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Part of Western Governors University

September 22, 2021

Reinventing the Professional Core

How WGU re-envisioned and redesigned foundational education curriculum

Last year at the onset of the pandemic, the WGU Teachers College released the largest course revision project ever, after completely reimagining and redesigning its education foundation courses for all students seeking teacher licensure and, ultimately, teaching careers.

This series of eight courses comprise the Professional Core providing the foundation of experiences and learning essentials for all students preparing to be teachers. The redesign project included updating learning resources with more current information and designing content in smaller or more manageable learning segments or modularization. The courses are designed to scaffold the skills needed for effective teachers. The skills learned are applied in authentic experiences and assessments including clinical experiences that span the entire program.

The project was led by WGU Teachers College Dean and Academic V.P., Dr. Aaron Popham. He is driving initiatives within many aspects of the College’s impressive five-year strategic plan including “Reimagining the Portfolio” of courses and program offerings.

The College’s impact on the education profession is substantial, with about 60,000 alumni from its array of educator programs. So, building a solid foundation for the continuing pipeline of future teachers and preparing them with the most up-to-date research, resources, theory, practices, and toolsets was paramount in Popham’s plan.

Person at a laptop, taking a class

“I grew up in a college town. I went through university work to earn my Ph.D. and have worked exclusively in colleges and universities my whole career,” said Popham. “So, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about learning and how we educate people. I’m a strong proponent of experiential learning and clinical experiences because the data supports that it enhances and accelerates learning and understanding.”

Because WGU is fully online and competency-based, it does not mean students are isolated from clinical experiences. In fact, in the Teachers College, it’s quite the opposite.

“We want the series of learning experiences the student engages with to be authentic learning that builds their knowledge and skills, in as experiential a way as possible,” said Popham. Each of the eight professional core courses includes mini-clinical experiences students can do remotely or easily from wherever they live. “We don’t want to have our students progress all the way through the degree program before they have a chance to experience what the classroom will be like. We embedded small clinical experiences in each of the eight courses in a way that’s easily accessible across a broad time frame and not completely disruptive to their busy lives.”

He and the team of experts at WGU redesigned (and in two cases built new) highly modularized courses. These courses allow students to learn a concept, grasp it, visualize it through one of the clinical experiences, and then be assessed on it. Once competency is achieved, they move on to the next part of the course content. This learning methodology and curriculum design helps with knowledge mastery, recall, confidence, and something equally as important according to Popham.

Bulletin board of notes

“Teaching is a hard profession, and not everyone is cut out to do it. There truly is a core of knowledge, skills, and professional dispositions associated with being a good teacher. Not everyone can master those. The job of the Professional Core is to cultivate that. It is our job as the educators of novice teachers to help them discover if they have the ability to educate others or if they need to use their passion for education in another way. They can learn the content, but there really is a reason we say that there is both a science and an art to teaching. The job of the Professional Core is to provide that solid foundation so students can begin their journey of truly developing that knowledge, skills, and professional dispositions to be an explicit educator for K-12 children,” Popham said. “If it’s not right for them, we don’t have to wait a couple of years to discover this, and we can redirect that student into another education field such as curriculum and design, administration and leadership, and other educator roles outside of the classroom.”

Clinical experiences begin with a student watching a series of videos that may include good examples or bad examples of teaching practices. Then, reflective assignments on their observations, watching an actual classroom remotely, or participating in the virtual reality immersive simulated environment the College uses to give rising educators a chance to practice in a fail-safe environment with human-led avatars. Students will also interview an educator in the town where they live, all prior to demonstration teaching.

Popham’s vision was to build or stack upon the smaller mastery of specific skills, complemented by shorter clinical experiences that can be married with the pedagogy and methods classes that lead into the culminating clinical experience of student teaching. “There is a lot of content that students can access and look at, but until they have to demonstrate that they have actually gained mastery, learning is not as strongly reinforced. That learning doesn't hold as well as when they are asked to demonstrate it.”

The modular format is based on mapping curriculum and assessment to skills. WGU is engaged in a Skills Mapping Initiative, which identifies the essential skills successful professionals need from any given degree. Once these skills are identified, the curriculum is designed to ensure students are getting the knowledge they need to build these skills and meet workforce demands so they can graduate prepared to excel in their careers. 

“In addition to providing students the more modularized approach with experiential learning throughout and the latest resources, research, and links for learning, we also wanted to do more,” said Popham. “Today, teachers play a greater role than simply educators. They are counselors and life coaches and often the first ones to see students who may need help emotionally, psychologically or physically.” So, Popham and the team embedded many aspects of Social Emotional Learning (SEL) into the curriculum, including the design and build-out of two new courses.

