What is a Curriculum? Curriculum Series Number Three.


What is meant by the word curriculum?

The online OED definition is quite narrow:

The subjects comprising a course of study in a school or college.

Decide your course, list the subjects that are to be covered and off you go.

The word comes from the Latin ‘curriculum’ which meant a running, course, career, from ‘currere’ meaning ‘to run’. It is first associated with a school ‘curriculum’ in about 1909.

In the jargon heavy, agreement light world of education there is no absolute agreement as to what is meant by the word curriculum, definitions range from the narrow to the broad.

Geneva Gay thinks of the curriculum embracing the ‘entire culture of the school – not just the subject matter content’ (1990) this is a view I have much sympathy for but if everything¬†is the curriculum then it ceases to have much currency as a term. From the narrow list of subjects to the all-embracing ‘entire-culture’ view whatever is meant by the word curriculum in your institution will obviously have very different ramifications when it comes to curriculum design.

Tim Oates talks of four different types of curriculum they are: the planned, the enacted, the assessed, and the learned. It is what is left in the pupil’s ‘reservoir of knowledge, understanding and experience – in the long term’ that forms, for Oates, the ‘learned curriculum’ and it is this that we ought to care about. What is planned, written down in curriculum documents is as nothing to what is actually taught, narrowly assessed and then remembered.

It is for this reason that I am drawn to a wider view of what the curriculum is rather than the narrow ‘subjects comprising a course of study’. For me curriculum is a narrative, it is the story a school tells of itself and what it thinks is valuable. This narrative, though comprised of lots of different stories, has to have an overarching principle that pulls the whole together. A school that leaves each department to do its own thing curriculum wise will lack this overall view, and though it’s a perfectly reasonable position to take, the unifying narrative of a school’s curriculum, and the rituals involved will shape what is remembered by pupils long after they have left the school.

It is the overarching idea of curriculum that has lead people to give names to different types of ‘curricula’, in order to differentiate them in a way that they hope will lead to making a lasting impression on their pupils. Diane Ravitch wrote about the knowledge-centred or academic curriculum thus:

…the term ‘academic curriculum’ does not refer to the formalistic methods, role recitations, and student passivity about which all reasonable educators and parents have justly complained. Nor does it refer only to teaching skills. It refers instead to the systematic study of language and literature, science and mathematics, history, the arts, and foreign languages; these studies, commonly described today as a ‘liberal education,’ convey important knowledge and skills, cultivate aesthetic imagination, and teach students to think critically and reflectively about the world in which they live.

Others talk of a skills based or competency based curriculum, for example, the RSA talk of their:

…Opening Minds curriculum [which] features five categories of competences: learning, citizenship, relating to people, managing situations and managing information. Focusing on competences means that Opening Minds teaching emphasises the ability to understand and to do, rather than just the transmission of knowledge.

These competences are broad areas of capability, developed in classrooms through a mixture of instruction and practical experience: children plan their work, organise their own time and explore their own ways of learning.

Both these approaches have a very different over-arching narrative. A unity of purpose is fostered by each narrative meaning that the curriculum in school will have certain ideas underpinning the entire approach that the school takes. A knowledge based approach is very different to a skill based approach. Whichever is more akin to your approach, you will notice the claims made by the other approach does not entirely debunk the approach you might wish to take. The RSA talk of ‘transmission of knowledge’ though suggest that they do not ‘just’ do that (implying that some do). Whereas Ravitch suggests the academic curriculum teaches skills, cultivates aesthetic imagination, and teaches students to think critically and reflectively. This could make one think that the differences between the two approaches are not very wide at all but if we go back to what Oates suggests is ‘remembered’ I expect the differences might be starker.

The curriculum is what is taught. Formally and informally but, importantly, explicitly. It is what we intentionally teach for pupils to learn something beyond the management of the institution. It comprises academic and other forms of learning. I hate the term ‘extra-curricular’, preferring the idea of co-curricular or ‘non-examined curriculum’, if one has to make any distinction at all. It is not the ‘entire-culture’ of a school but is certainly a large and important part of that culture. Whether one believes in a knowledge based or a child centred curriculum, or another approach altogether, the unity of purpose an institution gives to its curriculum ought to shape what is remembered by pupils for years to come.



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