Understanding the 3 Is for Effective Curriculum Design

In a recent article, we looked at Curriculum – what it is and the research behind it. We addressed some key concepts as well with regards to structure and purpose, and these form good touchstones for the ideas explored herein.

Here we are considering those three key aspects – Intent, Implementation and Impact – that are so vital to the development of an outstanding curriculum.

What are the 3 Is in education? The 3 Is are Intent, Implementation and Impact. They come from the 2019 Ofsted inspection framework. Intent refers to what we teach and why we teach it. Implementation proposes what it looks like in practice and Impact lays out what the outcomes will be.

In order to design a strong curriculum that can be judged as Outstanding, schools need to look at three key areas; Intent, Implementation and Impact.

The judgement of the curriculum is made using these focus areas, so it is important not only to get them right but to know why they are right.

On the face of it Intent, Implementation and Impact are simple; what do you want to achieve, how will this look and what will the outcome be?


Beneath this, there is a wealth of material to be explored and understood. This article will take you through each area and tell you not only what, but why.

Introduction – Curriculum in Context

‘The main purpose of curriculum is to build up the content of long-term memory (the Schema) so that when students are asked to think, they are able to think in more powerful ways because what is in the long-term memories makes their short-term memories more powerful. That is why curriculum matters.’

(Wiliam 2018)

Ultimately, we want the impact to be improved outcomes for students, which manifests itself primarily at the classroom level. The lead up to this is where the care must be taken and these principles clearly understood:

  1. Knowledge is important to all thinking
  2. We understand new things in relation to what we already know
  3. Retrieving knowledge helps us to remember it for longer

An underpinning grasp of cognitive science principles and their impact on learning is essential to develop the memorable and meaningful curriculum we strive for.

We have to also consider quality teaching, motivation and assessment, alongside practice.


Much of the quality of a curriculum is determined by a combination of its intent and its implementation, which hopefully then leads to good outcomes; OfSted see Intent as comprising of Rationale, Ambition and Concepts.

So let’s start there.

They go on to refer to these key areas as indicators of curriculum quality: a coherent rationale, strong knowledge of curriculum concepts and ambition manifest in the curriculum, not just in terms of content coverage but also the depth of understanding.

According to David Ausebel (1968) ‘The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows’; this is a great starting point – ascertain existing knowledge and tailor the curriculum to the needs of the learner.

Hilda Taba went further in her ‘Curriculum development: theory and practice’ (1962); as well as acknowledging the needs of the learner:

‘It is necessary to know something about students’ cultural backgrounds, motivational patterns, and the content of their social learning, such as the particular meanings they bring to school, their particular approach to learning tasks, and the expectations they have of themselves and of others.’

These concepts are now so richly ingrained in concepts such as ‘cultural capital’ and its acquisition that Taba seems prophetic.

In his Principled Curriculum Design, Dylan Wiliam points out that ‘curriculum is pedagogy’ and we cannot separate them; ‘A great intended curriculum badly taught is likely to be a much worse experience for young people than a bad intended curriculum well taught’.

One of the key messages from this is that part of curriculum intent must be framed within determined teaching capacity within your institution; look again at what Ofsted say of Outstanding curricula:

‘Leaders adopt or construct a curriculum that’s ambitious and designed to give all pupils the knowledge and cultural capital they need to succeed in life’.

This calls us to examine our context, cohort and community before determining the details of our intent and vision.

We must have coherence.

In her excellent book Curriculum – Gallimaufry to Coherence (2018) Mary Myatt reminds us that coherence comes from the Latin meaning ‘to stick together’ and that this should be the guiding rule for curriculum design.

The coherence:

comes from paying attention to the big ideas’ and ‘when we think about the curriculum coherently it becomes much simpler to teach and for pupils to understand’.

To look at Wiliam again:

‘Our short-term working memory is limited, and cannot be increased, but background knowledge enables us to make more effective use of whatever short-term working memory we have’

There are some questions we can ask ourselves as we consider our intent:

  • What are the big ideas that this is part of?
  • What is a sign that a student has been properly and richly educated in this subject at certain points in their schooling?
  • How will certain concepts be introduced and interleaved to ensure retention?
  • What does the success of this curriculum ‘look like’?
  • How will this curriculum be sequenced to enable acquisition and retrieval without overloading working memory?
  • How is this curriculum reinforced through community and cultural connections?

Simply put, the intent of the curriculum is the content you expect children to learn and be able to demonstrate at various determined points.

Intent is not a mission statement per se, nor is it a collection of abstract and transient values.

It is the content, the sequence this content is covered in and the logical connections within this sequence over time.

If you are able to explain why you’ve chosen to teach this at this time and not that then you have a good understanding of your intent.


From the ‘what’ to the ‘now what’; once you know what your intentions are you can begin to plan for them to be realized.

Implementation is how the intentions manifest themselves in the classroom; how they are taught; how they are assessed and evaluated; what strategies will be used to ensure that biological principles of human cognitive architecture and their implications on course design are acknowledged.

The manifestation of successful implementation is two-fold; what is actually happening in the classroom and how well the teachers and leaders can articulate this.

There must be coherence (that word again) and calibration from intent through to this stage to ensure that all materials and processes used by classroom teachers to promote outcomes for students align with the ‘vision’ for the curriculum aspect itself.

