In formal education, a curriculum (//; plural: curricula // or curriculums) is the planned interaction of pupils with instructional content, materials, resources, and processes for evaluating the attainment of educational objectives.
Other definitions combine various elements to describe curriculum as follows:
- All the learning which is planned and guided by the school, whether it is carried on in groups or individually, inside or outside the school. (John Kerr)
- Outlines the skills, performances, attitudes, and values pupils are expected to learn from schooling. It includes statements of desired pupil outcomes, descriptions of materials, and the planned sequence that will be used to help pupils attain the outcomes.
- The total learning experience provided by a school. It includes the content of courses (the syllabus), the methods employed (strategies), and other aspects, like norms and values, which relate to the way the school is organized.
- The aggregate of courses of study given in a learning environment. The courses are arranged in a sequence to make learning a subject easier. In schools, a curriculum spans several grades.
- Curriculum can refer to the entire program provided by a classroom, school, district, state, or country. A classroom is assigned sections of the curriculum as defined by the school.
As an idea, curriculum came from the Latin word which means a race or the course of a race (which in turn derives from the verb "currere" meaning to run/to proceed). As early as the seventeenth century, the University of Glasgow referred to its "course" of study as a curriculum, and by the nineteenth century European universities routinely referred to their curriculum to describe both the complete course of study (as for a degree in Surgery) and particular courses and their content. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the related term curriculum vitae ("course of one's life") became a common expression to refer to a brief account of the course of one's life.
A curriculum is prescriptive, and is based on a more general syllabus which merely specifies what topics must be understood and to what level to achieve a particular grade or standard. Curriculum has numerous definitions, which can be slightly confusing. In its broadest sense a curriculum may refer to all courses offered at a school. This is particularly true of schools at the university level, where the diversity of a curriculum might be an attractive point to a potential student.
A curriculum may also refer to a defined and prescribed course of studies, which students must fulfill in order to pass a certain level of education. For example, an elementary school might discuss how its curriculum, or its entire sum of lessons and teachings, is designed to improve national testing scores or help students learn the basics. An individual teacher might also refer to his or her curriculum, meaning all the subjects that will be taught during a school year.
On the other hand, a high school might refer to a curriculum as the courses required in order to receive one’s diploma. They might also refer to curriculum in exactly the same way as the elementary school, and use curriculum to mean both individual courses needed to pass, and the overall offering of courses, which help prepare a student for life after high school.
The fundamental beliefs and principles underlying a curriculum are very important. Traditionally high school prepared students for college. Those students who did not intend to go to college often dropped out of high school. During the middle of the 20th century it was believed that high school was valuable for all students so the high schools began tracking students. Some took more rigorous classes to prepare for college while others took a general track. Later high schools added courses to prepare for vocations that did not require college. Now high school is desired for all students.
- Should curriculum be designed as pieces or as a whole? One concern in the 1990s and after is the fragmented curriculum. This has resulted from adding courses and content without aligning them to what is already being taught. The curriculum today has many pieces, but seems not to have a wholeness about it. For example, even in the primary grades, there may be classes in phonetics, reading, language arts, and writing. This is very fragmented as reading and writing are part of the whole system of communicating with symbols.
- What is a good balance between academic achievement and developmentally appropriate curriculum is an ongoing question. Academic achievement sets levels of standards to meet in certain grade levels which is advocated by those who believe all students should attain the same skills; however, those who are aware of developmental stages and the problems of late development believe that levels of standards should be more flexible and compared over multiage levels.
- Should it be a spiral or mastery curriculum is a major design question. The American curriculum has been a spiral curriculum in which many ideas are introduced at each grade and then repeated at following grades to add depth of understanding. The Outcome Based curriculum advocated by Spady used a different approach, that of mastery. For this, the students study a topic in depth until it is mastered. The question of “what is mastery?” has been discussed by many curriculum committees as they implement this type of curriculum.
Traditional Points of View of Curriculum
In the early years of the 20th century, the traditional concepts held of the "curriculum is that it is a body of subjects or subject matter prepared by the teachers for the students to learn." It was synonymous to the "course of study" and "syllabus".
Robert M. Hutchins views curriculum as "permanent studies" where the rules of grammar, rhetoric and logic and mathematics for basic education are emphasized. Basic education should emphasize 3 Rs and college education should be grounded on liberal education. On the other hand, Arthur Bestor as an essentialist, believes that the mission of the school should be intellectual training, hence curriculum should focus on the fundamental intellectual disciplines of grammar, literature and writing. It should also include mathematics, science, history and foreign language.
This definition leads us to the view of Joseph Schwab that discipline is the sole source of curriculum. Thus in our education system, curriculum is divided into chunks of knowledge we call subject areas in basic education such as English, Mathematics, Science, Social Studies and others. In college, discipline may include humanities, sciences, languages and many more. To Phenix, curriculum should consist entirely of knowledge which comes from various disciplines.
Thus curriculum can be viewed as a field of study. It is made up of its foundations (philosophical, historical, psychological, and social foundations); domains of knowledge as well as its research theories and principles. Curriculum is taken as scholarly and theoretical. It is concerned with broad historical, philosophical and social issues and academics.
