What exactly is a curriculum? by @CambridgeMaths


If you have anything to do with education, you’re probably familiar with the term curriculum, along with similar concepts like scheme of worksyllabuscourse, or study plan. You may not, however, have spent much time pondering what curriculum actually refers to. It’s an interesting thought experiment, because the concept is both a theoretical butterfly – Wiles (2009) suggests four possibilities, including ‘a set of school experiences’ – and a practical caterpillar. Whatever the debate among academics, teachers usually have a good working definition: the (varyingly detailed) most top-level document they are required to follow when teaching.

We at Cambridge Mathematics are currently engaged in a significant amount of work on curriculum framework design, and are fortunate enough to be consulting with international experts from a wide range of fields on many aspects of our project, including defining its scope and boundaries. We were therefore both delighted and perplexed by a discussion with an eminent room of such experts this month, when one of them asked the question ‘what do you mean by curriculum?’ and the international and cultural associations in the room began to rise to the top of the analysis like cream.

According to the International Handbook of Curriculum Research (Pinar, 2013), the process of curriculum design and implementation might ideally be characterised as a “complicated conversation where all the participants at every level think about the basic curriculum question of the worthwhileness of the content and subject matter just taught and addressed” (Autio, 2013, p.18). However, there are distinct schools of thought, from global and localised perspectives, influencing many of the world’s national curricula to varying degrees, which can be at odds about how ideal this is, leading to curricula being conceived, designed, and expressed quite differently in different places and times. Forty-some pages later, we see a summary of the role of curriculum: “Understanding curriculum…means to understand the cultural construction of the child and the future citizen” (Pinar, 2013, p. 60).

Functions of the curriculum can be social (conservation or transformation of social structure and/or individual identities), as well as cognitive (learning content and skills). But the handbook does not offer an umbrella definition of curriculum, because it means something unique in each context in which it is developed. Pinar’s handbook goes on to describe differences between the historical development of curricular values and systems in thirty-four countries, each of which have their own conceptions of the philosophy, the role, and the structure of a curriculum. Across definitions that arise in these different contexts, a curriculum can be as broad as everything a student experiences, and as narrow as a statement of intent for the education system, in countries where such a statement even exists. In other words, it ranges from almost nothing to almost everything.

In the UK, the government states that “the national curriculum sets out the programmes of study and attainment targets for all subjects in 4 key stages.” This is one way of describing the ideal curriculum – and then from that perspective there would also be the version of such a curriculum that is available (supported by necessary resources), implemented (what is really taught), achieved (what students learn), and tested (how much of what happened can be measured?) (Clements, 2008).

What we are designing is a tool for creating, analysing and managing the potential content of a mathematics curriculum, but also a tool providing the basis for mapping this content to schemes of work, sequences of lessons, lessons and mathematical concepts (assuming those telescope neatly-ish as subsets of one another). So, level of detail (or granularity) is important, as in both the level of detail we write in and the level of detail at which it is possible to view the tool.

Luckily, the problems we are currently grappling with are often familiar to anyone doing design projects across a whole range of other disciplines, and we have much to learn from their research, as well as research about interdisciplinary research – the levels of metacognition are extraordinary! For example, having created an initial diagram to visualise the different perspectives on the curriculum that can be held by domain experts, teachers, students, researchers, and framework designers integrating that research, we learned that design researchers in some fields refer to these as stances. The picture we wanted to make of these various participants’ mental models could be helping us to imagine their stance towards their experiences with mathematics, or could be helpful to them in building their stance towards the tool we’re developing.

So, although it’s no surprise that a curriculum can be different things to different people in different contexts, exploring these differences is an important part of our ongoing work. No design can be effective if it tries to do everything for everyone, so inevitably we will be choosing among perspectives on curriculum as we decide what the tool we’re building for accessing the framework can best support. We’ll post more about this process here as we go.

This article originally appeared here.


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