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Introduction to Curriculum:
Definitions, categories, analysis, development & change

If we hope to create a truly equitable and excellent public school system in the coming decades, then we must begin by asking what we, as a society, consider to be the most consequential goals of public education, and for whom.

Carol D. Lee


Curriculum is the process we use to answer questions like the one above and the answer of what we are, what we want our children to become, and how to achieve it.

The word curriculum originated in ancient Rome and meant a chariot race course.
Imagine, Julius Ceaser talking about which team of horses, driver, chariot would run the curriculum fastest.

Today curriculum focuses on what is learned from school experiences or a course of study. It is documented in curriculum guides, which are documents created from planning and used to implement what is planned.

However, are these documents the entire curriculum?

This article includes:

A survey of thought provokers to review your current beliefs and assumptions about education, schooling, and hence curriculum. An analysis of different meanings and definitions of curriculum that suggests there are five categories of definitions. It includes suggestions, guidelines, and a model to analyze develop, review, & change curriculum, elements of curriculum to use to plan and consider curriculum change or to develop new ones along with documents, rationals, framweworks, and other tools to create and communicate arguments to support your decisions and work.

Documents such as:

While teachers may create curriculum for their own courses, curriculum planning and review is most often done in groups. While the general suggestion for decision making & implementation for parent & community involvement are helpful when working together with any group, the following additional considerations should be made clear to all participants in curriculum planning groups:

When working with curriculum groups it is essential everyone agree to a consensual, evidence based process, where diverse perspectives are considered and the members of the group are committed to reaching a sensible agreement on the essential question: What content, skills, and dispositions should young people learn?

Sample document - Mission statement

It is the mission of the school to create lifelong learners and contributing members of society. The school realizes a partnership of parents, teachers, community members, and administrators who are needed for learners to be successful. It is the responsibility of this partnership to make and assess decisions with regard to cooperative decision-making, for creating a learning culture with appropriate interactions for a learning environment where teachers can facilitate learning and affect student success. A process that facilitates the development of ethical citizens with democratic values, social skills, appreciation for heritage, culture, creative expression, and life on Earth. Who will be lifelong learners who are contributing members of society responsive to solving problems and making decisions that care and respect all life for a sustainable Earth.

Definition analysis

Curriculum probably has a greater variety of definitions than any other word used in education. You can review twenty+ definitions or this representative handful:

  • Curriculum is everything that happens within the school, including extra class activities, guidance, and interpersonal relationships.
  • Curriculum is that which is taught both inside and outside of school directed by the school.
  • Curriculum is everything that is planned by school personnel.
  • Curriculum is a series of experiences undergone by learners in school.
  • Curriculum is that which an individual learner experiences as a result of schooling.

The definition you select will effect the way you "do curriculum". 

If you accept a definition of curriculum as a set of subjects you face a much simpler task than a school system which takes on the responsibility for all experiences the learner has both inside and outside of the school.

Be aware, you may select or favor, a particular definition, but others exist and are just as favored by others and should not be rejected lightly as all have advantages and disadvantages.

  • How does your definition fit with these five categories of curriculum?

Curriculum definitions five categories:

If you review curriculum definitions you will find they can be classified into five categories:

  1. Curriculum as a product - program, document, electronic media, or multimedia
  2. Curriculum as a program of study - usually courses offered, curriculum sequences of study in standards as benchmarks, gateways, aims
  3. Curriculum as intended learnings - goals, content, concepts, generalizations, outcomes
  4. Curriculum as experiences of the learner - activities, planned and unplanned
  5. Hidden curriculum - what students learn that isn't planned - unless you plan for this - or is it possible?

Let's look at some advantages and disadvantages of each:

1. Curriculum as product

Defining curriculum as a product - program, document, electronic media, or multimedia has:


  1. Limits curriculum to specific programs, courses, activities, or outcomes described in those documents.
  2. Assumes all possible outcomes can or will be described in such documents.
  3. May separate processes of learning from what is to be learned.