Progressive Points of View of Curriculum
On the other hand, to a progressivist, a listing of school subjects, syllabi, course of study, and list of courses of specific discipline do not make a curriculum. These can only be called curriculum if the written materials are actualized by the learner. Broadly speaking, curriculum is defined as the total learning experiences of the individual. This definition is anchored on John Dewey's definition of experience and education. He believed that reflective thinking is a means that unifies curricular elements. Thought is not derived from action but tested by application.
Caswell and Campbell viewed curriculum as "all experiences children have under the guidance of teachers." This definition is shared by Smith, Stanley and shores when they defined "curriculum as a sequence of potential experiences set up in schools for the purpose of disciplining children and youth in group ways of thinking and acting."
Marsh and Willis on the other hand view curriculum as all the "experiences in the classroom which are planned and enacted by teacher, and also learned by the students.
In The Curriculum, the first textbook published on the subject, in 1918, John Franklin Bobbitt said that curriculum, as an idea, has its roots in the Latin word for race-course, explaining the curriculum as the course of deeds and experiences through which children become the adults they should be, for success in adult society. Furthermore, the curriculum encompasses the entire scope of formative deed and experience occurring in and out of school, and not only experiences occurring in school; experiences that are unplanned and undirected, and experiences intentionally directed for the purposeful formation of adult members of society. (cf. image at right.)
To Bobbitt, the curriculum is a social engineering arena. Per his cultural presumptions and social definitions, his curricular formulation has two notable features: (i) that scientific experts would best be qualified to and justified in designing curricula based upon their expert knowledge of what qualities are desirable in adult members of society, and which experiences would generate said qualities; and (ii) curriculum defined as the deeds-experiences the student ought to have to become the adult he or she ought to become.
Hence, he defined the curriculum as an ideal, rather than as the concrete reality of the deeds and experiences that form people to who and what they are.
Contemporary views of curriculum reject these features of Bobbitt's postulates, but retain the basis of curriculum as the course of experience(s) that forms human beings into persons. Personal formation via curricula is studied at the personal level and at the group level, i.e. cultures and societies (e.g. professional formation, academic discipline via historical experience). The formation of a group is reciprocal, with the formation of its individual participants.
Although it formally appeared in Bobbitt's definition, curriculum as a course of formative experience also pervades John Dewey's work (who disagreed with Bobbitt on important matters). Although Bobbitt's and Dewey's idealistic understanding of "curriculum" is different from current, restricted uses of the word, curriculum writers and researchers generally share it as common, substantive understanding of curriculum.
Primary and secondary education
In the U.S., each state, with the individual school districts, establishes the curricula taught. Each state, however, builds its curriculum with great participation of national academic subject groups selected by the United States Department of Education, e.g. National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) nctm.org for mathematical instruction. In Australia each state's Education Department establishes curricula with plans for a National Curriculum in 2011. UNESCO's International Bureau of Education has the primary mission of studying curricula and their implementation worldwide.
Curriculum means two things: (i) the range of courses from which students choose what subject matters to study, and (ii) a specific learning program. In the latter case, the curriculum collectively describes the teaching, learning, and assessment materials available for a given course of study.
Currently, a spiral curriculum is promoted as allowing students to revisit a subject matter's content at the different levels of development of the subject matter being studied. The constructivist approach proposes that children learn best via pro-active engagement with the educational environment, i.e. learning thru discovery.
Crucial to the curriculum is the definition of the course objectives that usually are expressed as learning outcomes' and normally include the program's assessment strategy. These outcomes and assessments are grouped as units (or modules), and, therefore, the curriculum comprises a collection of such units, each, in turn, comprising a specialised, specific part of the curriculum. So, a typical curriculum includes communications, numeracy, information technology, and social skills units, with specific, specialized teaching of each.
A core curriculum is a curriculum, or course of study, which is deemed central and usually made mandatory for all students of a school or school system. However, this is not always the case. For example, a school might mandate a music appreciation class, but students may opt out if they take a performing musical class, such as orchestra, band, chorus, etc. Core curricula are often instituted, at the primary and secondary levels, by school boards, Departments of Education, or other administrative agencies charged with overseeing education.
In the United States, the Common Core State Standards Initiative promulgates a core curriculum for states to adopt and optionally expand upon. This coordination is intended to make it possible to use more of the same textbooks across states, and to move toward a more uniform minimum level of educational attainment.
Many educational institutions are currently trying to balance two opposing forces. On the one hand, some believe students should have a common knowledge foundation, often in the form of a core curriculum; on the other hand, others want students to be able to pursue their own educational interests, often through early specialty in a major, however, other times through the free choice of courses. This tension has received a large amount of coverage due to Harvard University's reorganization of its core requirements.
