The word curriculum comes from the Latin word meaning "a course for racing." It's interesting how closely this metaphor fits the way in which educators perceive the curriculum in schools. Teachers often speak about "covering" concepts as one would speak about "covering" ground. And that coverage is often a race against the testing clock.
School mission statements often wax poetic about the development of the "total child." However, what drives the everyday functioning of those schools is the official curriculum and the tests that hold teachers and students accountable to that curriculum.
When people use the word curriculum, they are generally referring to the content chosen to be taught—the official curriculum. In schools that have adopted standards, the official curriculum reflects the content of those standards. There is, however, more to a curriculum than the specific items listed in the official curriculum guide.
The following sections describe several alternative perspectives on the total curriculum in schools—what is actually taught and learned.
Educational theorist Larry Cuban questions the myth that a well-defined curriculum determines what is taught (and learned) in a school. He suggests that there are at least four different curricula in use in our schools.
"The official curriculum is what state and district officials set forth in curricular frameworks and courses of study. They expect teachers to teach it; they assume students will learn it."
The taught curriculum is what teachers, working alone in their rooms, actually choose to teach. "Their choices derive from their knowledge of the subject, their experiences in teaching the content, their affection or dislike for topics, and their attitudes toward the students they face daily."
The learned curriculum. Beyond what test scores reveal about content learning, students also learn many unspecified lessons embedded in the environment of the classroom. Depending on what the teacher models, the student will learn to process information in particular ways and not in others. They will learn when and when not to ask questions and how to act attentive. They may imitate their teacher's attitudes. They learn about respect for others from the teacher's own demonstration of respect or lack thereof. The learned curriculum is much more inclusive than the overtly taught curriculum.
The tested curriculum. "What is tested is a limited part of what is intended by policy makers, taught by teachers, and learned by students." The farther removed teachers are from the actual construction of the tests, the worse the fit between the other curriculums and what is tested. Standardized tests often represent the poorest assessment of the other curriculums.
The taught and learned curricula are largely ignored in discussions of the effectiveness of schools. Yet they are perhaps the most influential in terms of the student. We continue to ignore them at our peril!
Cuban, L. (1995). The Hidden Variable: How Organizations Influence Teacher Responses to Secondary Science Curriculum Reform. Theory Into Practice, Vol. 34, No. 1, 4-11.
Educational theorist Elliot Eisner suggests the explicit curriculum, similar to Cuban's official and taught curricula, is a small part of what schools actually teach. Revising the content of this explicit curriculum does nothing to address the implicit curriculum.
"…The implicit curriculum of the school is what it teaches because of the kind of place it is. And the school is that kind of place [because of] various approaches to teaching…the kind of reward system that it uses…the organizational structure it employs to sustain its existence…the physical characteristics of the school plant…the furniture it uses and the surroundings it creates. These characteristics constitute some of the dominant components of the school's implicit curriculum. …These features are…intuitively recognized by parents, students, and teachers… because they are salient and pervasive features of schooling, what they teach may be among the most important lessons a child learns."1 (author's emphasis)
Eisner describes one of those lessons.
"Most school rooms are designed as cubicles along corridors and have a kind of antiseptic quality to them. They tend to be repetitive and monotonous in the same way that some hospitals and factories are. They speak of efficiency more than they do of comfort…. Most of the furniture is designed for easy maintenance, is uncomfortable, and is visually sterile…. The point here is not so much to chastise school architects but to point out that the buildings that we build do at least two things: they express the values we cherish, and, once built, they reinforce those values. Schools are educational churches, and our gods, judging from the altars we build, are economy and efficiency. Hardly a nod is given to the spirit." 2
Many caring teachers resist this sterile, impersonal environment, finding it as uncomfortable as do the students. These teachers do what they can to create an appealing environment. They do what they can to personalize their classrooms and their relationships with students. They do this in spite of the ever-present bells that trigger automatic movement from one class to the other much like the salivating of Pavlov's dogs. Despite the efforts of these teachers, the "kind of place school is" heavily influences the behavior of both teacher and student.
