“Conceptions of Curriculum”

A short pdf document (just over one page) on “What is Curriculum” can be found on the website of the Postgraduate Medical Education and Training Board (PMETB) in London. It begins by noting:

As with most things in education, there is no agreed definition of ‘curriculum’, although it is generally agreed that ‘curriculum’ is not the same as ‘syllabus’. A syllabus is a statement of topics to be studied in the course. A ‘curriculum’ equally is not just a statement of intended outcomes, products, or competencies.

It proceeds by noting that “Curriculum is much more than either of these. Theorists concern themselves with different types of curriculum,” including “the curriculum on paper,” the “curriculum in action,” the “curriculum learners experience,” and the “hidden curriculum.”

As I noted in an earlier post, commenting on Glatthorn’s differentiations,

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 reality that includes all of the different aspects Glatthorn differentiates–those are not different “types” of curriculum.

The PMETB statement illustrates another matter of concern that I have observed frequently, however. Their statement concludes with a crisp definition, introduced as follows:

Amid this plethora of views, every piece of work in this field must begin with its own stated definition. So for the PMETB, the curriculum is: …

The difficulty this suggests, for Curriculum Theory, is the possible implication that curriculum exists only as whatever we might be referring to as “curriculum.” In that case, it makes perfect sense for a group like PMETB simply to stipulate that “for our purposes, curriculum is x.”

For some practical purposes, that may be completely adequate. But for the sake of understanding curriculum as it actually is, however (which is at least a good part of the work of Curriculum Theory), that is not good enough. For purposes of understanding, no merely stipulative definition will suffice; what we need, rather, are explanatory accounts of curriculum, in its own actuality, and not just for some specific purposes of some particular projects.

Again, though, that doesn’t mean that stipulative definitions have no place–only that they must be kept in their proper places, as stipulated usage for particular purposes, not pretending to suffice for a more general understanding of what curriculum, in actuality, actually is.

Consider this stipulated usage, as explained on page 14 of William H. Schmidt: Why Schools Matter: A Cross-National Comparison of Curriculum and Learning. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass/A Wiley, 2001):

For the purposes of our investigations we conceive of curriculum as a sequence of opportunities to learn specific disciplinary content, in our case in science and mathematics. …

The perspective on curriculum used for our investigations here is not meant to exclude or diminish other conceptions of curriculum. Indeed, there is a “bewildering” array of definitions for curriculum.* …

In short, any investigation that focuses on curriculum focuses only on certain aspects and conceptions of this multifaceted centerpiece of schooling. We have chosen a formal approach to curriculum as learning opportunities focused around specific topics in school mathematics and science because this is appropriate to our investigation of actual learning as achievement change for science and mathematics. [*footnotes omitted – JAW]

Schmidt is carefully not saying “We have decided to define curriculum as being this.” Instead, he’s saying “While we understand that curriculum is more than this, this is how we are conceptualizing what it is we’re looking at in these particular investigations.”

The difference might seem subtle, but it is all-important for Curriculum Theory, whose work it is to pursue more extensive understanding of curriculum, as fully as we can, toward curriculum’s own full manifold actuality.

© 2007 James Anthony Whitson. Permission to use this material is granted subject to the condition that the source is cited, including the information in the following citations (1 for APA style [5th]; 2 for Chicago style A [15th]):

  1. Whitson, J. A. (2007). “Conceptions of Curriculum”. Retrieved Month date, 20xx from https://curricublog.wordpress.com/2007/01/25/conceptions-of-curriculum/.
  2. Whitson, James Anthony. ““Conceptions of Curriculum”.” (2007), https://curricublog.wordpress.com/2007/01/25/conceptions-of-curriculum/ (accessed Month date, 20xx).


  1. Yuexia
    Posted March 1, 2007 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

    I have a hard time to understand the notion of “border” as it appears in your paper presented at Tampere. I quoted this here from your paper and it says

    The border has been a high-end metaphor in the re-conceptualization of curriculum around politics, identity, and difference

    But the border for Canadians, the International Boundary between the US and Canada, is hardly a metaphor

    Norman Hillmer, Professor of History and International Affairs at Carlton University, claims the border is integral to Canadian identity: “We are a border people. The border is our livelihood. The border is our identity.”

    Out of my complete ignorance, I want to know the extent to which the border exerts that kind of impact upon Canadians. Would it be fair to paraphrase it like, for instance, (Mexican/hispanics) We are a border people. The border is our livelihood. The border is our hispanic identity.”

    Another thing I want to mention is that I learnt from your paper “there are a lot of things between heaven and earth that may not participate in the formation of human being(s), and thus, by this conception, would be outside curriculum.”(p. 8 of your Tampere paper) It reminds me of a famous saying by Mao Zedong,

    battling with heaven is endless joy, fighting with the earth is endless joy, and struggling with humanity is endless joy.

    So I wonder if this kind of human being’s interaction with heaven and earth could also be described as course of formative experiences that actually occurs.That being said, it is not outside curriculum but inside.

  2. Posted March 4, 2007 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    First, Yuexia, I should provide links to the papers that you are quoting from.

    My Tampere (Finland) paper is at
    The passages you quote are not actually my own writing; they are quotations from

    Actually, that paper by Cynthia Chambers would be very relevant to your own work on cultures, cultural identities, and cultural differences. The idea of “borders” is often used in a somewhat metaphorical sense — in education, most famously, in Giroux’s work on “Border Crossings.” But in Chambers’ paper (I think you were there in Montreal when she gave this talk as the Erlbaum presidential address to AAACS), she is talking about “borders” and identity in a way that is more literal, less metaphorical. How this may be relevant to Mexicans and Puerto Ricans would be an empirical question — and not necessarily the same as for other Latin Americans.

  3. Yuexia
    Posted March 15, 2007 at 10:44 pm | Permalink

    I was there when she delivered that AAACS presidential address.I did check out Giroux’s work Border crossing and his newly published book America on the edge: Henry Giroux on Politics, Culture, and Education. I hope they would provide any unconventional wisdom to my work.

  4. Posted December 30, 2007 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for this source. I picked up the discussion on XMCA and noticed the medical source for the pdf. One of these days I will investigate curriculum theory in more detail. It (or more specifically curriculum development) was one of the four original stimuli for the production of Hodges’ model.
    If in looking at Hodges’ model anyone has any thoughts please let me know through the main site. All the best for 2008!

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