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Curriculum: The Design of the Prerequisite

The concept of curriculum is a commonplace feature of education. Curriculum is the source of design for the educational experience. Through a curriculum design we establish and impose cultural practices that influence and shape the lives of people over long periods of time. Those effects are greater in scope than those that are stated or intended. Since universal access to education is a cultural aim, we can also assume that the imposition of curriculum on people is a cultural aim. However, while we make attempts at offering interesting curriculum design initiatives, we often fail to explore the underlying assumptions and conditions it is built on...

Curriculum is a solution to a problem we created.

What Is Curriculum?

A Google search for the definition of curriculum reveals some surface characteristics. For the most part a curriculum is prerequisite body of content that students must acquire in order to complete an educational program. Achievement (i.e. - graduation, certification, diplomas) is a measurement (i.e. - assessment, evaluation, testing) of the prerequisite content (i.e. - frequently framed as knowledge, skills, and attitudes). However, a curriculum is an underlying structure that can be, and perhaps must be, understood independently from the surface activities that surround the content it promotes.

Education and curriculum are interdependent. One cannot be understood without the other. Curriculum is the most basic technology for control and authority in education and is commonly backed by extensive legislation as well as generations of cultural conditioning. In the sense, then need for a curriculum has become an assumption - a presupposition. This assumption lies in the concept of the prerequisite, or the idea that a group of experts can and should predetermine the knowledge, skills and attitudes that people will acquire over long periods of time. Curriculum is also the source of design for the educational experience. Through curriculum we impose restrictions on people's use of time and space that are intended to have some kind of benefit for the individual as well as society. Instructional design as well as assessment and evaluation are the offspring of curriculum. In other words, curriculum creates a specific kind of environment that heavily influences people's thoughts, emotions, beliefs, perceptual ability, apprehension, comprehension, physical activities, and so on.

One definition of curriculum as a "program for learning developed for students" makes a number of unfortunate assumptions. A program cannot confine learning. The correct way to state this would be a "program for educating." Further, learning cannot be developed "for" students but is by default always designed "by" them. However, removing the word "learning" and replacing it with "educating" would correct this error since students do not develop education.

In exploring the underlying structure of curriculum we can identify some basic characteristics:

  • Curriculum is fundamentally a technology designed to control and impose authority;
  • Curriculum is the source of design in education;
  • Curriculum originates in the concept of the prerequisite;
  • Curriculum creates an environment that influences and shapes people's experiences over long periods of time;
  • Curriculum is medium that has effects ranging well beyond the stated content;
  • Curriculum is not changed in any meaningful way by altering the content or instructional methodologies used to deliver that content (see: Instructional Design: The Propagation of Curriculum);
  • Curriculum, like television, is a form of mass communication;
  • Curriculum embraces education, but not necessarily learning.

Curriculum Is An Environment - A Total Surround: Curriculum is quite literally a technology, or the application of knowledge to produced a specified result. All technologies create environments - a total surround - that people experience. These environments have intended and unintended effects. Here we arrive at McLuhan's probe that the medium is the message, or more simply, the medium has a vast range of effects and influences that are separate from the message it intends to deliver. This means, with respect to curriculum, that the curriculum - the medium - has effects on people that are completely separate and distinct from the proposed content (the information, skills and attitudes promoted) - or message.

What are the characteristics of the environment created by curriculum? The source of curriculum design is usually external to the student. It naturally follows then that a curriculum is largely a one-way technology - a push technology - a system of mass communication. The effects of this, independent from the content promoted, are to exclude the thoughts, ideas and experiences of the students in the educational process, or at least to denigrate the role of student to receiver. The effect is much the same for teachers since they do not have any meaningful input into the fundamental structure of curriculum. Often, the best as teacher can do is to try an integrate creative approaches to instructional design. The problem here, of course, is that the nature of this creativity is completely subsumed, framed and shaped by the curriculum - a force that is external to them as well.

