deconstructing curriculum

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The Basic Concept 

Curriculum design, at its essence, is social engineering. The concept of curriculum is used in a variety of different ways, but is generally understood to refer to the scope of what is taught and learned in an educational setting. Because this meaning is so broad, distinctions have been drawn, for instance, between the taught curriculum and the learned curriculum, or between the formal curriculum and the informal curriculum. Formal curricula provide the authorized encoding of what the educational institution deems to be important.

In most institutionalized educational settings, the curriculum is defined operationally by some kind of formal body of material, a course syllabus, a set of required readings, a document outlining standards and outcomes of the learning experience etc. Whatever the form, this document outlines the prescribed course if learning for those involved--usually with a heavy emphasis on knowledge and skills. 

Functional Importance

The structure and content of a curriculum reflect the institutionalized priorities of the educational institution. It provides a map for students' learning and teachers' teaching. 

A well-developed curriculum provides important scaffolding to help make teaching and learning more systematic. It also helps to bring some consistency to educational activities from one classroom to the next. While the trend today is towards more individualized learning, curricula help to provide a general direction to guide teachers and learners towards the learning deemed important by educational leaders. 

Unintended Consequences

In order to be systematic in its educational processes, any education systems need to have a clear idea of the learning they hope to achieve. But the process of defining that body of learning is necessarily restrictive. The process of defining a curriculum results in three consequences which impact student learning and development.

First, a curriculum, by its very nature prioritizes and privileges a certain body of learning while marginalizing or excluding others. In so doing, any curriculum will implicitly attach a higher value and status to certain sanctioned knowledge and skills. This creates a split between official or high status knowledge and skills, and those which are not. This implicitly advantages those who come from socio-cultural groups where these knowledge and skills are more commonplace, and pressures those from other groups to either conform and embrace these intellectual goods in order to keep up, or to accept the fate of remaining in the realm of low status. 

Second, from a structural standpoint, curricula tend to tell us not only what is important, but also how we should organize our thinking about those important things. There is nothing immutable, for example, about the typical subject divisions in our schools. Nor is there any convincing research that learning one subject in isolation from others results in better learning. In fact, quite to the contrary, recent work around integrated approaches and project-based learning tends is much more convincing. 

Third, and most fundamentally, curricula provide stakeholders with an operational definition of what we can consider "real" learning. In the encoding of what is important, this tends to be dominated by knowledge, and to a lesser extent, skills. When values or attitudes are included explicitly in curricula, they tend to be referenced as underpinnings or cross-cutting themes, which serves to marginalize them because of very limited understandings of how such things can actually be taught. This positions education as a relatively narrow, functionalist training. 

The collective impact of these three issues is to set a narrow and superficial educational agenda--the very one reflected in our current educational practice. It is education for its own sake. This education is self-perpetuating, serving to reinforce our existing ways of being and thinking, rather than guiding our societies in a more constructive process of reform. 

Educative Applications

To serve a more deeply educative purpose and help to orient education towards social transformation, curriculum development needs to go back to first principles. The emperor has no clothes, friends. So, rather than building on the established structures and formats, rather than just updating existing contents, rather than simply integrating technology in hopes of arriving at a 21st century model, curriculum needs to be rethought. This rethinking should be based on a more grounded view of the purposes of schooling, and a more comprehensive understanding of what learning and development takes place at school. 

This is not a plea to re-divide learning into new subject divisions or to introduce new subject areas, though both of these might be constructive approaches. Nor is it a plea to reinvigorate old subject areas with new ideas, reframing language arts as critical literacy, or math as data literacy. It is not even a plea to weave a web that integrates all subject areas across the curriculum. Certainly we should question the existing subject areas and why we have these and not others, but the point of this argument is not that. The existing subject divisions are unlikely to go away any time soon, and how content learning gets sliced up is a bit of a red herring. 

The formal curriculum is the place for us to define what is really important for students to learn. How those things are presented for learning is actually more important than what those things are. No matter what the content, if it is introduced uncritically, if it is not oriented towards transformation, it ends up reinforcing the status quo. The myth that education can or should be neutral has made educators and education systems both complacent and complicit in issues of serious moral concern--poverty, war, environmental collapse, oppression, marginalization, social apathy, and so on. 

The issue with curriculum, however, runs deeper than what the content is and how it is presented. The discussion of curriculum needs to stop splashing around in the shallow end, and acknowledge that school is socialization. We need to go beyond knowledge and skills, to have meaningful discussion about the dispositions which we are cultivating at school. A redefinition of curriculum which includes full attention to dispositions requires a commensurate change in the way we view teaching and learning. If we restrict our concept of teaching to teacher talk, then of course, our concept of learning is limited to content knowledge. But if we open up our concept of teaching to include tacit teaching--role modeling, conditioning, internalization of routines and procedures, environmental design, learning by doing, and so on--then we enrich our concept of learning along with it. This view of teaching and learning serves to demystify the process of socialization, and allows us to consider bringing more intentionality to that process. Like it or not, our students are being socially engineered by our education systems. An enhanced concept of curriculum allows for us as concerned educators to become more actively involved in determining the result of that process, rather than just reinforcing the status quo.