  1. Can be described in concrete terms and definite ways.
  2. Provides direction for planning and development by producing a document.

Authors with related works: James Macdonald, Hilda Taba, Beauchamp

2. Curriculum as program of study

Defining curriculum as program of study or list of courses in school is usually used to describe activities or events used to achieve specific purposes. From required courses of study to electives.


  1. Easily described in concrete terms.
  2. Recognize learning takes place in many different settings in school.


  1. View that all learners learning is contained in programs.
  2. Programs imply that what is described, is what students will actually learn.

Authors with related work: Bestor, Phenix

Curriculum as program of study usually centers on a subject presentation approach such as national standards classified by subject, or standardized testing organizations which encourages school districts to organize class schedules around subject areas, hiring teachers according to their certification in subject areas and hence teachers set subject related yearly goals. Select subject oriented textbooks and use them as a course of study, create plans for a course of study based on a subject orientation and sequence subject related activities for a school year with a daily schedule divided into subject areas.


  1. Easy to understand as it has been the traditional approach
  2. Linear development
  3. Easily revised, usually one text per subject,
  4. Easily managed,


  1. Mastery of content can be deceiving if mastery is defined at lower levels of Bloom's Taxonomy.
  2. Predominately goal oriented.
  3. Less likely to have heterogeneous grouping and grouping across grades levels.
  4. Less likely to offer students choices or a personalized instruction so learning is not at each student's level and rate.

3. Defining curriculum as intended learnings

Defining curriculum as intended learnings or what is to be learned, not how or why.


  1. Curriculum becomes a concept rather than a product.
  2. More manageable focus by limiting the scope.


  1.  Fragmentation by not including: how to achieve and why it needs to be achieved.

4. Curriculum as experiences of the learner


  1. Focuses on learning and the learner, rather than teaching.
  2. includes all experiences planned and unplanned.
  3. Can allow for broader experiences.
  4. Can be more meaningful learning if it relates to student interests, needs, or if students help select meaningful learning activities.
  5. Can be greater retention of learning as subject matter takes on a more increasingly personal significance, and progress becomes a means to achieve power.


  1. more abstract and complex
  2. makes curriculum so comprehensive that it cannot be described in simple terms or short phrases

An experienced centered approach is most likely implemented with a unit, project, portfolio approach. Where a topic like: people and transportation is selected and modifies the subject content for a specific purpose usually related to and based on student's needs. It is more flexible to meet changing needs of the students, correlate learning across subject by themes and relate to the real world.

5. Curriculum as planned and hidden

Intended learnings and experiences are not the only elements of curriculum. It's helpful when thinking abut curriculum to remember that all curriculum planning can be thought of as the 1) planned curriculum and what isn't planned as the 2) hidden curriculum. Both of these are important to consider when we think about education and how or students will be prepared for their future lives.

Other considerations:

Students learn in accordance with their purposes and experiences, therefore we must look to a responsive interactive relationship with them to know whether they are or not learning and if so what. What they learn is dependent on what they choose to actively perceive and how they are able to perceive and negotiate their perceptions to construct meaning, and connect it to their current understandings.

No matter what we do, nothing is possible without the learners involvement. Therefore, any of these descriptions of curriculum must include a student centered approach that is responsive to the their needs.

Different school systems and different teachers may use different approaches and achieve the same goals, but no one can achieve their goals without the student's involvement.

MOST curriculum change is cut and paste reorganization, more of this and less of this, move physical science to 8th grade and biological science to 7th, switch short stories and poetry from semester to semester, add a special class for media/computers, bring the guidance counselor into the classroom once every two weeks to work with the students,...

These kind of changes, usually well meaning and based on students' needs, don't truly have much of a chance for large scale success. Yes, there are anecdotal, proof by selective instance kinds of stories, but overall a really significant impact for a curricular change must change the way a majority of the faculty, staff, and students go about learning.