“One of the new courses is the Community of Care course,” he said. “It looks at the human side of learning and integrates SEL, Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) constructs, and helps fortify knowledge and empathy in these future educators,” he said. “The Professional Core collection gives them a much greater foundation on the human side of being an educator. It helps them to really begin thinking beyond the old ‘Three R’s’ of reading, writing and arithmetic, and expand upon the human element of being an educator.”

The School as a Community of Care Course Description: This course prepares candidates to meet the social and emotional learning needs of learners and to effectively collaborate with parents, families, caregivers, and other community stakeholders in each child's education, building a strong foundation for academic and personal success. Emphasis is placed on family engagement as candidates gain knowledge of individual, cultural, and community assets that can be used to facilitate learner growth and development, as well as understand mental health and emotional differences among learners that may necessitate leveraging additional resources to support students' wellbeing. Issues of youth mental health, substance abuse, suicide awareness and prevention, and abuse within families will be addressed as will the importance of parent involvement. Candidates will engage in seven hours of preclinical experiences, which include virtual observations of learning environments that involve parents and families in their children's' education while supporting the social-emotional learning (SEL) needs of learners and an interview with an educational professional to explore topics related to parent involvement, youth mental health issues, and professional responsibilities to ensure student wellbeing. Additionally, crosscutting themes of technology and diversity are interwoven for further development. 

“The pandemic transformed the world we live in,” said Popham. “Teachers today need to have that SEL and DEI knowledge. Another thing they need, now more than ever before, is a deeper understanding of educational technology, especially as so many schools are forced into remote instruction. We need to prepare teachers for these events, and until very recently, teachers did not gain this knowledge as part of their education degree programs.”

Three hands stacked

Educational Technology for Teaching and Learning Course Description: This course prepares candidates to incorporate technology into their classroom practices in ways that improve teaching and learning. The ISTE standards will form the basis for their practice. The material will teach candidates to critically evaluate software and hardware options that may positively impact the classroom environment, while also increasing their awareness of ethical usage and considerations related to equity, access to technology, and appropriate use of technology by P–12 students. Assistive technologies to meet the needs of a diverse learner population also will be taught in this course. Candidates will engage in three hours of preclinical experience including virtual observations of classroom practices incorporating technology in order to achieve educational goals. Crosscutting themes of technology and diversity are interwoven for further development. This course incudes how to choose the correct technology and authentically implement it in the classroom. The evaluation of the technology is a critical component and unique to this course.

“Our goal with the Professional Core is to develop the full educator, with the knowledge, skills,and professional disposition to be able to fulfill the varied roles that teachers play these days. We want to help them succeed, and while there is nothing we can do to truly simulate what year one and year two in a classroom will be like, we’ve done everything we can to prepare them for that so that they, and their students, have the best chance at success,” he said.

Popham has three takeaways he hopes all WGU Teachers College students in the program glean from their experience with the series.

“First, I want them to know – from deep inside themselves – that when they look out at their new classrooms, they are not just seeing a sea of students. Each of those children is a unique human being who deserves and needs differentiated instruction and learning resource support.”

A teaching candidate does her demonstration teaching.

“Secondly, I want them to take away a deep understanding of all the foundational knowledge and skills we are giving them, so they know teaching methodology and instructional strategies and how to develop appropriate curriculum and learning resources. They need to be able to evaluate that learning and leverage the available technologies to accelerate and enhance learning to reach all of the different populations of students in their classrooms,” he said.

“And finally, I would love for them to take away a true love for this profession with their eyes wide open. I want them to use this passion to keep that education fire burning as they continue through their degree program and into their classrooms and careers.”

Courses in the new Professional Core series include:

  • Educational Foundations
  • Educational Psychology and Development of Children and Adolescents
  • The School as a Community of Care
  • Fundamentals of Diverse Learners
  • Managing Engaging Learning Environments
  • Introduction to Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment
  • Assessing Impact on Student Learning
  • Educational Technology for Teaching and Learning
  • Inclusive Classroom (for certain degree programs)
  • Survey of Pacific Northwest History (required for Washington state licensure)

To learn more, please access the Teachers College here.


Dr. J. Aaron Popham has focused his career in higher education on providing his academic expertise and servant leadership to improve academic performance and outcomes, accountability, and ROI for the universities he has served. He is the Dean and Academic Vice President of Western Governors University Teachers College. He drives the vision and strategy for the college’s portfolio of degree programs, micro-credentials, and non-degree offerings. He also manages all aspects of the college’s finances and expenses, KPIs, academic ROI, enrollment management, data governance, licensure, and academic talent acquisition and management. 

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