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For students to learn effectively, it is vital for teachers to plan and design their courses well. Consequently, this issue of CDTL Brief looks at ways to promote successful Curriculum Design.

December 2001, Vol. 4 No. 6 Print Ready ArticlePrint-Ready
Practical Steps in Designing a Curriculum to Promote Critical & Creative Thinking
Mr Dennis Sale
Section Head, Educational & Staff Development Department
Singapore Polytechnic

This article provides an outline of the practical steps involved in developing a curriculum to promote critical and creative thinking, what I will refer to as a thinking curriculum. The approach presented is the result of more than three years of applied curriculum development work in promoting thinking. While the main emphasis has been in the area of higher technical education, the framework is sufficiently transferable to all curriculum areas where thinking is essential to effective learning.

I want to first emphasise that curriculum planning—whether primarily focused on developing competence in thinking or otherwise—must fully align the central components of learning outcomes, instructional methods and assessment. For example, the instructional methods must be those most suitable for developing the types of learning indicated in the learning outcomes. Similarly the assessment methods must assess the content knowledge, cognitive processes and other attributes defined by the learning outcomes.

The following are the key steps in designing a curriculum to promote critical and creative thinking. All steps must be thoroughly planned, but it is not essential to conduct the development process in a linear manner.

Step1: Identify a valid and operational model of thinking

There is no shortage of models and theories of thinking (e.g. Marzano, 1988; Perkins, 1985; Swartz & Parks, 1994). Indeed, it could be argued that the plethora of perspectives and terminology confuse rather than aid educational planning and, in particular, teaching. However, without a clear conception of what we mean by thinking, it is unlikely that we will plan, teach or assess it systematically.

For summary purposes in this article, thinking can be usefully conceived in terms of the following interrelated types of thinking represented in the table below:

Types of Thinking
Creative/Divergent Thinking Metacognition Critical/Convergent Thinking
· Generating many possible options · Monitoring, evaluating and revising own thinking · Analysing components and relationships in a system
· Generating a variety of types of possible options · Comparing and contrasting options
· Generating originality in possible options · Making inferences and interpre-tations from data
· Evaluating the relative worth of options

These types of thinking are essentially the cognitive components of problem solving. Problem solving is typically the well-orchestrated use of these types of thinking. As problems become more complicated and open-ended, greater is the range of types of thinking involved as well as the competence level in using them.

Whatever model or framework of thinking you employ, it must be clearly understandable to the stakeholders involved and practical in application. I have seen many approaches to promoting thinking fail for the simple reason that the framework and terminology is simply too complicated and not understood by practising teachers who have to implement it in their everyday teaching activities.

Step 2: Identify the types of thinking to be incorporated in the learning outcomes

Learning outcomes (objectives) identify what a student should be able to do as a result of a course of study. If objectives are largely written in terms of ‘define’, ‘list’, ‘state’ or ‘describe’, then there is little opportunity to promote thinking into the curriculum.

In order to identify the types of thinking to be incorporated in the learning outcomes, it is necessary to firstly identify the real-world tasks that students would be expected to do on successful completion of that particular curriculum (typically a module). In other words, there needs to be a refocusing of the curriculum in broad competency terms.

From this basis, you can focus attention on how the content of a module actually translates into real-world applications. Having done so, you can then identify the types of thinking that underpins competence in these activities. In order to achieve this, a useful technique is to ask the following question:

How would a highly competent person think in the effective execution of this activity?

For example, in a business law module, it might be expected that students would be able to ‘predict possible legal outcomes in the event of a breach of contract’. Consequently, the following types of thinking are important in competent task performance for this module:

  • Analyse the components of a contract.
  • Compare and contrast the expected and actual behaviour of defendants.
  • Make inferences and interpretations concerning the behaviour.
  • Evaluate the possibility of specific outcomes.

In using this approach, you can identify the types of thinking that are naturally part of effective learning (i.e. actual competence in real-world performance). These can then be written as learning outcomes.

Step 3: Identify the key areas of subject content

In a thinking curriculum, emphasis should be on knowledge which focuses on the key concepts, models and principles essential for providing understanding of the topic being taught and meeting the learning outcomes. Knowledge becomes a resource to be used for purposes of meaningful application.

Step 4: Identify instructional methods and learning tasks to promote thinking

This is perhaps the most straightforward step to plan, but can be difficult to apply in practice. We have moved a long way towards understanding the important components of the pedagogy essential for promoting thinking and meaningful learning. As Marzano (1992, p. 2) points out that: “Over the past 3 decades, we have amassed enough research and theory about learning to derive a truly learning based model of instruction.” Most apparent is the recognition that thinking is an active process, which requires a pedagogy that is interactive and collaborative. A wide range of active learning methods and techniques are, therefore, essential for developing students thinking. These require a high level of teaching competence.

Step 5: Design authentic assessment items to assess types of thinking

Assessment is fundamentally important in terms of affecting what and how students learn. As Ramsden (1992) stresses:

From our student’s point of view, assessment always defines the actual curriculum... Assessment sends messages about the standard and amount of work required, and what aspects of the syllabus are most important. (pp. 187–8)

A thinking curriculum must give strong emphasis to the assessment of the types of thinking stated in the learning outcomes. A variety of methods (including multiple-choice questions) can be effectively employed to assess thinking. However, thinking is most authentically assessed through activities that require students to display specific types of thinking in applied contexts.

For example, performance tests, projects, case studies, presentations, simulations and workplace assessment can be effectively used for assessing thinking. These more authentic forms of assessment will direct both the learning process for students as well as the instructional focus for teachers. In this way, as Perkins (1992, p. 176) suggests, “Teaching, learning, and assessment merge into one seamless enterprise.”


In this short article, I have only been able to provide a key point summary of the main steps involved in designing a curriculum to promote critical and creative thinking. However, I hope that it communicates the essential curriculum development process involved. Finally, I must emphasise that any curriculum offering only becomes alive to students in the learning environment of the school or college. The act of teaching and the ethos that contextualises learning are paramount in the thinking curriculum.


Marzano, R.J. (1988). Dimensions of Thinking: A Framework for Curriculum and Instruction. ASCD: Alexandria, VA.

Marzano, R.J. (1992). A Different Kind of Classroom. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Perkins, D.N. (September 1985). ‘What Creative Thinking Is’. Educational Leadership. Vol. 42, No. 1, pp. 18–24.

Perkins, D.N. (1992). Smart Schools. London: The Free Press.

Ramsden, P. (1992). Learning to Teach in Higher Education. London: Routledge.

Swartz, R.J. & Parks, S. (1994). Infusing Critical and Creative Thinking into Content Instruction. Pacific Grove, CA: Critical Thinking Press & Software.

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Inside this issue
Designing & Planning a Successful Course: Bridging the Gap between Common Practice & Best Practice
Curriculum Design & Implementation: The Basics
Practical Steps in Designing a Curriculum to Promote Critical & Creative Thinking