If learning is to be stretched over a lifetime, there is reduced justification for forcing kids to attend school full time. For many young people, part-time schooling and part-time work at low-skill, paid and unpaid community service tasks will prove more satisfying and educational.
- Alvin Toffler in Future Shock

The aims and goals that drive the curriculum are direct descendants of print technology. This means that curriculum is an offshoot of rationalization and classification since print is always something far less that the experiences it attempts to describe. In other words, curriculum design originates in the abstract. As a system of control and authority, curriculum demands that we attend the abstract in life - often at the expense of the practical and the authentic. The effect of this after years of conditioning is to remove us from the realities of living in order to spend more and more time on the aloof.

Curriculum controls time - extensive periods of time. It schedules our lives into classrooms. It fragments time into discrete and unrelated periods in order to focus on disconnected moments of content. This process lasts, if we assume completion of secondary school, approximately twelve years. The underlying effect of this on the human sensibilities, I believe, is devastating. And this effect is entirely separate and distinct from the implied knowledge, skills and attitudes that have been acquired and evaluated. Time is disintegrated by curriculum.

Curriculum also controls place - again over extensive periods of time. It demands that we spend time in places called schools and classrooms under the promise that this is somehow of benefit to everyone. The schools and classrooms as environments do not reflect the reality of living. They are a direct extension of print culture, a modern day advertisement that reflects a sterile and banal side of life. We are educated about nature without the direct experiences of nature, with the possible exception of a brief field trip. More to the point, we may also be educated about nature by a teacher that has little experience of nature other than by print. Inside these places we intend to prepare students for the world in which they will face all the while rarely exposing them to that world unless mediated by print.

Curriculum Design

Until designers understand the underlying structure of a curriculum as an environment little meaningful innovation in education will occur. All too often designers attend to the surface features of curriculum - the delivery of information, the formulation of activities, and the system of evaluation used to justify and perpetuate the curriculum. New technologies are not a solution to anything and they do not hold any metaphors for innovation. Those that promote a new technology as a source of design for education are misguided. Curriculum, like a virus, can morph into a new form without altering its underlying assumptions and characteristics. The surface activity may be different in appearance, but the underlying direction still support the effects outlined above. In other words, technology will assimilate the new into the old.

Yes, I have tricks in my pocket. I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.
- Tennessee Williams' in The Glass Menagerie

Our use of language in education is often quite inventive. A great deal of nonsense has been promoted under the banner of new visions, theories, approaches and methods to this and that. Of course, the language used to describe something can be distantly related the thing it intends to describe. From a more critical perspective we can also say that language is consciously designed and used in a way the distracts people from the underlying reality. A great deal of educational innovation never makes it beyond propaganda.

One of the effects of curriculum design of any kind is confinement. And the confinement of human experience is an act of violence. A common example of this confinement via curriculum leading to violence is bullying. Another effect of curriculum is exclusion as seen in the large numbers of students that leave the school system. Unfortunately, educational leader and politicians fail to take the responsibility to explore the possibility that they themselves may in fact be the agents of confinement, violence and exclusion. The effects of the curriculum are not challenged or criticized in any meaningful way. Instead, large amounts of money are spent on changing the surface appearance of the problem by way of tasks forces, experts, and the introduction of new content into the curriculum. From a design perspective, none of these attempts reveal any kind of meaning innovation or change.

Designer like adjectives. The adjectives used by designers intend to point out an important change or feature of something. For example, we see the notion of "authentic curriculum" as well as "authentic pedagogy" and "authentic instruction" being presented at the School Redesign Network. The problem is curriculum is already authentic. The language used to describe this "authentic curriculum" is an example of creative fiction and reveals that the writer does not understand the underlying structure of what a curriculum is. More importantly, it also points out that a problem has been recognized and this is of benefit. While attaching the adjective "authentic" to curriculum and pedagogy is a solution to nothing that matters, we do see an example of how design gets trapped on the surface of an issue rather than revealing and changing its underlying form. The most revealing words this page are these, "To help students meet high standards as measured by performance assessments, teachers must use a curriculum that..." The adjectives may have changed, but the underlying form of curriculum remains in tact.

