What do we mean by ‘curriculum’? by Chris Foster

Without meaning, learning has no purpose.

Without a purpose, schools are houses of detention, not attention.

Neil Postman, The End of Education (p. 7)

How do we choose what we teach our pupils, and why?

These questions are central to curriculum theory.

Curriculum (what is taught and to whom) is distinct from pedagogy (how the curriculum is taught) and evaluation (how pupils and teachers are assessed) (Bernstein, 1971, p. 47).

The curriculum should be seen as a plan for how pupil’s understanding is assembled, not just a description of what is taught (Sealy, 2020). However, for many teachers, the curriculum is synonymous with a National Curriculum and exam specifications; as a profession, we have forgotten how to talk about the ‘what’ and the ‘why’ of the curriculum in any great depth. As a consequence, for a lot of teachers in a lot of schools, the curriculum is an afterthought.

In this blog post I will briefly describe different views of the curriculum and suggest a way of orienting ourselves and navigating through these different viewpoints using a device called a ternary plot.

Surely every teacher knows what the curriculum is?

Yes and no. Like a lot of technical words in education, curriculum can mean different things to different people. In fact, the term ‘curriculum’ might even be used by the same person to describe different things. For example, the curriculum of a school can be ‘taught’, ‘hidden’, and ‘received’.  The ‘taught curriculum’ – the official curriculum that teachers deliver to pupils in the classroom – might be very different to the ‘received curriculum’ as experienced by pupils.  The ‘hidden curriculum’ refers to the things that pupils learn at school because of the way the school operates but are not explicitly included in the deliberate planning or organisation. They include the implicit values and attitudes that are communicated through and about the behaviour and expectations of pupils and staff. Of course, it would be foolish to ignore the inevitable gaps between theory and practice. Likewise, it is not sensible to restrict our definition of the school curriculum to only that which is planned or taught.

This is not just academic hair-splitting. How a teacher thinks about the curriculum is part of their professional identity. My research suggests that even within the same school, there were at least five different viewpoints of teacher identity (Foster, 2020). What this illustrates is that even when we think we are using a piece of shared vocabulary, we might actually be talking at cross-purposes.

Rather than being used as a synonym for ‘academic provision’ or ‘taught curriculum’, I think it is most useful to think – like Professor Michael Young does – about the curriculum more broadly as “shorthand… for the purpose of a school” (2014a, p. 9).

Curriculum: The Purpose of School

Knowledge should be the starting point when thinking about the curriculum, our educational objectives for it, the knowledge we hope to transmit through it and the best way to meet these objectives. However, this is contested territory. How one thinks about education and the school curriculum is ideological. For some, curricular content is central to their view of the curriculum and education is transmission. For others, curriculum is product and education is instrumental. For a third group, process is the most important aspect of the curriculum and education is development. What lies behind these differences in emphasis are our view of human knowledge (Kelly, 2009).

These three extreme positions – curriculum as content, product or process can be represented as positions at the apexes of an equilateral triangle in a ternary plot. This is shown in Figure 1.

Figure1:  Views of the curriculum represented as a ternary plot.

Two different positions are represented by letters ‘a’ and ‘b’ in Figure1. The significance of these positions will be explained in later sections.

Curriculum as content and education as transmission

For many teachers and policy makers, curriculum is synonymous with syllabus and content is the starting point for curricular discussions, even among those who have advocated other approaches (Kelly, 2009). A common view of those who favour a content-based approach is that the main purpose of the curriculum is to provide pupils with an introduction to “the best which has been thought and said in the world” (Arnold, 1993, p. 190). This liberal position views education as induction into what Michael Oakeshott called the “conversation of mankind”; a more conservative interpretation places the emphasis of education on transmission (Oakeshott, 1959). This conservative position is exemplified by Michael Gove’s comments to The Times newspaper a few months before he became Secretary of State for Education. His traditional approach to education was very clearly expressed:

Most parents would rather their children had a traditional education with children sitting in rows, learning the kings and queens of England, the great works of literature…  (Thomson & Sylvester, 2010).

This was given very short shrift by historian Richard Evans, who described it as “[a] quack remedy for a misdiagnosed complaint, it would only make things worse” (2012, p. 45). The view of education as cultural transmission which Gove described creates further difficulties concerning cultural pluralism: any curriculum based on this model can only be a selection of the culture of a society and this raises questions about what is selected and by whom. Some argue that this can be mitigated if the selection has intrinsic merit, as a representation of humanity rather than that of a particular culture. However, this position is based upon an absolutist epistemology that considers human knowledge as objective and capable of merit in and of itself, a view which some find problematic (Kelly, 2009).

