What is Curriculum?

Posted by on Jan 17, 2010

I have been in education for ten years, and I haven’t thought enough about that question.  I’m now in the second week of the course, “Curriculum Theory” in my JHU-ISTE program, and we’ve started wrestling with some tough questions about curriculum.

The first being the title for this post.  What is curriculum?

It seems the answer can’t be cleaved from many political influences in most cases.  That’s fascinating- that so many will battle so hard over the very definition of something I find could be rather to entirely simple.  The more I delve into the topic, the more I find myself forced to simplicity.  In my opinion, curriculum is…

All the stuff our students learn.

That’s it.  Simple.

Where it gets exponentially complicated starts with the very first step away from the definition.  Who gets to pick the stuff the students learn?  Much more difficult and political.

Some say that the curriculum we choose is broken down into three parts; the written, the taught, and the tested.  Sure that’s part of it, but curriculum is much more than that.  It’s ALL the stuff our students learn.  That means both the intended and unintended.  When we start picking exactly what the stuff is that the students will learn, we begin formulating a construct that students will engage when learning.  Obviously, there will be written curriculum that is to be taught and then tested, but there is much more to it than that.  Because it’s the bigger construct of the scope of the curriculum that will likely have the greatest impact on a student.

What I mean is, if we set up a curriculum that focuses on finite, rote recitation of facts as a major outcome, we will intend to have students complete our institution’s educational scope and sequence with a specific knowledge base we’ve predetermined.  However, what we most likely will not intend for students to learn is how to game our system.  This is happening quite often in educational institutions who most value specific, information-based learning outcomes as students figure out how to work the system, or “Do School” as Denise Clark Pope suggests, and their final proficiency may say much more about how they learned to exploit than how they learned to learn what was intended.

Things continue to grow more complicated when we take another step back and look at some of the umbrella questions surrounding curriculum and its inception.

For example, the question was posed in our class last week, “Whose values should be reflected in the content and processes of curriculum?”  That question, frankly, is kicking my tail.  I’ve thought on it quite a bit, and I still don’t have a good answer for it.  I’d like to say mine, but mine probably isn’t yours, so why do I get to decide it’s mine and not yours?  I might say the learners, but what if collectively, they decide they don’t much value education in general?  Where does that leave us?  I could take the cheap way out and say society, but who in the world can say exactly what the values of society are?  Like I said, it’s kicking my tail.

Another step back.

Look bigger than just the curriculum.  Look at schooling in general.  What exactly is the purpose of school?  I’ve written about this before, and I still believe in what I wrote in that post.  It is all about learning.  That is the purpose.  However, if learning is the goal, what is the conduit?  That, I would have to say, is democracy.

This gets us nowhere easier than previous topics.  As Deborah Meier has stated before, democracy is an incredibly difficult process to understand.  There are fewer more important revolutions in the history of mankind than the information revolution.  That knowledge and learning and information moved from the privileged few to the masses means more for the progress of citizenry than perhaps any other reform.  However, learning in a democracy means dealing with difficult issues.  The tyranny of the majority.  The repression of the minority opinion.  The absolute need for empathy.  These are not always addressed in the democratic learning institutions where our students are learning.

If we teach in a democratic institution, then what exactly should be taught?  What subjects should students learn?  Yet another question to which I don’t have the answer.  I’d like to say students should learn what is of interest to them, but that if rife with complication.  I know if I had been given the opportunity to pick that which I would learn when I was in middle school, none of the subjects would have had any academic value.  I can assure you this, though, they would have been interesting.

Should we continue on with the just in case model; giving students a bit of everything just in case they might need it some day?  Should we move to the just in time model that delivers knowledge and learning right in the time when it is needed?  Do either really offer a true solution?

I can absolutely see the need for students to learn how to communicate dynamically, and it is likely there is a certain level of mathematics and science that is needed to succeed in our world, but other than that, what should we teach?  Citizenship, vocational skill, world languages, finance?  What about specific classes in project management, collaboration (the real kind, not just cooperative learning), critical thinking, etc.?

Obviously the more I write, the less I seem to know.

One last point before I bring this rambling, stumbling wreck of a post to a close.

What about me?  What do I do that makes a difference in the lives of learners today?  That, is a very valid question.  I’m the Instructional Technology Coordinator for a K-12 district in Illinois.  I have held this position for two years now.  I’d like to say that in that time, I’ve managed to facilitate great change in the way students interface with learning through technology.  For a host of reasons, I simply can’t say that with truth.  I face the same challenges many of my colleagues face in this profession.  I try to jump many of the same hurdles.  I’ve found there are reasons why I never went out for track in school.

I do believe we can engage our students in new and emerging ways.  I also believe there’s much we can be doing to better some of the old ways.  I will not stop fighting for what I believe is best for our students.  And that is, simply, learning.  I try to ground the work I do in that bedrock.  Many days I fail.  That doesn’t mean I will give up the trying.  As long as I’m in this position, and as long as I’m affiliated with the work of educating students, I will continue to fight for their learning.

