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What is Curriculum?

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  • 0:00 Curriculum Defined
  • 1:00 Guided by Questions
  • 2:08 Working on Multiple Levels
  • 3:07 Difficult Planning
  • 4:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Clio Stearns
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.

Curriculum Defined

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.

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