Developing curricula


Whether you’re a technician, a teacher, the head of your department, or someone involved with the running of a school or a multi-academy trust, you are an important part of the curriculum-making process. After all, curriculum development doesn’t start and end with a national curriculum---interpreting and structuring its content, planning and teaching lessons, and managing the context in which students learn (through, for example, the use of practical activities) all have a profound impact on learners’ understanding of physics. And this is an area where the IOPSpark Misconceptions page can help too.

Lessons from Conceptual Change for Curriculum Development

As we know, researchers have proposed various accounts of how students’ ideas develop. Accordingly, there are also various models of curriculum development. Although we won’t delve into the nuances of the various models here, we will suggest some broad lessons from conceptual change research for curriculum development:


  • Make yourself aware of the common misconceptions that you might encounter. Familiarising yourself with common student misconceptions allows you to anticipate these in your curriculum design, and be proactive in addressing them if they do arise.
  • Signpost, in the curriculum, areas where misconceptions may arise. If you’re directly involved with writing the curriculum, it can be helpful to flag areas where teaching might require particular care. You might even reference research directly in curriculum documents.
  • Give thought to how students’ understanding will be affected by the sequencing of topics in the curriculum. Theories of conceptual change tell us that misconceptions can be barriers to further understanding, and so the order in which topics are covered is important. This is a difficult topic and no real consensus exists among physics education academics on a ‘correct’ sequence, so teachers must exercise their own judgement.
  • Be aware of how different topics warrant different instructional approaches. Students are very likely to bring their own ideas to the classroom in an area like forces and motion, of which they will have experience in a non-classroom setting. In an area like nuclear or atomic physics, students are less likely to have pre-existing misconceptions.


  • Think that you aren’t involved with curriculum development. Everyone involved with the teaching of physics, however, indirectly, is a part of this process. 
  • Introduce ideas ‘negatively’, for example by saying something like “now, the wrong way to think about this is…”. Doing so risks creating misconceptions in students. 
  • Assume that every topic requires a ‘misconception-first’ approach. It’s important to remember that not all students will have misconceptions about physics, and that misconceptions will be more common in some areas of the curriculum than others. When prompted, students can often formulate misconceptions on the spot, where they might not have done otherwise. In these instances, it can be helpful to teach the key concepts of a topic prior to exploring students’ own thinking (see Developing Pupil Thinking)

Using IOPSpark in Curriculum Development

IOPSpark can help with the curriculum development process in several ways. Here are some steps you might follow to get you started.

First, use the Misconceptions tool to familiarise yourself with the common misconceptions in each topic. Crudely speaking, the more references a misconception has, the more common it’s likely to be.

A misconception from IOPSpark. On the right hand side, you can quickly see how many references we have for this misconception (and therefore how likely you are to find it!)

After this, try to map common misconceptions to your curriculum document. Think about where they might be encountered, and how different areas might lend themselves to different instructional techniques. Teachers will have to exercise their judgement here. 

Then think about the ways that misconceptions can be challenged in each area. Because there is no single, correct way of inducing conceptual change, IOPSpark does not offer hard-and-fast advice for doing so. However, each misconception on IOPSpark suggests resources elsewhere on the site that may help teachers to develop student thinking. 

These suggestions will prompt you to think about the contextualisation of topics in the curriculum, and to understand how the setting in which a student learns a topic can be the difference between a scientific and naive conception. 

Further Reading


  • Kelly, A. V. (2009) The Curriculum: Theory and Practice. 6th Edition. London: SAGE
  • Deng, Z (2010) Curriculum Planning and Systems Change. In P. Peterson; E. Baker & B. McGaw (Eds.) International Encyclopaedia of Education (Third Edition, 384-389), Elsevier.
  • Shawer, S. F. (2010). Classroom-level teacher professional development and satisfaction: Teachers learn in the context of classroom-level curriculum development. Professional Development in Education, 36(4): 597–620. 
  • Wiser, M., & Smith, C. (2016). How is Conceptual Change Possible? Insights from Science Education. In D. Barner & A. S. Baron (Eds.) Core Knowledge and Conceptual Change (29-52). Oxford, Oxford University Press.
  • Amin, T. G., Smith, C. L., & Wiser, M. (2014). Student Conceptions and Conceptual Change: Three Overlapping Phases of Research. In N. Lederman & S. Abell (Eds.) Handbook of Research on Science Education, Volume II (pp. 71-95). Routledge.
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