What is a Curriculum?

What is a Curriculum

After many years of teaching, writing, and speaking about education—and discussing it with more professional educators than I could ever pretend to remember—I have come to an important conclusion: Most schools do not have a curriculum.

This seems like a preposterous thing to say, but it is true.

Every school thinks it has a curriculum and operates under the assumption that it does, but, whatever it has, it is usually not a curriculum. It may be a collection of curriculum-related things, but even when these things that are gathered under the “curriculum” label are very good, they usually do not constitute a curriculum.

A curriculum is not a mere collection of courses or subjects; it is an organized and coherent grade-by-grade course of studies. There are many ways to gather things together, but a collection of parts doesn’t always make a whole. A whole implies some unifying principle, something that makes the parts, in this particular arrangement, a different thing than it would be if the parts were under some other principle. And, being a whole makes these things, together, greater than the sum of all of them.

For a curriculum to truly constitute what its title suggests, it should have several characteristics in addition to the mere list of subjects. One teacher I know told me recently that after arriving at a new school she asked the administration where she could find the school’s curriculum. An administrator pointed her to the school’s website, where she found a haphazard collection of lesson plans from teachers. That this was insufficient to constitute a curriculum had apparently not occurred to the administrators at the school.

Perhaps the chief impediment to the development and maintenance of an intelligible curriculum is the sheer lack of interest. The curriculum never gets any love.

A curriculum must be coherently organized, and it must be made clear to the administration, teachers, and parents.

A Curriculum Must Be Coherent

First, a curriculum must be coherent—that is, its structure must make sense. I have said many times that the chief problem with the modern world is fragmentation—the lack of coherence. Many modern educational theorists mistake capacities and abilities for standards. They attempt to state what children should “be able to do” by giving a laundry list of discrete and disconnected intellectual functions and abilities in sometimes painful detail. This can be seen in many state-level standards documents. Instead of naming the traditional disciplines and stating the level of mastery students should have in each of them, they take the disciplines apart and list the disembodied and disintegrated functions for which the disciplines were designed to provide a logical context.

Classical schools should resist this temptation. An academic discipline is a tool by which a teacher can most efficiently present a body of study to a student. It is perhaps useful in a college education to turn the tools of study back on to the tools themselves, but teachers don’t need to make the tools an object of study. A meta-analysis of the disciplines is fine for ivory tower researchers, but for teachers the curriculum is not an object of study but an instrument of the academic operation of a school.

The disciplines are systematic and organized bodies of knowledge which incorporate both the subject knowledge relevant to their object of study and the unique methods of study appropriate to their object. For example, history, which studies past events, will involve not only a different set of facts, but a different approach to these facts than, say, biology, which studies living organisms. The disciplines have been used and refined over centuries, allowing educators to benefit from the experience of those in the past who have developed and improved them. It serves no valid educational purpose to abandon them in favor of less coherent systems of academic organization. The traditional disciplines are cultural achievements to embrace, not academic corpses to be anatomized.

As its general components, every curriculum has two things: academic subject matter and academic skills. In a classical curriculum the subject matter should focus on the three “sciences” or organized bodies of knowledge: the human sciences (the humanities, mostly literature and history), the natural sciences (nature study, physical science, biology, chemistry, anatomy), and the theological sciences (belief, ethics, apologetics).

The skills emphasized in a classical school will consist of basic skills in the early grades (reading, writing, and arithmetic), and the liberal arts beginning in third grade and continuing (the language skills of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, and the mathematical arts of arithmetic, geometry, algebra, and calculus). Outside of particular subjects, the focus of middle school should be Latin (grammar) and math in preparation for logic and rhetoric, as well as the natural sciences in high school.

A Curriculum Must Be Clear

Second, a curriculum must be made clear to everyone involved in implementing and using it. There is a test by which to determine whether a school has a curriculum: If parents can walk into a school and ask the head of school what their child will learn that year and get a clear and coherent answer, then the school has a curriculum. The question “What will my fifth grader learn this year?” should not be met with vague answers. And yet, how many schools can boast
of providing this kind of clarity?