To achieve this a curriculum development model can be used to analyze any changes and develop a strategic plan to attain significant change.

Curriculum development process or model

When reviewing and developing curriculum it is important to use a process that includes a thorough review and comprehensive inclusion of all the conditions which will affect your success or failure. A model to do that provides a checklist of what to consider when making decisions to achieve an inclusive review and development process.

The following model includes: who the participants will be that are involved in the process, the types of documents to be created, what screens will be used and their possible affects on the decisions made, and the type of process used.

Curriculum development model
Participants Documentation types for Enacted Curriculum Decision Screens Process

Combination including some or all representatives from:

Who will participate?

  • teachers,
  • administration,
  • staff,
  • community,
  • students,
  • parents,
  • business partners


Grouping of participants

Are they ...

  • Selective,
  • Inclusive,
  • Large groups,
  • Small groups,


Governance and Leadership of participants

Is it ...

  • Hierarchical,
  • Democratic,
  • Boss management,
  • Lead management,
  • Conflict resolution,
  • Decision making,
  • Resistance to change,
  • Win - Win

Student empowerment / Student voice

What is their level of empowerment?

Most Empowerment - Students as active and important partners (With appropriate admin. approval)

  • Students participate in school policy discussions (school board, curriculum committees, student handbook, …)
  • Students participate in transforming school core structures to be more equitable. identify problems and work to create solutions. Donate and resell clothing, books; collect money for lunch programs, …)
  • Centers equity and promotes students' sociopolitical developmen
  • Students organize events (school dances, student council, recycling, environmental pickups, events, …)
  • Excluded from structural decision making
  • Conduct student surveys
  • Participate in focus groups & student interviews

Least empoerment - administration holds power

What documents are available or need to be created?

  • Mission statement
  • Vision statements
  • Deliberation of beliefs / assumptions / aims / goals
  • Principled Procedures
  • Common needs

Knowledge documentation

Subjects, social skill, multicultural, special needs, extracurricular, character education, values, ethics, moral, citizenship, emotional, technology, bullying, violence.

Knowledge can be organized around: goals, concepts, objectives, benchmarks, learning outcomes,

All of which can be written as specific or general and published in documents such as:

  • Programs of study
  • Instructional Examples
  • Teacher action plans
  • Teacher/student(s) interactions, interactions with materials, ideas, and students interactions with students in different groupings.
  • Assessment Procedures
  • Handbooks for teachers, students, and parents with policy and procedures related to school, extra curricular activities, management, decision making...
  • Time lines
  • Resource documents
  • Strategic planning, five year plans...


Hidden curriculum

What hasn't been considered that will affect all participants, students and staff?


What are the current practices?

Knowledge (Standards and non standard)

What are the current or needed resources?
  • Funding,
  • Budget,
  • Physical plant building,
  • Community,
  • Business,
  • Technology,
  • Teachers,
  • Staff,
  • Materials

What scientific research &

Wisdom of practice do we use to support our decision making?

Philosophy good life, citizens, parents, administration, students, teachers, traditions, beliefs, assumptions, new trends

  • Nature of the student,
  • Learning theory,
  • Child and adolescent development,
  • Motivation
  • Grouping of students,
  • Social


Assessment & evaluation considerations:

Community, citizens, parents, students, business, rural, urban, gender, ethnicity, diversity

School and classroom environment


Scheduling - Time frames, Calendar year, day


Interactions responsiveness, instructional, conflict resolution, consensus building, behavior management

Graduation requirements, gateways, retention

Class size, school size,

Violence, Safety

Special needs

What is our current decision making process?

  • On going assessment,
  • strategic planning,
  • needs assessment, and other
  • reviews of mission, beliefs, principles, assumptions, policy, procedures, outcomes and discuss relevance of mission to identified areas of concern.

Proceduralized through: Discussion, questioning, recognition of problems, identify areas of concern on which to focus and select area or problem…


Change process

How should any change be implemented?