Obviously, this is some kind of fragmented post.  But these are the things I’m wrestling with.  If you have any thoughts on one, a few, or all of the topics raised, I would greatly appreciate your sage wisdom.  Or even more questions.  Those seem to be what I can handle best at present.

Thanks to kevindooley for the use of the image.


  1. Ann
    January 17, 2010

    So even if districts do make a decision as to what the curriculum should be, there is always the question, do the teachers teach it as mandated? And then, even if the teachers are teaching it, are the students learning? We all know that teaching does not always = learning. Sometimes I struggle to remember anything I learned in high school, but I must have learned something, no?

    • Ben Grey
      January 17, 2010


      There’s so much that so many of us do not remember from our high school education and earlier. This is why shows like “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader” work. Of course we are, but we just aren’t so freshly imbibed with the trivia as they are. Or think of American history. The average American student will take the exact same history course four times in their formal education. And how many would pass a basic 8th grade history test? We continue spending time teaching what will so soon be forgotten. And we’re making that the point of education. That has to change.

  2. Hadass
    January 18, 2010

    Ben, I took a course on “The Structure of Schools” at the University of Winnipeg as an education student. It was taught by a bureaucrat from the Manitoba Dept of Ed, and she was refreshingly blunt about it – quoted from a book by Ben Levin whose name escapes me (The Purpose of Schooling?). Anyway, she said that the purpose of schools was in large part allocative – determining the winners and the losers, the academics and the people who would clean their houses. I thought that was totally horrible, but I think it *is* a major purpose of school as currently constituted. If everyone passes, what about your curve? When I was a university instructor I got called on the mat if too many of my students passed the course.

    Oh, you were talking about what schools *should* be about? Now that might be worth discussing … looking forward to your continued thoughts.

  3. sylvia martinez
    January 18, 2010

    I don’t think it’s sufficient to define curriculum simply as the “stuff” we want children to know. It’s more than standards or lists of facts. Curriculum typically includes the how, not just the what. There is always an educational philosophy built into curriculum. The curriculum includes how much time is spent on various topics and in what order they are presented. That reflects someone or some groups decision about how a child learns and what the “next” logical topic is. Those decisions are made based on a belief about how learning happens. That’s why I don’t believe you can separate curriculum from an educational philosophy.

    Perhaps this is why you are struggling with it. The question about values in the content and process of curriculum reflects this. There are values in every curriculum, partly in the “what” and even more so in the “how”. Values does not only mean morals. Values can also mean what you believe about the nature of learning, and whether you believe that children are natural learners, or whether learning is only the end result of teaching. Those kinds of decisions hide in every curriculum.

    • Ben Grey
      February 1, 2010

      Sylvia- That’s why I said all the stuff. I agree, it is more than the standards or lists or facts. It’s also the how. That is included in the stuff. It’s every bit of what students leave our institution with. That includes both what we intended from our curriculum, and even what we didn’t intend. Which is why I think we need to be incredibly purposeful when we are building our learning experiences for kids. Because many times, for them, what they learn that we didn’t intend is every bit as powerful as what we did intend.

  4. Dr. B
    January 20, 2010

    Hi Ben,
    I think it is great that you are exploring these questions and willing to engage in courageous discussion with other educators.
    You are correct that allowing students to select is rife with complications… how do we actively engage students and allow them to become participatory citizens in the educational processes that shapes their development? Perhaps, as some authors suggest, we need to focus more on student voice and empowerment?
    Societal pressures continue to shape education and schooling now as much as they did in the 30s! Also, if you look at Sputnik and how we replied in the 50s with the push to return to the R’s and the basics… and then question… what are we responding to now and how are we responding? What is the force behind the neoliberal push and the focus on testing? Interesting questions… would love to chat sometime with you about all of this.

  5. Chad Lehman
    January 24, 2010

    Isn’t curriculum the “stuff” that’s on the test? I’m kind of serious.

    • Ben Grey
      February 1, 2010

      That’s but part of it. Because in the end, what isn’t on the test might speak louder to students than what it is. What I mean is, if we build a curriculum around standardized testing prep, our assessments will test student’s level of preparation for the tests, and we will then be implicitly teaching them the value of standardization and how a system can be gamed by preparing specifically to beat it.

      If we build our tests to be much richer experiences that assess not only content, but also more global skills like innovation, creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, etc., the methodology of that test will also serve as a curricular vehicle by which we teach our students.

      Curriculum is all the stuff our students learn. Both which we intend for them to, and even that which we don’t intend but is learned by the system we create. It really depends on us to create a learning system that considers the whole, not just the one-dimensional content emphasis that is so often demonstrated in traditional curriculum guides.

  6. Robyn McMaster
    February 13, 2010

    Ben, you pose both challenging dilemmas and interesting opportunities. What about bringing more student curiosity to the topics you want to plummet? Seems that bringing more of their ideas to the table in the planning stages of “curriculum development” takes them over the edge as they dig in and follow through. This idea is not original with me, but is found in “Student Assessment that Works: A Practical Approach,” by Dr. Ellen Weber.


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