Meaning & Definition of Curriculum

Over the past decades, many definitions of a curriculum have been provided but because key players in education represent a diversity of values and experience, it is difficult to get wide public or professional consensus. Educators define curriculum in different ways in part because they bring to that task different perceptions of what curriculum should be.

Paradoxically, the term „curriculum‟ has a long history despite its apparently recent common usage. The curriculum was considered by writers on education such as Plato, Aristotle, J.A. Comenius, and Friedrich Froebel, although the usage of the term has not been popularized until this century. To define a curriculum as „what is taught in schools‟ is of course, very vague.

Persons often talk about „school curriculum‟ in this general way and they tend to mean by this the range of subjects taught and the amount of instruction time given to each in terms of hours or minutes. A curriculum defined as „content‟ is an interesting emphasis and brings into question another term, namely the „syllabus‟. A „syllabus‟ is usually a summary statement about the content to be taught in course or unit, often linked to an external examination. It is typically a list of content areas.

A syllabus is clearly a subsection of the curriculum and as such is subsumed within the broader concept. This emphasis on what content to be taught is a critical element of a syllabus but a curriculum includes more than this. Characterizing curriculum as the subject matter is the most traditional image of the curriculum which depicts it as the combining of subject matter to form a body of content to be taught. Such content is the product of accumulated wisdom, particularly acquired through traditional academic disciplines.

You will discover that most teachers when asked to describe their school's curriculum they provide a litany of subjects or subject matter taught to students. Defining a curriculum as a „set of performance objectives‟ or student learning is a very practical orientation of the curriculum. This approach focuses upon specific skills or knowledge that it is considered should be attained by learners. Proponents of this approach argue that if a teacher knows the targets that learners should achieve, it is much easier to organize elements to achieve this end.

The strength of this approach is that it focuses on the learners who are after all the ultimate beneficiaries. You should also understand that this approach can 5 lead to an overemphasis on behavioral outcomes and objectives. Also, a curriculum document which is simply a listing of objectives would have to be very large. To define a curriculum as „that which is taught both inside and outside school, directed by the school‟ indicates that all kinds of activities that occur in the classroom, playground,d and community, comprise the curriculum. This emphasis has merit in that it demonstrates that school learning is not just confined to the classroom.

However, you will realize that it seems to indicate that the only important learning experiences are those which are directed by school personnel. To define a curriculum in terms of „what individual learner experiences as a result of schooling‟ is an attempt to widen the focus. The emphasis here is upon the student as a self-motivated learner.

The definition refers to a curriculum as „everything that is planned by school personnel‟ which is yet another orientation that emphasizes the planning aspect of the curriculum. Few would deny that classroom learning experiences for students need to be planned although some unplanned activities will always occur (and these can have positive or negative effects). Educators and Scholars define curriculum in different ways, in part because they bring to that task different perceptions of what curriculum should be.

As seen in the previous paragraphs some educators see the curriculum as a list of subjects to be studied, while others see it as entire course content. Still, others perceive curriculum as a set of planned learning experiences offered by teachers. Another group state that a curriculum is a written plan of action. The following are some of the well-known definitions that we can consider. The term curriculum is derived from the Latin word currere, which means to run or to run the course.

Based on this origin, some authorities have defined curriculum as a course of study subject matter. This definition has been found limiting and many authorities have modified it. The following are some of the definitions of curriculum that you will find very useful by renowned scholars in curriculum studies and education. The word “curriculum” as it is defined from its early Latin origins means literally “to run a course.” If one thinks of a marathon with mile and direction markers, signposts, water stations, and officials and coaches along the route, this beginning definition is a metaphor for what the curriculum has become in the education of our children. Here are multiple definitions of curriculum, from Oliva (1997).

Curriculum is:

  • That which is taught in schools
  • A set of subjects.
  • Content
  • A program of studies.
  • A set of materials
  • A sequence of courses.
  • A set of performance objectives
  • A course of study
  • Is everything that goes on within the school, including extra-class activities, guidance, and interpersonal relationships.
  • Everything is planned by school personnel.
  • A series of experiences undergone by learners in a school.
  • That which an individual learner experiences as a result of schooling.


Obviously, the answer to this question is subject to interpretation. Since curriculum reflects the models of instructional delivery chosen and used, some might indicate that curriculum could be categorized according to

The common psychological classifications of the four families of learning theories
Social, Information Processing, Personalist, and Behavioral.

Longstreet and Shane have dubbed divisions in curricular orientations as:
Child-centered, Society-centered, knowledge-centered, or eclectic.

Common philosophical orientations of curriculum parallel those beliefs espoused by
different philosophical orientations –
Idealism, Realism, Perennialism, Essentialism, Experimentalism, Existentialism, Constructivism, Re constructivism, and the like.

