Teachers are often asked to design or work with particular curricula, but rarely do we get a chance to talk about what curriculum actually is. This lesson gets you toward a definition and gives you a few key guiding points to work with.
Even though the word ‘curriculum’ gets used all the time in education, it can be surprisingly hard to pinpoint what curriculum really is. If you struggle with that, you’re not alone, and there’s a good reason. There are about as many different ways of defining curriculum as there are people who develop it! Still, it can be awfully hard to design or implement curriculum without having at least some sense of what it is.
We will work with the idea that curriculum (curricula for plural) is a term that describes everything that students learn in school. Some curricula we plan for, and some simply arises. Curriculum impacts adults as well as children. In a nutshell, curriculum is complicated–just like life and learning are complicated!In this lesson, you will learn three major characteristics of curriculum:
- It must always be guided by questions.
- It operates on multiple levels.
- You can try to plan for it, but it has a funny way of escaping from control.
Guided by Questions
Have you ever noticed that your students are simply full of questions? Sometimes it might get tedious, but overall that’s a really good thing! In fact, as you plan and work with curricula, it is a good idea to always start with questions.
If you think about it, this is perfectly logical. Why bother teaching or learning something if you can’t figure out a way to make it intriguing?Curricula should be guided by questions that work on a conceptual level. A unit around geometry, for instance, should not focus on yes and no questions, like ‘Is this shape a square?’, but rather, ‘What makes shapes into what they are?’ or ‘Why are angles important?’ Likewise, an elementary curriculum unit around literacy might be based on questions regarding concepts of print.
In which direction do readers read? How can we check ourselves for understanding?Because curricula is guided by questions, you can start your thinking about curricula by formulating three to five guiding questions that you feel get to the heart of what you would like your students to learn. By keeping your focus over all these questions, you can work toward a more meaningful and coherent curriculum.
Working on Multiple Levels
Curriculum is something that works on multiple levels. This means that when you plan a unit, you are thinking of your strongest students as well as those that struggle most. Every question underlying your curriculum will be accessed and answered differently by different individuals or groups.Furthermore, students will repeat concepts and ideas many times over the course of their education.
Whatever curriculum you teach is working hand in hand with the one taught by teachers before and after you. Some people talk about curriculum as a spiral; it winds around and around and repeats itself in ever widening and more complicated circles.In other words, a student accesses an idea one way as a third grader and a whole other way as an eighth grader. This is actually one of the most exciting things about curriculum, but it can also be frustrating. Try to remember that the levels are just part of what curriculum is and part of what makes knowledge interesting and beautiful.
We’ve all heard the saying about the best-laid plans of mice and men. It’s certainly true when it comes to curriculum! Planning curriculum is important–so is following the guidelines of any planned curriculum you’re working with. But, students have a funny way of tweaking whatever curriculum you present them with to meet whatever they want, need, or feel able to learn. Follow your students’ questions and pay close attention to what they’re doing with the information and experiences you provide. This will enrich your curriculum by making it more dynamic and authentic.The other thing to keep in mind is that students have full lives.
In the best-case scenario, other aspects of their life are supplementing your curriculum by generating questions, adding rich examples, and so on. What they learn on the school bus, at the breakfast table, even via mass media all come together to make up a holistic curriculum for your students. Sometimes, it’s the most a teacher can do to remember that the curriculum actually extends well beyond what is happening in class, and it certainly cannot be carefully controlled.
Curriculum is everything that students learn and everything that you teach. As you work on curriculum, remember the following pointers:
- Questions should guide every curriculum.
- Curriculum works on multiple levels.
- Curriculum cannot always be carefully planned or controlled.
Learning and teaching are complex and exciting tasks. Understanding curriculum will make you a more effective, engaging, and empathic educator.