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 the school that takes upon the responsibility for all experiences the learner has 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 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 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 heterogenous 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.


Dr. Robert Sweetland's notes