There are many types of curriculum design, but here we will discuss only a few. Types or
patterns are being followed in educational institutions.
1. Subject Centered curriculum
2. Teacher-centered curriculum
3. Learner-centered curriculum
4. Activity/Experience curriculum
5. Integrated curriculum
6. Core curriculum
7. Broad field curriculum
8. Hidden curriculum

1 Subject-Centered Curriculum

The subject matter is the most used and accepted curriculum Design, it is also the oldest curriculum Design. We see the earliest example in the medieval era in the Middle Ages the monastery and Cathedrals and the organizations of the seven liberal arts in the schools of ancient Greece and Rome.

The seven liberal arts consisted of two divisions:
1. Trivium
2. Quadrivium

These subjects were broad. In the modern period, the Trivium was further divided to include literature and history, and the quadrivium to include algebra, trigonometry, geography, botany, zoology, physics, and chemistry. In this manner, subjects were added one after the other so much so that in 1930 there were over 300 different subjects.

After centuries the curriculum design of the seven liberal arts is still the nucleus of the subject curriculum. In a subject base curriculum, every subject is a separate unit. In this kind of curriculum four or five subjects are placed in the curriculum and each subject has a separate teacher. Every teacher tries to teach his own subject, and no one intervenes in the subject of another teacher.

1. Information for future use

Importance is given to acquiring knowledge and information for future use, only those subjects are considered important and have value, and the individual benefit from it in the future (vocational importance). Adult problems are given importance and the problems of children in youth are ignored.

2. Progress is measured to the extent the students learned the subject

In this type of curriculum subject matter is the most important thing to learn therefore the learning is measured by how much and well the subject matter has been mastered by the pupil. Frequent tests are given to students to check their degree of achievement in the subject.

3. Predetermined uniform standard of knowledge:

There is a uniform standard for all the students to pass the subject else they will have to repeat the subject, therefore, the experts of the subject-centered approach strongly support the minimum standards for an examination so all achieved the set standard and qualify for the examination. The teacher tries to help the weak students and to bring them to the set standard and pass the exam or repeat a grade.

4. Each subject is a separate entity (unit) with a logical organization of its own:

Importance is given to the acquisition of skills, facts, and information for vocational purposes in different logically organized subjects. The teaching staff teaches different subjects and they do not discuss or plan subjects together.

5. Practice in skills is emphasized:

The main aspect of the subject base curriculum is the continuous practice or drill in a specific skill, it is one of the typical characteristics of the subject base curriculum. For this purpose multiple methods are used; evaluations, Exercise sessions, and tutoring classes are often dedicated to such types of practices, and all the students are given equal opportunities to participate.

6. Subject matter is selected by adults/experts for teaching learning situations:

The content of the subject is selected in advance before the teaching-learning process; the subject matter is logically organized from simple to complex with the help of experts, specialists, teachers ‟s supervisors, planners, writers, and administrators.

7. Learning subject matter is an end in itself:

The main focus of the teachers, administrators, and students is to complete the subject matter, to cover all the topics which are provided in the course outline by Listening to lectures and studying the recommended textbook. It is all preparation for examination on the part of students and teachers and it shows the influence of the subject-centered approach. For the teacher to finish the textbook on time is a great accomplishment.

Requirements for the Operation of Subject centered Curriculum

1. Trained Teachers with mastery of a subject and experts in methodology are required to teach.
2. A separate classroom for each subject and each level.
3. A fixed timetable is required for different subjects according to the importance of the
subjects and age in the curriculum.
4. Special arrangements for guidance physical education, Indoor, and outdoor activities,
tours, and examinations, etc.
5. Need for Textbooks and guidebooks for subject-centered curriculum.

Criticism of Subject-Centred Curriculum

The teacher has control over pupil experiences, Learning activities, and conduct. The teacher follows the decision of others in the planning and evaluation process. The teacher and headmaster formulate the rules for classroom management. They demand very stern discipline and they want a quiet classroom atmosphere, teacher thinks it is the best situation for the teaching-learning process.

Defenses of Subject-Centred Curriculum

1. The supporter of the subject base curriculum rejects the claim that it did not develop a child‟s thinking. They argue that it is the most suitable method for the development of critical thinking in an individual but if one can‟t then the problem lies in the instruction, not in the curriculum itself. A vast majority of countries select this method and they are producing botanists, doctors and geologists, and so on.

2. The other claim that it is fragmentary and compartmentalized is also not true about subject base curriculum alone because no one can study one subject in one session at once in any kind of curriculum. They use the principle of selection in the selection of course contents. In a sense, anything that is learned is a fragment and is a part of some larger unit.

3. It gives the teacher the idea of what to teach and the student what he suppose to learn and how much time they have to cover the course of the subject. This provides them with a constant source of security and a self-evaluation process through which they know how many courses they have covered and how to complete them.