An essential feature of curriculum design, seen in every college catalog and at every other level of schooling, is the identification of prerequisites for each course. These prerequisites can be satisfied by taking particular courses, and in some cases by examination, or by other means, such as work experience. In general, more advanced courses in any subject require some foundation in basic courses, but some coursework requires study in other departments, as in the sequence of math classes required for a physics major, or the language requirements for students preparing in literature, music, or scientific research. A more detailed curriculum design must deal with prerequisites within a course for each topic taken up. This in turn leads to the problems of course organization and scheduling once the dependencies between topics are known.
At the undergraduate level, individual college and university administrations and faculties sometimes mandate core curricula, especially in the liberal arts. But because of increasing specialization and depth in the student's major field of study, a typical core curriculum in higher education mandates a far smaller proportion of a student's course work than a high school or elementary school core curriculum prescribes.
Amongst the best known and most expansive core curricula programs at leading American colleges are that of Columbia College at Columbia University, as well as the University of Chicago's. Both can take up to two years to complete without advanced standing, and are designed to foster critical skills in a broad range of academic disciplines, including: the social sciences, humanities, physical and biological sciences, mathematics, writing and foreign languages.
In 1999, the University of Chicago announced plans to reduce and modify the content of its core curriculum, including lowering the number of required courses from 21 to 15 and offering a wider range of content. When The New York Times, The Economist, and other major news outlets picked up this story, the University became the focal point of a national debate on education. The National Association of Scholars released a statement saying, "It is truly depressing to observe a steady abandonment of the University of Chicago's once imposing undergraduate core curriculum, which for so long stood as the benchmark of content and rigor among American academic institutions. Simultaneously, however, a set of university administrators, notably then-President Hugo Sonnenschein, argued that reducing the core curriculum had become both a financial and educational imperative, as the university was struggling to attract a commensurate volume of applicants to its undergraduate division compared to peer schools as a result of what was perceived by the pro-change camp as a reaction by “the average eighteen-year-old” to the expanse of the collegiate core.
Further, as core curricula began to be diminished over the course of the twentieth century at many American schools, several smaller institutions became famous for embracing a core curriculum that covers nearly the student’s entire undergraduate education, often utilizing classic texts of the western canon to teach all subjects including science. St. John’s College in the United States is one example of this approach.
Some colleges opt for the middle ground of the continuum between specified and unspecified curricula by using a system of distribution requirements. In such a system, students are required to take courses in particular fields of learning, but are free to choose specific courses within those fields.
Other institutions have largely done away with core requirements in their entirety. Brown University offers the "New Curriculum," implemented after a student-led reform movement in 1969, which allows students to take courses without concern for any requirements except those in their chosen concentrations (majors), plus two writing courses. In this vein it is certainly possible for students to graduate without taking college-level science of mathematics or math courses, or to take only science or math courses. Amherst College requires that students take one of a list of first-year seminars, but has no required classes or distribution requirements. Others include Evergreen State College, Hamilton College, and Smith College.
Wesleyan University is another school that has not and does not require any set distribution of courses. However, Wesleyan does make clear "General Education Expectations" such that if a student does not meet these expectations, he/she would not be eligible for academic honors upon graduation.
- Academic advising
- Calvert School
- Course Atlas (education)
- Course catalog (education)
- Curriculum studies
- Description of a career (DOAC)
- Extracurricular activity
- Family and Consumer Science
- Hidden curriculum and the specific book The Hidden Curriculum
- Lesson plan
- Open source curriculum
- Structure of the disciplines
- Oxford English Dictionary, "Curriculum," 152
- Bilbao, Purita P., Lucido, Paz I., Iringan, Tomasa C., and Javier, Rodrigo B. (2008). Curriculum Development. Quezon City: Lorimar Publishing, Inc.
- Bobbitt, John Franklin. The Curriculum. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1918.
- Jackson, Philip W. "Conceptions of Curriculum and Curriculum Specialists." In Handbook of Research on Curriculum: A Project of the American Educational Research Association, edited by Philip W. Jackson, 3-40. New York: Macmillan Pub. Co., 1992.
- Pinar, William F., William M. Reynolds, Patrick Slattery, and Peter M. Taubman. Understanding Curriculum: An Introduction to the Study of Historical and Contemporary Curriculum Discourses. New York: Peter Lang, 1995.
- National Education Standards...They're Back! (article)
- Diane Ravitch, National Standards in American Education A Citizen's Guide (book)
- Kelly, A.V. (2009). The Curriculum: theory and practice (6th ed.).
- "Harvard Gazette: Discussing the Core Curriculum". Harvard University. Retrieved 9 February 2013.
- "Harvard approves new general education curriculum". The Boston Globe. 15 May 2007. Retrieved 9 February 2013.
- "Home Page". National Association of Scholars. Archived from the original on 12 April 2013. Retrieved 7 February 2014.
- "Examples in Action: Our List of Open Curriculum Colleges & Universities". Open Jar Foundation. Archived from the original on 4 August 2012. Retrieved 7 February 2014.
- "General Education Expectations, Registrar". Weslayan University. Retrieved 7 February 2014.
- Bilbao, Purita P., Lucido, Paz I., Iringan, Tomasa C., and Javier, Rodrigo B. (2008). Curriculum Development. Quezon City: Lorimar Publishing, Inc.
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