The term curriculum is used in a number of different ways by parents, educators, and businesses. Some see curriculum as the "academic stuff that is done to children in school." Others view it as teacher directions and student activities that can be purchased from any number of curriculum publishers. Teachers themselves use the term in different ways depending on their views and needs. In any school staff room one may hear statements about curriculum such as the following:
Webster's concisely defines curriculum as, "A course of study offered by a school" (Webster's II New Riverside Dictionary, 1984 p176). Curriculum is also often referred to as learning content, activities, and structures as experienced by students. Ronald C. Doll, in his book, Curriculum Improvement: Decision Making and Process, goes further, stating that:
It is this last definition that is perhaps the most useful to educators who wish to affect and improve student learning. Partially this is because it lacks the vagueness that many definitions have, and partially it is because curriculum, as Doll has defined it, can have outcomes that may be measured, allowing for the curriculum to be acted upon and improved.
Instruction is the creation and implementation of purposefully developed plans for the teaching of curriculum content. It is what teachers often concisely refer to as "planning" and "teaching." The relationship between curriculum and instruction is so intimate that "curriculumandinstruction" is frequently spoken as if it were one word (perhaps we should refer to it as "curstruction" or "instriculum"). With curriculum being the content of what is taught along with an overall process of how that content is to be taught, and instruction being the more detailed plans and the way those plans are implemented in order to teach the curriculum content, it becomes easy to understand that the two must be compatible in order to maximize student learning.
The case of multiage classrooms illustrates this close tie that exists between curriculum and instruction. Currently the most common classroom structure in American elementary schools is the single-grade classroom. This structure is meant to make instruction more efficient, allowing students of the same age to move through curriculum content at the same pace. In these classrooms the most prevalent teaching method is whole-class direct instruction. Because of the dominance of this structure nation-wide, commercially available curriculum and state learning standards are designed to be implemented in this type of learning environment. Some educators in their efforts to improve education have switched from a single-grade classroom structure to a multiage one. The multiage structure purposefully places students of different ages together in the same classroom while supporting an individualized continuous progress instructional model. While changing the structure of the classroom, multiage educators also change the instructional methods they use in order to better match the needs of their diverse group of students. They have found that "(c)urriculum designed for use in single-grade classrooms is not always adaptable to environments in which whole-class direct instruction is not the norm. Allowing for flexible groupings, academic diversity, and individual pacing are needs that are central to multiage practices" (Yates, Curriculum in Multiage Learning Environments, 2000). The instructional methods used by these teachers necessitate that curriculum be organized in a compatible manner.
When planning for curriculum improvement, two categories of bases should be understood, those that are institutional in nature and those that affect people directly. The institutional bases for curriculum planning include planning domains, the context or characteristics of the school situation, the impact of current trends and issues, and the use of strategic planning. Those bases of curriculum planning that affect people directly include student and teacher needs, local curriculum problems to be addressed, competencies of the planners, and pressures from inside and outside the school (Doll, 1996 p362-378). All of these bases affect the curriculum planning process in various ways and to differing degrees. They can also vary with each situation over time.
As of this writing, a current educational issue in the United States is that of student performance and preparation for the workplace. The trend is for state governments to create standards of competence that are tested at various points in students' educational careers and to make schools and students accountable for their performance on these tests. Test scores are frequently reported in the local media and this may lead to pressure from the local population being brought to bear on the school to improve its curricula. The context of the school may be that it is within a district that hasn't passed a school levy for a number of years and thus has not been able to budget money to work on improving the curricula during that time. This not-uncommon scenario shows how a combination of factors can become the bases for, and can influence the curriculum planning process.
Ronald Doll lists eleven principles of decision making and process as it relates to the evaluation of curricula and projects. These principles form the criteria of a quality curriculum development process that includes the stages of planning, development, and implementation.
Curriculum decisions should be made:
Social forces that can influence curriculum planning come from far and wide. The ideas and values of various groups of people may include their social goals, ideas about cultural uniformity and diversity, social pressures, ideas about social change, their plans for the future, and their concepts of culture (Coutts, 1999). An example of this can be seen when contrasting the CYFERNet and the Catalyst: Voices of Chicago School Reform websites. The Children, Youth, and Families Education and Research Network website, CYFERNet is designed to provide "...program, evaluation and technology assistance for children, youth and family community-based programs". The website is a collaborative project that "...is funded (by) the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service and the Cooperative Extension System" (Cooperative Extension System, 2000). Because of this, many of the curriculum links are to agricultural and 4-H educational activities. In contrast, the CATALYST: Voices of Chicago School Reform website sponsored by the Community Renewal Society, works "...to create racially and economically just communities" (Community Renewal Society, 2000). Its focus is on Chicago area urban educational issues, especially in regards to race and the economically disadvantaged. It provides information to help influence educational decision making as it relates to the organization's mission. On the one hand is a group that wishes to influence educational policy (and thus curriculum) to better meet the needs of children in an urban environment, and on the other a group trying to do the same for rural children. Although there may be a few communities where the two groups compete with one another, they do illustrate how the values and issues of various social groups can try to influence curriculum planning.
At the foundation to every curriculum, including the planning, design, and implementation stages, is the educational philosophy of those directly involved in the process. Often this can influence to a great extent the direction a school or school district takes with its curriculum and instruction. At the school district this writer has been employed with, the philosophy has allowed for a diversity of instructional styles as a way of meeting a diversity of children's learning styles. This has led in the elementary school to several educational options available for students and parents: single-grade, single-grade clusters, multiage, looping, and home-school hybrid educational environments. Because some of these educational structures have different instructional designs than others, there are available different curricular materials. Other nearby schools offer only a single choice and a single curriculum. The basis for these decisions can be found in the above mentioned factors as well as in the educational philosophies of the decision makers.
All sources used in creating this website are cited on the Bibliography and Sources webpage. Also note that in-text citations used above are linked directly to the appropriate portion of the Bibliography and Sources webpage.