The word ‘curriculum’ means different things to different people. Many attempts have been made to pin down an exhaustive definition, but there remains much variation in what exactly is meant when the word curriculum is used.
In fact, reviews of the professional literature have found over 120 distinct definitions for the term curriculum (Portelli, 1987).
Origins of the term ‘curriculum’
It is well known that the Latin origin of the word curriculum relates to the idea of a ‘racecourse’. This in itself has interesting implications that we might infer into our thinking about curricula. The racecourse might imply a track that must be trodden, a competition or struggle to be the best, a pre-determined route to success or a structure that contains an action. Pinar (1974) takes this a step further, privileging the Latin infinitive ‘currere’, which highlights ‘the running’ or the ‘lived experience’ of the concept of curriculum.
So what is the ‘best’ definition for most situations?
In their varying definitions, it seems that theorists are either trying to broaden the definition to take in as many aspects of teaching and learning as possible – such as
an attempt to communicate the essential principles and features of an educational proposal in such a form that it is open to critical scrutiny and capable of effective translation into practice – Stenhouse (1975: p. 4)
or they are trying to specify a particular area of their own interest –
a structured series of intended learning outcomes – Johnson (1967: p. 130)
Either of these approaches would be reasonable, depending on the type of curriculum work that you are undertaking.
The Live, Love, Learn approach to curriculum
For our purposes, we take a slightly dualistic approach to defining curriculum – splitting the overarching concept into two distinct areas.
Firstly, we take a broad and practical view of the curriculum, using the term to describe an educational blueprint for our courses. Within this definition we would include aspects such as:
- the anticipation and pre-assessment of student needs
- the ultimate aim of student attainment
- the learning culture of the institution and the students
- the planned, delivered and experienced learning activities (Prideaux, 2003)
- the alignment of assessment activities (Biggs, 1996)
- the long term reflection of students on their learning experience
Secondly, we take a more value-based view of curriculum. The quintessence of the idea of curriculum is, for us, the overall point of creating the learning experience in the first place.
It is the motivation of the educator, the needs of the student and the attempt to mediate the two.
A bit more detail
The anticipation and pre-assessment of student needs
It is obviously important to consider what and how the students have previously been learning – both in terms of their immediate experience and their longer term education.
It is important to consider the ‘immediate condition’ of the students – have they just come from home, or from another class. Is this their first class after a break, or as in our case, have they just sat through up to six hours of classes. Is this a new topic or way of learning for the students, or is this a continuation of something else they have been learning?
It is also important to consider the prior learning experiences and existing knowledge of the students to appropriately pitch this new experience. As well as formal educational experience, we try to consider their personal and wider life experience and integrate this where possible.
The ultimate aim of student attainment
This is a really ‘big picture’ moment. Yes, we want the students to achieve the learning outcomes that accompany the endeavour. Produce good quality assignments and excel in exams. But we also want something more, don’t we? We want the students to be enriched by the knowledge and skills that they have gained. We want them to be better people because of the experiences that they are having. It all sounds a bit grandiose, but I would be very sad if I woke up one day only caring about the grades that my students get at the end of the course.
The learning culture of the institution and the students
This is another key factor and it has two trajectories. Firstly, by considering the learning culture the students are currently experiencing, we can understand how to make our own learning activities accessible. We can align them to certain values or approaches that the students will recognise from the rest of their educational experience. We can add to this an understanding of students’ prior exposure to other learning cultures – for example, considering the nature of school learning can help us design learning experiences that facilitate a transition to university education for our students.
However, we don’t just want to assimilate and provide students with more of what they are already receiving. We also want to move beyond the prevailing learning culture. We want to extend the students to help them navigate difference and challenge. We want to ensure that a disciplinary education doesn’t narrow our students approach and engagement to the world and others. We want to introduce new learning skills and expose them to new experiences. This is at the heart of the Live, Love, Learn approach and is a key to every learning activity, class and course that we design.
The planned, delivered and experienced learning activities
This is a well-trodden idea – that is to say, we know that what we plan to teach is often not the same as what actually happens in the classroom, and is certainly not the same as what our students actually learn. Partly this might just be due to logistics and time management, partly it might be due to student need (i.e. we might spend more time clarifying an important point at the expense of some supplementary material.
However, we might actually use this tension to our advantage. We can actually plan curricula that have built in contingency – both to reflect the actual demands of delivery of the teaching, and to create space to recognise emerging needs of the students. We might even take this a step further to allow space for negotiated elements within the curriculum, in order to divest more control of learning to the students, and to engage them as partners in their learning. Active participation is an excellent motivator, and being able to tailor their learning experiences empowers students to make the most of each learning opportunity. We certainly maximise this idea with the Live, Love, Learn approach and create ‘dynamic curricula’ that are, from the outset, designed to maximise the potential of this tension.
The alignment of assessment activities
Constructive alignment is the process by which care is taken to ensure that every learning activity is responding to a particular learning outcome or set of outcomes, and that the learning is appropriately assessed. These three elements of learning design (learning outcome, learning activity, assessment) must be directly connected, such that you could draw a diagram showing the links or alignment. This might seem to be common sense, but is often overlooked when curricula evolve over time. It must also be noted that this is assuming that formal assessment is taking place – in many instances this might not be appropriate, but another mechanism of reflecting the learning that has taken place should be employed.
With a curriculum that is largely defined by its content, this is fairly straight forward to achieve. However, when you have a curriculum that privileges skills or attitudes and behaviours over content, this can become more challenging. Such a process-based curriculum may need to have a number of assessment types, and these might not be best placed at the end of a learning period, but better employed as continuous or periodic assessment. However, these challenges are eminently manageable with a little creativity, flexibility and innovation.
The long term reflection of students on their learning experience
This is a very challenging aspect of curriculum design and is particularly important to some of the work we do with the Live, Love, Learn approach. Sometimes, and as discussed above with the ‘ultimate aim of student attainment’, the learning will not be completed during a class, course or even degree. A seed maybe planted that needs time, different life experiences and further educational and professional challenges to germinate and produce impact. When we design curricula, we are thinking both about what the students will make of the experience and then achieve in the short term, but also, the long term impacts that this learning might have. We often have lovely emails from students letting us know that something they didn’t fully appreciate during one of our classes, has now become immensely useful or powerful in their current position – sometimes as a more senior student, and sometimes in the world of work.
This means that as curriculum designers, we also need to plan learning experiences that cannot be directly assessed. That cannot produce immediate impact. That will not result in rave reviews and effusive student feedback in the final week of the course. This is a very hard idea to manage in our educational context where student feedback is institutionally important, immediate results and impacts are celebrated and ‘proof’ is required that each learning experience is of ‘value’ (with value being measured in the very short term).
It doesn’t mean that this idea is not worth pursuing, it just means that you need to recognise this as a long term investment. That you might never get to see any return from. It is possible to capture such impacts, but this requires ingenuity and additional processes and structures than are currently set up to monitor student learning, achievement and satisfaction.
References and further reading
Biggs, J. (1996) Enhancing Teaching Through Constructive Alignment. Higher Education, 32, 347-364.
Pinar, WF (ed.). (1974) Heightened Consciousness, Cultural Revolution and Curriculum Theory. Berkley, McCutchan.
Portelli, JP. (1987) On Defining Curriculum. Journal of Curriculum and Supervision, 2 (4), 354- 67.
Prideaux, D. (2003) ABC of Learning and Teaching Design in Medicine. Curriculum Design. British Medical Journal, 326, 268-270.