What do students learn? They learn that their interest in a subject is less important than keeping to the class schedule or lesson plan. They learn that social interaction is less important than the efficient functioning of passing periods. And they learn that a consistent set of rules applied to everyone is more important than helping an individual student understand the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Fundamentally, they learn that, as individuals, they are relatively unimportant in the scheme of things.
"It is my thesis that what schools do not
teach may be as important as what they do teach. Ignorance is not
simply a neutral void; it has important effects on the kinds of
options one is able to consider, the alternatives that one can
examine, and the perspectives from which one can view a situation
or problems. The absence of a set of considerations or
perspectives or the inability to use certain processes for
appraising a context biases the evidence one is able to take into
account. A parochial perspective or simplistic analysis is the
inevitable progeny of ignorance."
~ Elliot Eisner
What curriculum designers and/or teachers choose to leave out of the curriculum is no less important than what they choose to include. Those choices are based on a number of different factors.
1. Educators have personal beliefs about the importance of various parts of the official curriculum. Given that they don't have time to "cover" everything, they automatically choose those concepts they consider more important or with which they feel more comfortable. Often, teachers choose topics simply because they find them more enjoyable or believe that the students will find them interesting.
2. The same criteria for inclusion may apply for those who write the curriculum. But in many cases, there is a more pervasive and unexamined motive. That is the current mindset, worldview, or paradigm of the culture or the individual. Because the Newtonian/mechanistic worldview still permeates traditional education, the universe of knowledge is consistently broken into parts. The goals of the curriculum are stated in broad terms, but the actual content tends to be "small chunk"—specific bits of information and skills to be learned.
The "big ideas," such as the paradigm shift that produced the Renaissance or the multitude of factors that converged to trigger the Civil War, are occasionally mentioned at the beginning of each content section. However, the "small chunk" mentality is so deeply ingrained that these big ideas merely become handy titles for lists of specific facts to be learned. Little time is spent exploring these big ideas because there is no easy way to test students on them. Big ideas become part of the null curriculum.
The null curriculum supports the implicit curriculum. With economy and efficiency as the underlying societal values, big ideas are to be avoided. If big ideas became the reigning paradigm, curriculum developers and standards writers would find it difficult to identify specific concepts that everyone must know. There are simply too many perspectives when it comes to thinking of big ideas—too many connections and interactions, any and all of which might be "correct."
In most schools, the prevailing worldview, such as mechanism or scientism, is taught. People in Western nations have adopted a relatively unquestioned worldview that the only valid way of solving problems of nature and man is science. This worldview is the one that prevails in westerns schools. Stepwise and "objective" problem solving are specifically taught. Intuitive knowledge (see the article on the types of knowledge) is ignored and sometimes actively discouraged. It is part of the null curriculum.
"…This is done covertly rather than overtly. That is, 'teacher talk' about the subject both presupposes the truth of these views and uses them to 'explain'. This is compounded by the fact that most popular textbooks also presuppose these views, presenting concepts in those frameworks without ever mentioning that there are other ways to explain them."3
The lists of laws, rules, principles, definitions, and "steps" that make up so much of the official curriculum convey the implicit message that such knowledge is absolute. There is little or no discussion about how and why they came into being—what problems made them necessary. When the process becomes separated from the product, the human element disappears. Knowledge, such as the rules of grammar or the laws of motion, takes on the aura of the sacrosanctimmutable and true in some absolute sense. And that's what students are taught.
[Parts of this article are excerpted from Teaching In Mind: How Teacher Thinking Shapes Education. For a more complete discussion of the role of teacher thinking in the curriculum, you may wish to order a copy of the book.
1 Eisner, E. (1994). The Educational Imagination: On the Design and Evaluation of School Programs, 3rd ed. New York: Macmillan College Publishing.
2 Ibid., 96-97
3 Proper, H., Wideen, M. F., & Ivany, G (1988) World View Projected by Science Teachers: A Study of Classroom Dialogue. Science Education, Vol.. 72, No. 5, 547-560