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Curriculum Definition

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Updated on Jul 19, 2013

Defining Curriculum

Curriculum refers to the means and materials with which students will interact for the purpose of achieving identified educational outcomes. Arising in medieval Europe was the trivium, an educational curriculum based upon the study of grammar, rhetoric, and logic. The later quadrivium (referring to four subjects rather than three as represented by the trivium) emphasized the study of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. These seven liberal arts should sound a lot like what you experienced during your formal education.

The emphasis on single subjects persists even today. Very likely you moved from classroom to classroom, particularly throughout your secondary education, studying a different subject with each teacher. Yet there was more to your education. Perhaps you participated in athletics, or the band, or clubs, or student government, or made the choice not to participate in any extracurricular activities. All of these (including the option not to participate) are part of what we might call the contemporary curriculum. But there is more.

Some educators would say that the curriculum consists of all the planned experiences that the school offers as part of its educational responsibility. Then there are those who contend that the curriculum includes not only the planned, but also the unplanned experiences as well. For example, incidents of violence that have occurred at a number of schools across the nation are hardly a planned component of the curriculum. However, the manner in which violence is addressed before, during, and after the actual event sends a very definite message about how people in our culture interact and how the laws of our nation are applied.

Another perspective suggests that curriculum involves organized rather than planned experiences because any event must flow of its own accord, the outcome not being certain beforehand. For instance, competitions, whether academic or athletic, can be organized, but the outcomes will depend on a myriad of factors that cannot be planned.

Which brings us to the notion of emphasizing outcomes versus experiences. This shift to the notion of outcomes is very much in keeping with the current movement toward accountability in the public schools, that is, the perspective that there are indeed specific things that the schools are supposed to accomplish with children. District personnel, school administrators, and you as one of many teachers are to be held accountable by the public/taxpayers for ensuring that those objectives are met.

Curriculum, it turns out, is indeed much more than the idea of specific subjects as represented by the trivium or the quadrivium. And, as we will see in the next section, it can be characterized not only by what it does include but also by what it intentionally excludes.

A key concept to keep in mind is that the curriculum is only that part of the plan that directly affects students. Anything in the plan that does not reach the students constitutes an educational wish, but not a curriculum. Half a century ago Bruner (1960) wrote, "Many curricula are originally planned with a guiding idea . . . But as curricula are actually executed, as they grow and change, they often lose their original form and suffer a relapse into a certain shapelessness" (p. 54). Curriculum—however grand the plans may be—can only be that portion of the plan that actually reaches the student. Planning that keeps that point in focus can be expected to result in a more focused curriculum.

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