a workable method to differentiate my classroom. The result is a simple five step solution for differentiating your classroom. I call it Layered Curriculum®.

Step One: Take the mystery out of your lesson plan by handing it to the students in advance. My students receive a copy of the lesson objectives (called the C layer, keep reading) and assignment options at the beginning of each two week period. These unit sheets contain a variety of assignment choices that are designed to meet specific core objectives. Each assignment has a point value based on the complexity of knowledge and time requirement.

Step Two: Divide the unit sheet into three layers. Each layer will represent a level or depth of study on the topic. The bottom layer is called the C layer because students working strictly within this layer can earn a grade no higher than a "C" on the unit. Students are free to choose the assignments they want and in any order. Different assignments are worth different amounts of points based on the complexity. Students can choose any number of assignments for any combination of points up to, but not passing a grade of a C.

This section represents a basic understanding of the topic and is structured so that any student in the room can achieve this level of success. The greater the diversity in the classroom, the greater the diversity of assignments in the C layer.

In the first, C layer, offer a variety of basic assignments to meet the needs of every type of learner you may have. I make sure that I have enough assignments so that even my nonreaders can achieve success. This layer includes hands-on activities for the tactile learners, video and art projects for the visual learners and optional lectures for the auditory learners. Include textbook assignments for students who prefer this traditional method of learning. Include at least one assignment that must be done in any language except English. It is really exciting to watch the interaction between the English-only students and the English language learners when faced with having the tables turned.

Include art or poetry or history assignments which require cross-discipline involvement. For example, I may ask them to write a poem describing a conflict found in an amphibian's world. Students then must get written feedback from their English teacher on their poem. In my classroom, the C sections is the largest section on the unit assignment sheet because I cover the bulk of my state core curriculum in this layer. There needs to be approximately three times as many assignment choices as required. (e.g.: if you expect them to complete 5 C layer assignments, have 15 to choose from).

Step Three: Create a second or B layer requiring more complex types of thinking. This layer requires the students to manipulate or apply the information they learned in the C layer. Here students carry their newly learned basic knowledge a step further. Students "play" with their new information in this layer. They build, design, use, apply, problem solve, create, brain-storm, etc. Other B layer assignments may include interdisciplinary studies, history fairs, application of new words, creative displays of compare & contrast, etc. If you need ideas, look back through the middle layers of your Bloom's Taxonomy.

As my original design was for high school biology, a "problem solving lab" is required in this layer. I simply suggest problems such as "How fast does a fish swim in miles per hour?"; "Do snails have a taste preference?"; "What is the volume of a frog's heart?"; "Which brand of mouthwash is most effective in killing bacteria?". I usually list four or five questions that pertain to the unit we are studying. The students are always free to choose another question if they wish, with my permission. I give no other information regarding the lab. They must write their hypothesis and a detailed procedure. They need to gather whatever materials they need, although I will help them find materials after they have written their procedure. It is critical not to give any information or help with procedural designs until after they have written their own ideas. This may be very frustrating at first to the students as they all want to ask the teacher how they are to do the lab. I simply tell my students that I haven't the slightest idea! You will be amazed at the creativity on the part of your students when left to their own imaginations.

Step Four: Add a final layer called the A Layer which requires the most complex thinking - critical thinking. Here students mix traditional research with other things like values, morality and personal opinion. Offer students several issues in the topic that are currently under debate in the real world. Students must conduct a literature search to find three recent studies on their topic and then write a critical evaluation of that issue. The final product may take various forms such as a letter of persuasion to a legislator on an environmental issue or a two minute oral presentation arguing their position.

Step Five: The final and most important step to Layered Curriculum is assessment through an oral defense of the students' assignments. As students finish an assignment they spend a couple of minutes, on a one-on-one basis, discussing what they learned. Based on the prearranged objectives, I ask several key questions and help clarify their ideas and verify that the learning objectives have been met. This is a wonderful way to meet face to face with every student and assure that they are indeed learning. I often carry note cards with the objectives on them to use during these discussions. The cards help students understand that there is a criteria involved in assessing their learning experience. This one-on-one formative assessment is invaluable to student learning and success.


To manage the classroom easily, you may want to set up various learning stations in your room to free up your time for evaluation and facilitation. One of my most successful ideas has been to record my lectures. I can upload them for students to listen to on their own time, or have them watch and listen at a computer station in the room. Since lecture is an option, the students can listen to the lecture whichever day they choose, or even outside of class ir they choose to do so. Listening via a headset is wonderful for the attention deficit students who may have a difficult time focusing on a live lecture. This helps isolate them and the information. Physical props can be set out at the table to assist points made in the lecture. Never again will students have to get notes from a classmate because of an absence. It is also wonderful to be able to record your lecture in the quiet comfort of your home or empty classroom ahead of time, free from any interruptions. The lectures can be either audio only or attached to a visual presentation.

The video watching area is set at desk level in an isolated corner for those students watching a video. This can be streamed or set up via other media. Headphones can be used here too to isolate the noise from the other working students. Laying blankets on the floor in front of the monitor gives a seating option for those students who seem allergic to the traditional classroom chair.

Technology should be used whenever possible. Online or stand alone computer programs make wonderful assignment options especially for the limited English proficiency student because concepts are graphically represented. If you have internet access in your room make sure to include a variety of assignment options which utilize it. You may want to integrate BYOD assignments too. So students can watch or interact with programs on their own devices, or using the set-ups provided in the room.

To save time with oral reports and presentations, a video camera may be set up in a storeroom or quiet area so that the students can record their presentations for your later viewing. This is especially helpful with students who are reluctant to speak before a large group. Or they can record them with their smartphone and put them in a dropbox.

Another successful idea has been color coding each unit. I photocopy each unit on a different color of paper. This makes it so easy for us to refer to the "green sheet" or "orange sheet", etc. It also makes it much easier for the students to find their assignment sheets in notebooks filled with school papers. I have a file cabinet in my classroom so that students may keep their unit sheets and work in progress in the classroom. This is important for those students who lack organizational skills. When a unit is due, the students turn in their colored unit sheet and I record the points they have acquired. At the end of the grading period they fill out a term summary showing how many points they received on each unit and write down their final term grade. They attach this summary sheet to the four colored units we've completed and turn it in to me for their final grade. There are no surprises. The students understand what it takes to get a certain grade and they have all the control to obtain that grade.

Layered Curriculum has been very successful in all types of classrooms subjects and grade level.(See samples page). It requires a bit of a shift in thinking though on both the part of the teacher and the student. The grades are not based on the traditional percentage of correct information remembered, but rather on the depth in which a student pursues the study of a topic. A "C" grade denotes a basic understanding of core concepts. A "B" grade indicates not only an understanding of the material but a personal discovery through an original lab or an application or manipulation of the material. An "A" indicates that the students have mastered the concepts and have included a critical analysis of current issues relating to the subject matter.


About the Author:
Dr Kathie Nunley is an educational psychologist, researcher and author of several books on parenting and teaching, including A Student's Brain (Brains.org) and the best selling, "Differentiating the High School Classroom" (Corwin Press). She is the developer of the Layered Curriculum® method of instruction and has worked with parents and educators around the world to better structure schools to make brain-friendly environments. In addition, her work has been used by the Boeing Corporation, Family Circle Magazine, the Washington Post, and ABC television.
Email her: Kathie (at) brains.org


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