Introduction to Curriculum - It's Development and Definitions

The word curriculum originated in ancient Rome as a chariot race course.

Julius Ceaser talked about which team of horses, driver, chariot would be able to run the curriculum fastest.

Curriculum guides are a result of curriculum planning, development, and engineering. Then are they the curriculum? What is a good definition of curriculum? Curriculum is probably has a greater variety of definitions than any other word used in education.

Is curriculum everything that goes on within the school, including extra class activities, guidance, and interpersonal relationships.

Is curriculum that which is taught both inside and outside of school directed by the school.

Is curriculum everything that is planned by school personnel.

Is curriculum a series of experiences undergone by learners in school.

Is curriculum 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 the school that takes upon the responsibility for experiences of the learner both inside and outside 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 into 5 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 subject centered approach

Defining curriculum as PRODUCT


  1. limits curriculum to specific programs and courses described in those documents
  2. assumes all possible courses can be described in such documents.
  3. separates 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

James Macdonald, Hilda Taba, Beauchamp

Curriculum as PROGRAM courses in school used to carry out its purposes. From courses of study required 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.

Bestor, Phenix
Subject Presentation Approach would fit in this category with the most likely characteristics of: self-contained classroom, set yearly goals, basal reading program, outline of the program, outline of activities, and sequence for the year, a daily schedule that is based on subject areas, easy to understand, linear development, easily revised, usually one text per subject, easily managed, mastery of content (which can be deceiving if mastery is at lower levels of Bloom's Taxonomy), predominately goal oriented .

Less likely characteristics: grouping across grades, personalized instruction, learn at own level, own rate, but still cover.

Curriculum as INTENDED learnings what is to be learned, curriculum not how or why.


  1. curriculum becomes a concept rather than a product
  2. more manageable focus by limited scope


  1.  fragmentation or not including by separating 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

Experienced centered approach: Most likely characteristics are: unit approach, topic: people and transportation, subject approach modified for student's needs, based on student's needs, more flexible to meet changing needs of the students, correlate learning across subject by theme.

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 our children's education and how they will be prepared for their future lives.

Other considerations:

Student learns in accordance with his/her purposes and experiences, therefore we must look to a responsive interactive relationship with students to know what they are and are not learning. As what students learn is dependent on what they choose to actively perceive, and negotiate with their perceptions to construct meaning, and connect it to their current understandings. No matter what we do nothing is possible without this involvement. Therefore, any of these descriptions of curriculum must include a student centered approach that is responsive to the students' needs. Different schools 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 based on students' needs, don't truly have 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.


Dr. Robert Sweetland's Notes ©