Ideas to consider when analyzing possible curricular change

  • Describe rationale for why change is necessary and how change fits with mission…
  • Identify goals
  • Identify resources, people who might be involved, possible conflicts, what success could look like, how to measure success, who would evaluate and how.
  • Develop plan
  • Develop time line
  • Describe what flexibility is included for success and relevance to mission
  • Implement plan
  • On going assessment
  • Evaluate


Strategic plan

A strategic plan usually includes the following elements created with a curriculum development process or something similar with the goal of creating a document to guide the achievement of specific goals. It often includes the following elements:

Elements of a strategic plan

Analyzing Curricular Change:
Ideas and Variables to Consider before changing

Context of the problem

Suggestions for creating arguments for & against specific changes

Possible reasons to support or reject arguments

Arguments for desirability: Doing X will:

Arguments for utility: Doing X will:

Arguments for obligation: Doing X will:

Arguments for feasibility: Doing X will:

Check for soundness of arguments

Frameworks & other tools for creating arguments & communicating support for them

Survey or Curriculum Thought Provoker

Directions: Leave the ones you agree with and cross out the ones you disagree with.

Curriculum is:

  1. A curriculum that concentrates on teaching and learning is in the best interest of all learners.
  2. Standards are necessary to establish a focus to educate students for the real world.
  3. Teachers should be thought of as mainly a technocrat.
  4. Teachers should be thought of as mainly an automaton.
  5. Teachers should be thought of as mainly a trainer.
  6. Teachers should be thought of as facilitators of learning.
  7. The way that you understand the world is better than the way that your parents or grandparents understood the world.
  8. The way that you relate to people is better for the world than the way your parents or grandparents related to people.
  9. Children and adolescents should be taught to think on their own.
  10. Children and adolescents should be indoctrinated into the ways of the culture.
  11. Children and adolescents should be trained into the ways of the culture.
  12. Children and adolescents should be educated so they will be able to create a culture.
  13. School is for knowledge making.
  14. School is for knowledge getting.
  15. Education is best thought of as a ladder of opportunity.
  16. Education is best thought of as a highway of opportunity.
  17. Children should be treated as clay to be molded.
  18. We know what children should learn.
  19. We know what children will need to know in 20 years.
  20. An educational objective is an oxymoron.
  21. Human development is potential to be developed by the teacher, parent, employer, state, or nation.
  22. Human development is to be achieved by the individual child to control their destiny.
  23. Students should learn for the sake of learning.
  24. Education is to maximize the individual's control over society.
  25. There is a basic set of knowledge that all students need to know.
  26. All students need to have access to the same educational opportunities.
  27. All students need to develop certain skills and knowledge that will enable them to contribute to the continued growth of technological and industrial society.
  28. We should insist that all pupils have access to the same knowledge.
  29. We should tailor educational experiences to suit the individual needs of all pupils.
  30. Pupils should have opportunities to develop intellectual and moral qualities to meaningfully participate in a democracy.
  31. If children find that learning is fun, they will be successful.


Review your selections and write a consolidation.

Curriculum is







How do your ideas of curriculum fit with your ideas of education and teaching?