4. Subject base curriculum uses a logically sound framework for the organization of subject matter, it used the cause and effect principle in science and the chronological order of the historical events but they assumed order and are reliable for learning experiences.

5. The evaluation of the subject base curriculum is easy. It uses achievement-based testing in the evaluation to find the mastery of the subject matter in the individual.

6. It has a bright future. The subject approach is useful for specialization in any branch of knowledge. It is more effective.

Learner-centered Curriculum

The supporters of a learner-centered Curriculum give importance to individual development and they want to organize the curriculum according to the needs and interests of learners, there are fundamental differences between this approach and the subject-centered design. This movement from the traditional curriculum towards a program that stresses the interests and needs of students, This approach was used by Rousseau in the education of Emile, then Dewy in his laboratory School in 1896-1904. it is believed that all of these twentieth-century efforts reflect, the influence of Dewey.

It is a fundamental principle of education that the beginning of each instruction shall be connected with the previous experience of learners. The purpose is that the experience and the capacities that have been developed in early lessons, it should provide a starting point for further learning. The current importance given to student-centered programs may not always acknowledge Dewey‟s philosophy and influence on the movement to incorporate more student-serving learning opportunities into the curriculum.

The association for the Advancement of Progressive Education formed in 1919, had its aim “The development of the individual, based upon the scientific study of his mental, physical, spiritual, and social characteristics and needs”. The views of this association, later called the Progressive Education Association (PEA), were compatible with the ideas of Dewey‟s as indicated by their principles: 

1. Freedom to develop naturally.

2. Interest is the motive of all work.

3. The teacher is a guide, not a taskmaster.

4. Scientific study of pupil development.

5. Greater attention to all that affects the child‟s physical development.

6. Co-operation between school and home to meet the needs of child life.

7. The progressive school is a leader in the educational movement. 

The aim of using the learner-centered curriculum on the part of curriculum planners is to interpret the needs and interests design as one based on the common needs and interests of learners rather than on those of the particular population to be served. Reflected in curriculum plans, this interpretation could, and sometimes did, become the rationale for teaching. Research on learner-centered curricula in recent years made it possible for curriculum planners to develop a better learner-centered curriculum. Modern learning theories and the dissatisfaction of students and parents from the old curriculum are moving curriculum and instruction toward a design that focuses on real student needs and interests.


The curriculum design on the needs and interests of students has these characteristics and features.

1. The curriculum plan is based on knowledge of learners ‟s needs and interests in general and diagnosis of the specific needs and interests of the population served by the plan.

2. The curriculum plan is flexible, to accept new modifications to conform to the needs and interests of the particular learners‟s In fact, in some curriculum designs the learner may develop his or her own curriculum plan with the guidance of a teacher.

3. The learner is consulted and tutored individually at difficult points in the curriculum and instructional process. 

The learner-centered approach is an example of the applications of the needs and interests (activities) approach. Subject obstacles were lowered or removed as teachers combined subjects to study social problems identified by students. Students in the experimental schools were more successful in college. This practice has an everlasting effect on secondary education. 

Community Centred Curriculum

The Community-Centred Curriculum is meant to reach out beyond the classroom and into the community where the world can be changed by students and teachers. The curriculum is based on societal issues, and the goal of the curriculum is to explore and solve those issues. This is very much an activist model, where students are encouraged to be leading activists in their community where life problems, community affairs, and real-world problems exist. The foundation of the community-centered curriculum is built on real-world problems, and the content is various social issues. In the community-centered curriculum, students are agents of change seeking to make a difference in their community.

Teacher’s role in the community-centered curriculum

In the community-centered curriculum, teachers have a very important role. They serve as facilitators: organizing group efforts, showing students that they are in this together, that they need each other, and that they have to have a group to do this. Some often question why this role is so important. We need to realize that children are not born with all the necessary social skills to work together as a group. Therefore, the teacher helps children develop their social skills and create a climate for collaboration and team building.

These skills and this environment are essential for success within the community-centered curriculum. The teacher is responsible for turning their class into a problem-solving unit. They help their unit solve their community-based problems by planning and coordinating trips into the community. They are also responsible for making connections with community members who will further help the students with their projects. Since teamwork is such a large part of this curriculum, teachers often work with teachers throughout the school to help students achieve their goals.

Student’s role in the community-centered curriculum

The students‟ role in the community-centered curriculum is perhaps the most important. They do not sit at their desk with textbooks doing never-ending classwork. Students are responsible for being aware of the world around them and the issues that impact their life. It is from these life issues and problems that the community-centered curriculum is developed. Students‟ goal is to leave the world a better place than they found it through group efforts. The esprit de corps (the common spirit) is a focal point of the curriculum and is developed as the students work together in group projects.