If content is the sole concern of curriculum planning, knowledge is treated as given and something that pupils have to comply with. It ignores the moral dimensions of an educational curriculum and turns education into mere training or instruction. Furthermore, it does not encourage planners to take account of the recipients of this content – the pupils – and the impact it has upon them. This can lead to pupil disaffection and alienation, and accusations that the curriculum is elitist (Kelly, 2009, p. 65).

Curriculum as product and education as instrumental

The emergence of product-based curricula was a response to some of the problems with the subjective nature of a content-based curriculum. This product model encompasses more than a view of education as qualifications gained: it also includes curricula that prioritise the demonstration of skills, which are often presented as universal or value-neutral. Any curriculum that is justified in terms of ‘skills for the workplace’, ‘21st Century skills’ or ‘preparation for jobs of the future that don’t yet exist’ treats the curriculum as a product.

This product-focussed view encourages target-based planning and the breaking down of the curriculum into aims and objectives that describe “quantifiable doses of knowledge to be acquired” (Kelly, 2009, p. 87). It is an attempt to reduce education down to a scientific or industrial activity with pupils as a raw material to be shaped into economically useful units by the curriculum. In this model, learning outcomes are actually behavioural outcomes, and education is reduced to training or instruction. It simplifies teaching into a series of activities that can be readily assessed. However, a significant flaw in this approach is that developing basic competence and developing expertise are different things. Reading fluency is more than decoding the written word; mathematical fluency is more than following an appropriate algorithm to solve a problem.

Like any utilitarian view of schooling, this approach promotes an instrumental view of education. If activities are planned to meet extrinsic behavioural objectives, there is no place for knowledge that is intrinsically worthwhile. Education – such as it is – is a destination, not a journey (Kelly, 2009).

What is missing from both these models are the wider dimensions of education: the development of pupil autonomy, the empowerment through pupil understanding and the valuing of experiences and activities for their own sake. In other words, curriculum as process.

Curriculum as process and development

In this approach, curricular content serves the process of education rather than being its purpose, and pupils develop skills along the way. Put simply, it is “a matter of what education is rather than of what it is for” (Kelly, 2009, p. 96).  This focus on education as a process, with its roots in the democratic pragmatism of John Dewey, places the development of the pupil at the centre of any educational endeavour (Dewey, 1926, p. 400). As such, it promotes the development of understanding not the acquisition of knowledge and is better aligned with the research and theories of Piaget, Vygotsky and Bruner into the cognitive development of children than content-based or product-based curricula (Kelly, 2009).

Unlike the transmission model of education which treats pupils as inert recipients of knowledge, this development model treats pupils as active, autonomous individuals and education as a process of growth towards self-realisation. It acknowledges the social aspect of development and its ideological commitment to democratic empowerment (Kelly, 2009).

What about the National Curriculum?

The National Curriculum and UK examination specifications break down content for ease of delivery through the use of aims and objectives to be achieved by the learner. They combine features of the ‘curriculum as content’ and ‘curriculum as product’ models. This position is indicated on my ternary plot in Figure 1 by the letter ‘a’. 

Advocates of this approach suggest that this combines the best of both worlds; critics point out that this hybrid model does nothing to reduce their deficiencies, such as the potential alienation of the learner inherent in a content model and the behaviourism and instrumentalism of the product model (Kelly, 2009). 

Is there another way?

Yes. Michael Young proposes a slightly different flavour of process model, which might be thought of as emancipatory pragmatism. His approach is democratic; like Dewey, he believes that the goal of education is to improve society through improving the quality of life for individuals. In his Future 3 curriculum model, Young places great importance on the emancipatory potential of an “entitlement to knowledge for all” (Young, 2014a). In Future 3, the purpose of school is to ‘take pupils beyond their experience in ways that would be unlikely at home’ and so the curriculum is based on ‘powerful’ knowledge that is different to everyday knowledge (Young, 2014b, p. 96). Through their learning of concepts as part of a subject-based curriculum, pupils develop an understanding of the world through the lenses of academic disciplines. These concepts are specific to the different disciplines, for example historiography in history, periodicity in chemistry or literary criticism in English. This position is indicated by the letter ‘b’ in Figure 1.

