Introduction to Curriculum:
It's Development and General Classification of Different Definitions

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 we talk about the school curriculum and curriculum guides which are documents from the results of planning and development. Therefore, are these documents the curriculum? Or what is a definition of curriculum?

Curriculum probably has a greater variety of definitions than any other word used in education. Here is a handful:

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.

Curriculum definitions fit 5 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,
  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?

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

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 students' 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 nationally standards classified by subject, national and other subject related assessment testing, which encourage 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.

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.

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.

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 students to know whether they are or not learning and if so what. What students 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 student involvement. Therefore, any of these descriptions of curriculum must include a student centered approach that is responsive to the students' 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.


Curriculum Definition Collection

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 and 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 and 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 and Doak S. Campbell:  "all the experiences children have under the guidance of teachers."
J. Galen Saylor, William M. Alexander, and 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 and 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 and Berlak (1968):  situations or activities arranged and brought into play by the teacher to effect student learning.
Smith and Orlovsky (1978): the content pupils are expected to learn.


Dr. Robert Sweetland's notes
[Home: & ]