Students are to engage in the culture and become involved in the community that lies beyond their school and makes a difference in that community. Participation is the true key to the community-centered curriculum, and students must work together if they wish to succeed. Students start their learning process with a driving question. They then take this question and explore it through inquiry using applied knowledge. Students then engage with their peers, teachers, and community members in collaborative activities. The students‟ project learning can be scaffolded by various supports including technology. Finally, students create tangible projects that will address their driving questions.

 The learning environment of the community-centered curriculum

The community-centered curriculum requires a classroom like any other school. Students come together to discuss community issues and decide where their course of study should go. Therefore, the classrooms and schools that participate in the community-centered curriculum are like a democracy. Students make many of the key decisions. While there are traditional grade levels based mostly on age, cross-grade level activities are very commonplace. Students must work together to solve particular issues, and sometimes that requires other grade levels. Since the community-centered curriculum focuses on the real world, the real world is the community-centered curriculum‟s learning laboratory. Students spend much of their time outside of the classroom and school, and in the community investigating. The community-centered curriculum has integrated studies where students and teachers work backward from the problem, trying to find out how they can be of help.

 Assessments in the community-centered curriculum

Assessments in the community-centered curriculum usually focus on the students‟ efforts and outcomes. In the community-centered curriculum, students are working to solve problems within their community, and part of their assessment focuses on the outcomes of their efforts to solve the problem. Therefore, students are also assessed on their ability to apply their knowledge and skills when trying to solve the particular problem at hand.

The community-centered curriculum also allows students to develop their citizenship and leadership abilities, as well as foster their social growth. A group reflection takes place after a project has been completed where students can get together and share any and all thoughts about the project and what the next steps should be. Types of community-centered curriculum assessment include written work, observations, presentations, informal discussions and questions, project designs, and final products. Teachers are not the only ones involved in the assessment process, students and peers are also actively involved. Students are given the chance to create their own rubric which the teacher can use to assess their learning.

Advantages of a community-centered curriculum

(a) Increases student's awareness of social issues and current events 

One of the benefits of the community-centered curriculum is that social issues are the foundation of the curriculum. Instead of spending their day at a desk reading textbooks and doing seatwork, students are called to participate in real-world activities. The focus of the curriculum is on real-life problems that are occurring in the classroom, in the local community, and around the world.

(b) Fosters positive social interactions

In the community-centered curriculum, students are constantly interacting with one another, and team building, collaborative effort, and cooperative learning are all a large part of the school experience. Group projects dominate the curriculum, which requires frequent collaboration and fosters the social necessary for group participation group. The principles of democracy, participation, and citizenship are stressed. 

Social Reconstructionist Curriculum

Social Reconstructionists are interested in the relationship between curriculum and the social, political, and economic development of society. Social Reconstructionists are convinced that education can effect social change, citing, for example, literacy campaigns that have contributed to successful political revolutions. Aspects of reconstructionism appeared in American curriculum thought in the 1920s and 1930s. Harold Rugg was concerned about the values for which the school should work. He tried to awaken his peers to the “lag” between the curriculum, a “ lazy giant” and the culture, with its fast-paced change and resultant staggering social dislocations.

Rugg‟s textbooks, teaching, and professional leadership had one overriding quality- the spirit of social criticism. He wanted learners to use newly emerging concepts from social sciences and aesthetics to identify and solve current problems. In the early 1950s, the late Theodore Brameld outlined the distinctive features of social reconstructionism: First, he believed in a commitment to building a new culture. Brameld was infused with the conviction that people are in the midst of a revolutionary period from which the common people will emerge as controllers of the industrial system, public services, and of cultural and natural resources. Second, Brameld felt that the working people should control all principal institutions and resources if the world is to become genuinely democratic.

Teachers should ally themselves with organized working people. A way should be found to enlist the majority of people of all races and religions into a great democratic body with the power to enforce its policies. Third Brameld believed that the school should help the individual, not only to develop socially but to learn how to participate in social planning as well. There are many premises of social reconstruction and the different directions taken by different social re-constructionist such as revolution, critical inquiry, and futurism. A distinction is also made between a curriculum of reconstruction, which attempts to change the social order, and a curriculum of social adaptation, which helps students fit into a world they never made.

Model Questions

1. Give the different perspectives for the categorization of the curriculum.
2. Explain two main characteristics of a subject-centered curriculum.
3. Explain the criticisms about the subject-centered curriculum.
4. What is the main focus of a community-centered curriculum? Discuss.
5. What are the teacher‟s roles in the Society-Centred Curriculum?
6. Explain the Social Reconstructionist curriculum concerning Characteristics, student‟s role, and purpose.
7. Differentiate the subject-centered curriculum and learner-centered curriculum.
8. Write down the principles of a learner-centered curriculum according to PEA (Progressive Education Association).
9. What is the main focus of communitya -centered curriculum? Discuss.
10. What are the teacher‟s roles in the Society-Centred Curriculum? Discuss

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