A comprehensive description of the school’s curriculum should be supplemented with plain, easy-to-understand summaries. The full description should consist of no more than twenty to thirty pages, but it should also be articulated in just two pages for parents considering the school. Lots of web space and printer cartridges are expended on lots of other school priorities, but very little trouble is taken to lay out in straightforward language what the school is teaching its students. This should be the first thing, not the last, about which trouble should be taken.

A Curriculum Must Be Calibrated

Third, a curriculum should be calibrated from grade to grade. This just means that what a student is expected to accomplish in each grade should take into consideration what he is expected to accomplish in the grade before and the grade after. What goes on in second grade must take account of what is expected of the student in the third grade, and what is expected in the third grade should take account of what will be expected in fourth. Likewise, teachers in the higher grade need to be able to rely on the students they get each year being fully prepared for the new material. If this is not done, students are likely to waste time on what was already covered the year before or they will not be prepared for the higher grade and will be likely to fall behind.

Unfortunately, many schools do not pay close enough attention to this, resulting in students who are either bored because they are being taught the same material again as if for the first time, or who are simply unprepared. The latter slows down the learning process for everyone because teachers are forced to slow down the entire class to bring the unprepared students up to speed.

The curriculum and its continuous implementation need to be monitored by the head of school (or another school administrator who reports to the head of school) through regular evaluation of classes.

A Curriculum Must Be Consistent from Year to Year

Fourth, a curriculum must maintain a high degree of consistency from year to year. Grade-by grade goals should not be changed every year and programs should remain in place when possible. The chief impediment to curricular consistency in many schools is the constant desire for change and the never-ending lust for the newest thing. Education is among the trendiest of professions, and it requires stalwart school administrators to tie themselves to the mast and avoid the siren song of textbook publishers and overenthusiastic teachers. Many schools have a curriculum department, but this does not seem to translate into curricular consistency. One would think that the main priorities of a curriculum department would be, first, that the school have a curriculum and, second, that the curriculum be consistent. But this is not the case in many schools.

In addition, some of the best teachers are ambitious and creative, but if there is too much leeway given to the personalization of classwork from one year to the next, the student’s ability to progress will be hampered. Creativity should be employed in better teaching the material students need to learn in a particular year, not in reworking the curriculum for that year. Adjustments are certainly acceptable in the way something is taught, but the skills and content that are taught should remain consistent.

What is a Curriculum

I have seen Latin classes in which a teacher decides not to emphasize the Latin grammar but instead to spend time teaching conversational Latin to students. Unfortunately, the result is almost always that the students forget the oral Latin through inevitable disuse, and that the teacher at the next level is forced to make up for the lack of attention to the fundamentals in the previous year, slowing down student progress.

A Curriculum Must Be Complete

Finally, let me say something about “lesson planning.” I have a number of friends and family who teach, and they will frequently refer to the time they spend “lesson planning.” When I ask them what they mean by the term, they consistently tell me that every year they actually write up a plan, sometimes from scratch, sometimes from other lesson plans on the same subject they find on the internet. Many times the school requires them to submit these to an administrator, who files them somewhere, from whence they are never seen again. The reason they do this, I discover, is that the programs they are using do not provide any specific directions on how to teach the subject. In fact, one teacher told me that she does not even have a textbook for her Spanish class because she was told to “do Common Core,” which necessitated the shelving of the previous Spanish program.

Teachers should not have to go through the random process of scouring the internet for lesson plans on their subject and then tailoring them for their specific program. A curriculum is not complete without lesson plans that are well thought out, so that the teacher, rather than having to construct them himself, can simply review the existing lesson plans and make whatever reasonable additions or subtractions are necessary.

I joke with many of these teachers, pointing out that these subjects have been taught for hundreds of years—some for thousands. Surely someone has written down clear and fairly complete instructions on how to teach these subjects. It is a measure not only of the inefficiency of many schools, but of the lack of awareness of the long tradition of education that teachers should have to do this. There is simply no reason for every teacher to reinvent the wheel every week. Each piece of a complete curriculum should include lesson plans.

A curriculum must be coherent, it must be clear, it must be calibrated, it must be consistent, and it must be complete. Any so-called curriculum that is not these things is a curriculum in name only.

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