What is curriculum?

On a blog dedicated to “holistic and integral education,” Roger Stack has an interesting post on “Curriculum as Connectivism.”

The visuals on that blog make it especially interesting. This post, for example, features ContentSubject.jpggraphics like this one to represent “Curriculum as Content or Subject,” in comparison with contrasting visual representations of “Curriculum as Discrete Tasks and Concepts,” “Curriculum as Experience,” “Curriculum as Cultural Reproduction,” “Curriculum as ‘Currere’,” “Curriculum as Intended Learning Outcomes,” and “Curriculum as Connectivism.”

To find out what these graphics represent, where they come from and how they work, visit Roger’s blog entry and follow his links from there. What I’m interested in for this post is a more basic question for curriculum theory: What question are we asking when we ask, “What is curriculum?”

Readers familiar with the literature in curriculum theory will recognize the source of this typology as Bill Schubert’s 1986 Curriculum: Perspective, Paradigm, and Possibility. (Roger provides the amazon.com link on his page). Schubert discusses the first six of these images of curriculum; the seventh is the one that Roger is adding to this list–the one that he is interested in.

What interesting stuff! I am concerned, though, that discussions like this sometimes confuse people into thinking that such alternative visions of curriculum are alternatives for defining what it is that we mean by “curriculum.”

Schubert compares the situation with the story of the blind men and the elephant: One (holding on to the trunk) thinks an elephant is like a great rope or vine, another (holding on to an ear) thinks an elephant is like a large fan, etc.

Understanding what an elephant really is, however, is not just a matter of choosing which among these partial views best suits our interest in elephants. The elephant is what an elephant is, regardless of our partial grasp of the complete reality.

Allan Glatthorn has famously contributed the differentiation of

  • Recommended curriculum,
  • Written curriculum,
  • Taught curriculum,
  • Supported curriculum,
  • Assessed curriculum,
  • Learned curriculum, and
  • Hidden curriculum.

It is crucially important for educators and education researchers and scholars to be aware of these differences. Glatthorn slips up, however, when he refers to these as “types of curriculum.” These are no more different “types” of curriculum than an automobile that consumes fuel and an automobile with doors and windows are different “types” of automobiles. Curriculum is a complicated actuality that includes all of the different aspects Glatthorn differentiates–those are not different “types” of curriculum.

The blind men are not perceiving different “types” of elephants; and what curriculum actually is does not permit us to define curriculum as just whichever of its aspects we are interested in (e.g., defining it as social reproduction or as discrete tasks and concepts, etc.).

Roger is interested in “Curriculum as Connectivism,” which he sees as encompassing “a much broader span than the other metaphors.”

That’s interesting; but I think we need to be able to separate two questions here: “What is the best way to understand curriculum?” depends on “What is curriculum — what is it we are trying to understand, when we are trying to understand curriculum?” The graphic on the right (which links to a pdf file that you can save, view, or print to see at a legible resolution) is my representation of how curriculum has been recognized since the first US textbook on the subject, as a course of formative experience that includes human formation throughout the lived experience both in and out of school, both with and without any intentional direction. (Note: There’s a URL on the pdf file for information about permission to use this graphic. The URL needs to be changed to http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Curriculum_Concept.svg . That link is for a Wikimedia page that has a bitmap (.svg) version of the graphic, which is not as good for most purposes as the vector graphic in the pdf file.)

Is this the right way to identify what it is that we are trying to understand, through the alternative (but maybe complementary, rather than alternative) ways of looking at curriculum? In any case, I think the questions of how best to understand, and what it is we seek to understand, do need to be recognized as different questions.

© 2006 James Anthony Whitson. Permission to use this material is granted subject to the condition that the source is cited, including the information in either of the following citation forms (1 for Chicago style A [15th]; or 2 for APA style [5th]):

  1. Whitson, James Anthony. “What Is Curriculum?” (2006), https://curricublog.wordpress.com/2006/10/22/curriclum-what/ (accessed Month date, 20xx).
  2. Whitson, J. A. (2006). What is curriculum? Retrieved Month date, 20xx from https://curricublog.wordpress.com/2006/10/22/curriclum-what/.

shortlink for this post: http://wp.me/p1V0H-q


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  2. Posted January 26, 2007 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    on Glatthorn, stipulative definitions vs. explanatory definitions, etc.

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7 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] Consciousness and Brown v. Board of Education Earlier posts (examples: here and here) have considered how curriculum is understood as involving more than just the kind of […]

  2. […] I noted in an earlier post, commenting on Glatthorn’s differentiations, It is crucially important for educators and […]

  3. […] https://curricublog.wordpress.com/2006/10/22/curriclum-what/   . […]

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