The subject of curriculum is not a trivial one. It has ignited much debate in the past century and curriculum studies has become its own field and profession. The debate is natural at a very deep level, as every society must ensure that the next generation keeps and protects the same values, ideas, and concerns, whilst maintaining the capability and capacity to carry them forward (Dewey, 1938). Failing to do so could result in societal, cultural, and economic death. Meanwhile, in an increasingly plural and diverse society that keeps many sets of values, ideas, and concerns, we maintain a mostly unified public school system. This forces these values to be resolved in some fair way, and therefore generates a lot of heated debate about what fair might mean.
Meanwhile, the public school system is a ward of the State, which is also entrusted with the steady course of economic activity. As our first world capitalist economy matures, it increasingly diversifies into new sectors, approaches, philosophies, and necessities. More than that, our economy is now faced with a massive task of adapting to a globalizing world, hampered with a retiring workforce with fewer people ready to step into necessary roles. Industry pressure on the State to generate fresh generations of employees that are ready to go, boots on the ground, as quickly as possible.
This problem is not unique to the public school system or the schooling of children either. In adult education as well, the question of what would-be or current employees should learn in order to better secure their marketability in an unstable economy is critical. Wasting money and time is even more of a concern at this level as adults often have high pressure economic responsibilities to their families or their employer footing the bill.
All of these circumstances place someone else in control over the learner; the learner learns what they are told to learn. In contrast, however, there is a counter-philosophy that shifts the locus of power to the learner. The question becomes how to better prepare the learner to achieve his or her own objectives in life--to self-actualize. When one views life as belonging primarily to the individual rather than their society, culture, or economy, it becomes a moral imperative to teach what most enables the person rather than the employee.
From a more practical, economic view, though, it is also valuable to shift the locus of power to the learner. In an unstable economy where industry loyalty to the employee is falty and untrustworthy, the best stance for any person is to be "self-ish": self-capable, self-motivating, self-sufficient, self-starting, self-learning, self-adapting, and so on. Right now, there is a need for individuals to take control over their own careers. They need to be able adapt on their own--shift modes, styles and interests--in order to meet the needs of today, which are different from yesterday.
While the above discussion outlines why curriculum is important, it does not answer the basic question of what is curriculum? According to Egan (1978), the concept of curriculum has changed over time. Latin, curriculum means alternatively "a running", "a race", "a course", "a race-course", and "a career". This gave it simultaneously the connotations of the container (the race-course) and the contents (the race), which led to the questions, How long is it? and What kinds of things (obstacles) does it contain? For much of the intervening time between the Roman period and 200 years ago, these were the dominant questions. Curricula were set in terms of time and material. Once the material taught became stable, the next obvious question became How to best organize these contents? Nonetheless, the subject of curricula remained relatively uncontroversial.
The biggest change came during the latter part of the eighteenth century (Egan, 1978). Faced with a stable set of materials to teach, educators were confronted with the problem of a diversity of children not being equal in their ability to take on this material. Particularly with disabled children, they began to question How should things be taught? That is, the methods of teaching. This idea quickly spread into the mainstream. Followers of Rousseau quickly took up this new question as they saught to unstructure teaching and shift focus entirely onto the individual learner. For these progressive educators, the question of curriculum became entirely centred around how, while giving up altogether the question of what should be taught.
The current educational climate is deeply conflicted about what is a more important subject of curriculum studies: what or how. Traditional schooling focuses mostly on what, whereas progressive education focuses on the how.
These debates can be summarized as the following dimensions of curriculum.
- Locus of Power. Who gets to decide the curriculum. The State, Industry, the parents, the teacher, the learner, immediate necessity?
- Objective. What the curriculum is for. Growing citizens, growing better employees, progeny of culture, personal empowerment, enjoyment of life's potential.
- Material. What the curriculum covers. The classical curriculum, cultural studies, or whatever the learner feels like.
- Organization. How the curriculum is organized. Quantified gradation through learner-chosen courses through guided group activity through learner-centred self-exploration.
- Method. How the curriculum is taught. Uniform "mass" education by rote memory, behaviourist habit forming, personalized development, or learner-initiated.
- Evaluation. How the learner is evaluated. Standardized tests created by employers, quantified gradations set by school boards, narrative interviews, or immediate validation through direct experimentation and evaluation.
Beyond this explicit curriculum, there are two curricula in the negative space for each of what and how.
- Null curriculum. (Eisner, 1994) What material is not taught. By choosing not to teach something, authorities imply it is not of value to students. Much debate in curricum studies is about moving material from the null curriculum into the curriculum.
- Hidden curriculum. (Illich, 1978) How a curriculum reflects the desired power and role structure in society, and thus teaches and validates this structure as the only legitimate one.
Egan, K. (1978). What is Curriculum? Curriculum Inquiry, 8(1), 9-16.
Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Macmillan.
Eisner, E.W. (1994) The educational imagination: On design and evaluation of school programs. (3rd. ed) New York: Macmillan.
Illich, I. (1978). Toward a history of needs. New York: Pantheon Books.