Curriculum Definition Collection

Curriculum definitions
A. Bestor (1956):  The curriculum must consist essentially of disciplined study in five great areas: 1) command of mother tongue and the systematic study of grammar, literature, and writing. 2) mathematics, 3) sciences, 4) history, & 5) foreign language.
Albert Oliver (1977): Curriculum is the educational program of the school” and divided into four basic elements: 1) program of studies, 2) program of experiences, 3) program of service, & 4) hidden curriculum.
B. Othanel Smith (1957):  A sequence of potential experiences is set up in the school for the purpose of disciplining children and youth in group ways of thinking and acting.  This set of experiences is referred to as the curriculum.
Bell (1971): The offering of socially valued knowledge, skills, and attitudes made available to students through a variety of arrangements during the time they are at school, college, or university.
Bobbit (1918):  Curriculum is that series of things which children and youth must do and experience by way of developing abilities to do the things well that make up the affairs of adult life; and to be in all respects what adults should be.
Caswell and Campbell (1935):  Curriculum is composed of all of the experiences children have under the guidance of the teacher.
Daniel Tanner & Laurel N. Tanner (1988) That reconstruction of knowledge and experience systematically developed under the auspices of the school (or university), to enable the learner to increase his or her control of knowledge and experience.
David G. Armstrong (1989):  Is a master plan for selecting content and organizing learning experiences for the purpose of changing and developing learners' behaviors and insights.
Decker Walker (1990): A curriculum consists of those matter: A.  that teachers and students attend to together, B.  that students, teachers, and others concerned generally recognize as important to study and learn, as indicated particularly by using them as a basis for judging the success of both school and scholar, C.  the manner in which these matters are organized in relationship to one another, in relationship to the other elements in the immediate educational situation and in time and space.
Duncan & Frymier (1967):  A set of events, either proposed, occurring, or having occurred, which has the potential for reconstructing human experience.
Goodman (1963): A set of abstractions from actual industries, arts, professions, and civic activities, and these abstraction are brought into the school-box and taught.
Harnack (1968)  The curriculum embodies all the teaching-learning experiences guided and directed by the school.
Hass (1980): The curriculum is all of the experiences that individual learners have in a program of education whose purpose is to achieve broad goals and related specific objectives, which is planned in terms of a framework of theory and research or past and present professional practice.
Hilda Taba (1962): All curricula, no matter what their particular design, are composed of certain elements.  A curriculum usually contains a statement of aims and of specific objectives; it indicates some selection and organization of content; it either implies or manifests certain patterns of learning and teaching, whether because the objectives demand them or because the content organization requires them.  Finally, it includes a program of evaluation of the outcomes.
Hollis L. Caswell & Doak S. Campbell:  All the experiences children have under the guidance of teachers.
J. Galen Saylor, William M. Alexander, & Arthur J. Lewis (1974): We define curriculum as a plan for providing sets of learning opportunities to achieve broad goals and related specific objectives for an identifiable population served by a single school center for persons to be educated.
Johnson (1967): Curriculum is a structural series of intended learning outcomes.  Curriculum prescribes (or at least anticipates) the results of instruction.  It does not prescribe the means...  To be used in achieving the results.
Jon Wiles & Joseph Bondi (1989):  Curriculum is a goal or set of values, which are activated through a development process culminating in classroom experiences for students.  The degree to which those experiences are a true representation of the envisioned goal or goals is a direct function of the effectiveness of the curriculum development efforts.
Krug (1957):  Curriculum consists of all the means of instruction used by the school to provide opportunities for student learning experiences leading to desired learning outcomes.
Musgrave (1968):  The contrived activity and experience- organized, focused, systematic- that life, unaided, would not provide.
P. Phenix (1962):  The curriculum should consist entirely of knowledge which comes from the disciplines... Education should be conceived as a guided recapitulation of the process of inquiry which gave rise to the fruitful bodies of organized knowledge comprising the established disciplines.
Peter F. Oliva (1989): The program, a plan, content, and learning experiences.
Ralph Tyler (1957):  The curriculum is all of the learning of students which is planned by and directed by the school to attain its educational goals.
Robert Hutchins (1936):  The curriculum should consist of permanent studies-rules of grammar, reading, rhetoric and logic, and mathematics (for the elementary and secondary school), and the greatest books of the western world (beginning at the secondary level of schooling).
Ronald C. Doll (1988):  The formal and informal content and process by which learners gain knowledge and understanding, develop skills, and alter attitudes, appreciations, and values under the auspices of that school.
Ronald Doll (1970):  The curriculum is now generally considered to be all of the experiences that learners have under the auspices of the school.
Shaver & Berlak (1968):  situations or activities arranged and brought into play by the teacher to effect student learning.
Smith & Orlovsky (1978): the content pupils are expected to learn.