Like the traditional ‘compliance’ model of a content-led curriculum, this model views knowledge as external to the learners, but it acknowledges its social and historical context. As one would expect from a process model, knowledge is conceptual and interrelated. This knowledge is powerful and emancipatory because it enables pupils to transcend their own experience (Lambert, 2014, p. 168). Young suggests that a knowledge-based curriculum such as Future 3 can act as a tool to reduce problems of inequality if it encourages the world to be treated as ‘an object of thought’ and not solely a place of experience (Young, 2014b, p. 98).

So what?

If we are to discuss the taught curriculum or the academic provision of a school, isn’t it important to clarify what we think the purpose of the school is?  In other words, before we roll up our sleeves and consider what we do, shouldn’t we take a moment to reflect upon why we are doing it?  However, before we can do that, we need to appreciate that what we think we mean by curriculum is not necessarily understood in the same way by others. This is why it is important to know where our view of the curriculum sits within the field and also acknowledge that others may hold different views, or even none at all. The ternary plot is a concrete way of representing this abstract and contested curriculum field.

It is all too easy to acquiesce with the prevailing view of national policy makers that the curriculum (and by curriculum, policy makers mean the taught curriculum) is something decided by exam boards and government quangos. However, in this paper, I have argued that we should treat the curriculum as something broader. By considering the curriculum as synonymous with the purpose of school, the taught curriculum becomes reframed as the ‘how’ informed by a shared ‘why’. In doing so, we acknowledge the role that teachers can play in curriculum development, and empower ourselves.  As Kelly states:

Teachers have a ‘make or break’ role in any curriculum innovation. Teachers have been known to sabotage attempts at change; certainly it is clear that such attempts can succeed only when the teachers concerned are committed to them and, especially, when they understand, as well as accept, their underlying principles (2009, p. 14).

We should accept this role with both pride and a measured degree of apprehension about the responsibility it requires of us as independent, informed teaching professionals.

Further Reading

Kelly, A. V. (2009). The Curriculum: Theory and Practice (6th ed.). London: SAGE.

Postman, N. (1996). The End of Education. New York: Vintage.

Sealy, C. (2020). The Curriculum: An evidence-informed guide for teachers. Woodbridge:        John Catt.

Young, M & Lambert, D. (2014). School, Knowledge and the Future School. London:      Bloomsbury.


Arnold, M. (1993). Preface to Culture and Anarchy (1869). In M. Arnold, & S. Collini (Ed.), ‘Culture and Anarchy’ and Other Writings (pp. 188-211). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bernstein, B. (1971). On the classification and framing of educational knowledge. In M. F. Young, Knowledge and Control: New directions for the sociology of education (pp. 47-69). London: Collier MacMillan.

Dewey, J. (1926). Democracy and Education. New York: Macmillan.

Evans, R. J. (2012, January 23). 1066 and all that. New Statesman, pp. 42-45.

Foster, C. J. (2020). Knowledge or Control? Teacher Knowledge, Professional Identity and Practitioner Research. Unpublished manuscript, University of Cambridge.

Kelly, A. V. (2009). The Curriculum: Theory and Practice (6th ed.). London: SAGE.

Lambert, D. (2014). Subject teachers in knowledge-led schools. In M. Young, & D. Lambert, Knowledge and the Future School (pp. 159-197). London: Bloomsbury.

Oakeshott, M. (1959). The voice of poetry in the conversation of mankind : An essay. London: Bowes and Bowes.

Postman, N. (1996). The End of Education. New York: Vintage.

Sealy, C. (Ed.). (2020). The Curriculum: An evidence-informed guide for teachers. Woodbridge: John Catt.

Thomson, A., & Sylvester, R. (2010, March 6). Gove unveils Tory plan for return to ‘traditional’ school lessons. The Times.

Young, M. (2008). From Constructivism to Realism in the Sociology of the Curriculum. Review of Research in Education, 32(1), 1–28.

Young, M. (2014a). Knowledge, curriculum and the future school. In M. Young, & D. Lambert, School, Knowledge and the Future School (pp. 9-40). London: Bloomsbury.

Young, M. (2014b). The progressive case for a subject-based curriculum. In M. Young, & D. Lambert, Knowledge and the Future School (pp. 89-110). London: Bloomsbury.