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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Foundations Series: What is Curriculum?

Welcome to my blog! If you got here from the monthly newsletter of the Midwest Instructional Leadership Council (miLc), welcome! If you found your way here from my Twitter feed, welcome! If you just stumbled here by accident, welcome! I hope you stay and check it out.

Last month, I "officially" kicked off my Foundations Series on Curriculum Alignment, although I technically started the month before by broadly defining curriculum alignment. To review:

Curriculum alignment is "the extent to which and how well all policy elements work together to guide instruction and, ultimately, facilitate and enhance student learning. (Webb, 1997)

The topic for this months' blog in the Foundations Series is exploring the question "What is Curriculum?" This is actually, in my opinion, going to be the most challenging blog post to write and discuss in the Foundations Series. Why? Because this concept/term gets tossed around and used by virtually everyone connected to education and it evokes strong emotion. Curriculum is therefore incredibly difficult to define to any degree of consensus. This EdWeek blog does a nice job of capturing these issues, in the context of the Common Core State Standards.

What is an alignment guy to do?

Are Textbooks the Curriculum?

Well, let me start off with what is likely to be viewed by at least some as at least ignorant, if not inflammatory: I think we need to stop calling textbooks and related materials the "curriculum." I am by no means anti-textbook. I understand that for many educators, their textbooks almost completely drive their instructional decisions from day-to-day. It is my opinion, however, that defining textbooks as the curriculum is incredibly narrow, preventing educators from having a comprehensive perspective on what curricular factors influence student learning. This is especially true for curriculum alignment, which requires a broader view of curriculum to really be worthwhile work for educators.

A Multi-Dimensional Approach

So, if textbooks and related materials don't hold the exclusive right to be called "curriculum" in my approach, then what is curriculum? In my curriculum alignment efforts, I've decided to start with the work of people who have been exploring this issue for much long than myself. In particular, I have found Andy Porter's multi-dimensional approach to be incredibly helpful in trying to define and understand the concept of curriculum. 

Perhaps the best resource I've found for defining and exploring curriculum by Porter is a chapter he wrote in the Handbook of Complementary Methods in Education Research called Curriculum Assessment, which you can download here from Porter's website (he has many other great resources there as well, I highly recommend checking it out). In this chapter, which is based on his larger body of work, he breaks curriculum down into four parts: (a) intended, (b) enacted, (c) assessed, and (d) learned. To quote:

"Curriculum can be divided into the intended, enacted, assessed, and learned curricula. For K-12 education, the intended curriculum is captured most explicitly in...content standards - statements of what every student must know and be able to do by some specified point in time. The enacted curriculum refers to instruction (e.g., what happens in classrooms). The assessed curriculum refers to student achievement tests. States, districts, and the U.S. government test various subjects at various grade levels. Teachers use their own tests to monitor student performance." (Porter, 2006) 

For me, this description of curriculum turns into the following picture:

This figure is likely familiar to most, at least in terms of its structure. Many have used a triangle to paint a picture of curriculum, though different terms are put at the corners of the triangle in different frameworks. I am of the opinion that this version of the triangle, when properly used, can incorporate any and all facets of any other approach to understanding curriculum, and then some. It is remarkably comprehensive yet simple, flexible yet consistent.

So...What is Curriculum?

Each of these terms will be explored in more depth in future blogs in the Foundations Series for Curriculum Alignment. For this blog, I use the following phrase when answering the question posed in the title of this blog, "What is Curriculum?":

Curriculum is what students are supposed to learn, what they get the opportunity to learn, what gets assessed, and what is actually learned.

Where do textbooks and related materials fit within this approach? My answer to this question, as it is to many questions, depends. :) You'll have to check in to my Foundation Series blog next month, when I address the question "What is Intended Curriculum?" Or, hit me up on Twitter and ask. Thanks for reading my blog!

Resources Used

Porter, A. C. (2006). Curriculum assessment. In J. L. Green, G. Camilli, & P. B. Elmore (Eds.), Complementary methods for research in education (3rd edition). Washington, DC: American Educational Research Association.

Webb, N. L. (1997). Criteria for alignment of expectations and assessments in mathematics and science education (Research Monograph No. 8). Madison, WI: National Institute for Science Education, University of Wisconsin–Madison.