Implementation is very much a ‘real world’ test of the perceived intentions and therefore requires careful thought and contextual planning.

For example, if you as a school have a 3-year Key Stage 4, why have you made this decision and how does it help implement the curriculum intent?

Part of successful implementation is a robust assessment process and we will look at the role of assessment within the curriculum in a later article in this series.

However, it is important to remember, to look at Wiliam again from another piece, that ‘any assessment system should be designed to support the curriculum in place in a school’.

Assessment should be the servant and not the master!

The focus in delivery must be on the memory, not the memories.

Promote and support high-quality teaching through effective strategies; just be aware that different curriculum areas, domains, phases and topics lend themselves to being taught in different ways.

The subject itself needs to shine through and be reflected and celebrated in the chosen pedagogical approach, otherwise, that subject is homogenized and diminished by inaccurate association, for example:

  • PE looks different from Music.
  • Geography needs to be geographical, not just a version of an English lesson with more urban conurbations and oxbow lakes.
  • Phonics can’t be taught in exactly the same way as Numeracy.

Allow the teaching and the content to be matched, lest you ruin both, whilst all the while using those ubiquitous strategies that we know are effective everywhere – questions, models, explanations, practice, scaffolds.

Resources will be different, but providing teachers and subject leaders can explain why and how the resource works in order to facilitate transfer and embed learning, the implementation is sound.

The successful implementation of the curriculum is not just down to the teachers; what the students do is proof that the implementation approach taken is working (or not).

It is the role of subject leaders to have the knowledge and expertise to design and monitor their individual curriculum areas but they are all part of the greater whole.

On this final point let’s look at a caveat; to go back to 1986 and Rosenshine’s Teaching Functions paper:

‘It would be a mistake to claim that the teaching procedures which have emerged from this research apply to all subjects, and all learners, all the time’.

If you are a leader and can explain why the teachers are teaching that topic in that way and you can justify that, you are showing an understanding of curriculum implementation.

This is why, to return to Wiliam, curriculum construction must be a collaborative process – no Lions and Donkeys, please.


There’s many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the lip.

The ultimate test of the impact of the curriculum lies very much with whether or not the students know what you want them to know, and what you think they should know.

Wiliam again:

‘Ultimately, the test of any curriculum is the experiences of young people in classrooms.’

This is a further example of how the aspects must be tethered; Intent, Implementation and Impact are not judged separately so any one aspect lacking could derail the others.

If through good quality internal assessment systems, you determine that the students do know what you want them to know and this represents suitable levels of challenge and ambition then that’s great, but what happens if they don’t?

Impact is not a final, summative construct.

It has to be regularly monitored and evaluated from classroom level upwards; teachers need the autonomy and trust to make responsive decisions for their students that complement the overall vision of the curriculum itself.

This again is only achieved when teachers understand the intent and how it must be manifested.

To achieve a high rating for your curriculum offer you must ensure equity and high levels of learning, shown through performance and progress, across all groups of students.

If you cannot produce this then there is a flaw in your curriculum model somewhere that needs addressing quickly.

This again calls into account the need for contextual application and understanding by all involved – if you don’t know why you are doing something then you have no idea whether what you are doing means anything at all; students need to know why too.

So much of a successful curriculum is founded on articulation.

Reams of exercise books crammed with time-consuming exercises and meaningless marking are not the sign of curriculum success – output and input must be balanced and output need not be evidence or internal data for the sake of it.

Learning is what is important, not the quantity of assessments and notes.

The Role of Professional Development in Curriculum Design

Implementation for me goes hand in hand with the professional development available from the school and therefore becomes a vital part of school culture.

Continued support of classroom craft and monitoring the effect of this support becomes integral to monitoring the implementation of the curriculum; theory and research can underpin your desired strategies but unless these are given time to be practiced and embedded you may fall apart.

We know from previous posts looking at the evidence that good professional development requires many factors, not least subject/domain-specific opportunities for application.

This must be paramount if the integrity of each subject within the broad curriculum offer has the chance to shine.

A cycle model whereby a general concept is introduced, followed by discussion and practice in domains, followed by evaluation and refinement, can be vital here.

A curriculum of teacher learning aligned to a curriculum of student learning is the hallmark of a school who understands the need to support implementation.

The onus on subject leaders to design and implement curriculum means they must be supported and trained to do so, and to monitor effectively; the professional development must align with the required outcomes.


The key thing is that as a school you are judged fairly if your curriculum approach is radical or innovative, as long as the coverage is appropriate, the content sound, the structure good and the sequencing evident, all underpinned by effective implementation.

To go back to Wiliam one final time:

‘Finding innovative ways of using the curriculum time available is essentially a creative process. Teachers need time to experiment and to explore’.

School leaders and teachers must confidently articulate to all concerned what students are supposed to be learning, how these things are taught and how they know if they have been learnt.

Intent, Implementation, and Impact FAQ:

What Is Curriculum?

The curriculum is the program of study undertaken by students in schools, leading to their final results.

How Is Curriculum Assessed?

Curricula in schools are assessed using the headings Intent, Implementation and Impact; the three are not judged separately so each must complement and support the other.

What Do Intent, Implementation and Impact Mean?

Essentially, what you’ve planned, how it looks in practice and what the outcomes are going to be.

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