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.

The Purpose of Curriculum

We have suggested that curriculum refers to the means and materials with which the student interacts. To determine what will constitute those means and materials, we must decide what we want the curriculum to yield. What will constitute the "educated" individual in our society? In other words, what purpose does the curriculum serve?

The things that teachers teach represent what the larger society wants children to learn. However, beyond teaching reading and writing, what are the necessary things that they should be taught? Is it really necessary to teach science? Does teaching mathematics really lead to logical thinking, or does it just provide students with some basic computational skills that may or may not come in handy at some future time? You may feel that answering such questions is not something a teacher has to be able to do, but rest assured that at some point a parent will ask you questions like these. As a teacher, you will be the representative of "the curriculum" to whom parents and students turn for answers. The purpose of the curriculum is to prepare the student to thrive within the society as it is—and that includes the capacity for positive change and growth.

You Actually Have Four Curriculums

There are essentially four curriculums at work in most educational settings: the explicit, implicit, null, and extra-, or cocurriculum. You are probably familiar with the notions of explicit curriculum and extracurricular activities. The real intrigue of curriculum debate and design comes into play with the implicit and null curriculums.

There are four curriculums:

Explicit curriculum: subjects that will be taught, the identified "mission" of the school, and the knowledge and skills that the school expects successful students to acquire

Implicit curriculum: lessons that arise from the culture of the school and the behaviors, attitudes, and expectations that characterize that culture

Null curriculum: topics or perspectives that are specifically excluded from the curriculum

Extra curriculum: school-sponsored programs that are intended to supplement the academic aspect of the school experience

The Explicit Curriculum

Explicit means "obvious" or "apparent," and that's just what the explicit curriculum is all about: the subjects that will be taught, the identified "mission" of the school, and the knowledge and skills that the school expects successful students to acquire. If you speak with an administrator at your school or where you do your observations or practicum work, ask about the curriculum; it is this publicly announced (and publicly sanctioned) explanation of the message of school that will be explained to you. The explicit curriculum can be discussed in terms of time on task, contact hours, or Carnegie units (high school credit courses). It can be qualified in terms of specific observable, measurable learning objectives.

The Implicit Curriculum

Sometimes referred to as the hidden curriculum, the implicit curriculum refers to the lessons that arise from the culture of the school and the behaviors, attitudes, and expectations that characterize that culture. While good citizenship may be part of the explicit curriculum, a particular ethos that promotes, for example, multiethnic acceptance and cooperation may also characterize a particular school. This is not to say that parents, teachers, and administrators sat around a table and said, "Hey, let's promote acceptance of diverse ethnic values in the context of the American experience." That would be nice, of course, but then it tends to fall into the category of the explicit curriculum. By virtue of a high multiethnic enrollment, a particular school may have a culture of multiethnic cooperation. Another school, isolated in that its enrollment is primarily that of one ethnic group, would develop a different sort of culture. Individual schools within a district, or even classrooms within a school that share a common explicit curriculum, can differ greatly with regard to the implicit curriculum. This is not an altogether bad situation, but to a great degree the implicit curriculum is subjected to less scrutiny than is the explicit curriculum.

There are other aspects to the implicit curriculum, and interestingly enough it is the students who pick up on these messages. Notice how the classrooms and common areas are decorated. These decorations will demonstrate what the implicit curriculum of the school values. Watch the children to see how they interact with each other within the class and throughout the building. Does the school display student work throughout the building? Is there an unwritten rule that children are to be seen and not heard? All of these contribute to a very particular message sent to students about expectations, demands, and codes of conduct.

If you want to investigate the notion of the implicit curriculum further, speak with some elementary school students. Ask them what is required to get good grades or the approval of the teacher. Don't be surprised when rather than telling you about studying for an hour every night or completing homework correctly, they tell you things like "sit up straight" or "be quiet in class" or "be on time." The implicit curriculum, difficult as it is to identify and articulate, is something that students understand very quickly. When young children explain the expectations for a student in school, it will likely be the implicit curriculum that they discuss.

The Null Curriculum

Just as compelling as the notion of the implicit curriculum is Eisner's (1994) concept of the null curriculum. This aspect of curriculum refers to "the options students are not afforded, the perspectives they may never know about, much less be able to use, the concepts and skills that are not a part of their intellectual repertoire" (p. 106-107). The teaching of evolution provides an example. For more than seventy-five years this topic has been an issue of debate. The decision by individual states or school districts within states not to include this topic within its explicit curriculum places it in the category of the null curriculum. In other words, the decision to exclude particular topics or subjects from a curriculum nonetheless affects the curriculum by its very omission.

Another example would be the topic of sex education. Sex education has long been an issue with regard to the degree to which it should be included in the school curriculum, but the newer issues of gender orientation, alternative lifestyles, and alternative family configurations—just to mention a few—exemplify how exclusion from the explicit or implicit curriculum, and thus inclusion in the null curriculum, affects the overall educational experience.

Extracurricular Programs

The fourth aspect of curriculum is that of the extracurriculum or cocurriculum. This curriculum represents all of those school-sponsored programs that are intended to supplement the academic aspect of the school experience. Athletics, band, drama, student government, clubs, honor societies and student organizations, and school dances and social events all fall under the heading of extracurricular activities. Participation in these activities is purely voluntary and does not contribute to grades or credits earned toward advancement from one grade to the next or to graduation. Extracurricular activities are typically open to all, though participation often depends on skill level.