Do We Need Curriculum?

This has been a question I have often asked myself. Two projects, the Virtual Community Project and the Connected Intelligence Project that occupied several years of my educational career were aimed at precisely that question. When we ask the question we are also asking if we need the concept of the prerequisite, imposed forms of content, sterile classrooms as a primary location, fragmented schedules of time, as well as impersonal and ineffective forms of testing and evaluation. My opinion on that is obvious by virtue of the way I framed the last sentence.

If we don't need curriculum, and from a design perspective we are going to attempt to replace the underlying assumption of curriculum as the source of design in education, what do we put there in its place? The two projects mentioned above are my attempts at exploring that question. But more importantly than proposing an answer is embracing the question itself. Embracing this question, however, also means going against the status quo and even more creatively going against the establish systems of power and authority that cherish curriculum as the basis for its identity.

Challenging the validity of curriculum in any form means to challenge people's jobs whether they are political officials, school administrators, consultants, teachers, students or parents. Part of the immense control and authority that curriculum has is that it provides careers and therefore sources of income. This, in my own experience, is where I have found the most significant roadblock to change and innovation. This is often the place where innovation enters the Dead Sea. I am not saying, to be sure, that we should be eliminating people within the educational malaise, nor even reduce their income. But without question, the traditional roles in education must change in order for innovation to occur. And these roles are defined in the complete absence of curriculum. Without the ability to change us, nothing else will change in any meaningful way.

The End Of Curriculum

For the designer unwilling to move beyond the surface and challenge the underlying assumptions in education, their innovation will imprisoned in language - the language of creative fiction. This I think is also the end of a theory. Artifacts will be produced via surface design, but these artifacts will experiences the common fire-and-fall-back of trite design "innovation."

The end of curriculum does not imply the end of education, but it does imply the end of education as we know it. A designer must often destroy something before the opportunity to design something that is fundamentally new appears. Destroying ideas about curriculum will lead to conflict, especially when that destruction is immediately followed with something that challenges how people define their roles, job, and career.

Ultimately, the end of education is something called learning. Of course, the language of curriculum attempts to assimilate the idea of learning as its own - an attempt that will always fail.


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Hi Stevan,

Great questions. One of the things I thought over a great deal in the Connected Intelligence Project was whether or not to change the language used to describe. That is, should we use a new terminology, or try to update the old one (i.e. - curriculum, instruction, teaching, schooling, etc.). I decided to keep the same terminology but try to build new perspectives in. Part of this reaosn was the fact that I was working with Portuguese teachers so language issues were important.

One of the more important changes in Virtual Community and Connected Intelligence was the focus on finding ways of creating a more interesting and dynmaic type of environment for learning. You correctly mentioned that there were still skills and a kind of curriculum there - quite right. However, both of these projects made the assumption that the mass communication model is the wrong one for curriculum design and instead focused on interaction design (in the broadest sense of the term). Knowledge and skills were of course still part of the equation, but the learning environment was completely different.

I believe that if there is something essential to know it will organically emerge in a vibrant learning environment that engages people in various kinds of interactions. Things that are essential to know cannot be determined by one group of people and enforced on another. For example, we often here about literacy being a must know. Few would argue this, however, literacy being essential doesn't mean it has to be taught via mass communication. There is no research to prove that this is the best way for people to learn to become literate, or to be educated. Yet we continue to do it.

Since curriculum is clearly a form of mass communication, it is this assumption that must be challenged and overcome. If we use the word "curriculum" to describe a new orientation or perspective then we must divorce it from its old context. This is the end of curriculum. Whether we continue to use the word "curriculum" or not is one important question. It is difficult, but not impossible, to describe new perspectives with the weight of old language.

It is design of the learning environment that helps people to explore the confluence of everyday life in meaningful and purposeful ways. The principles I have embraced to do this are described in Connected Intelligence - but that is just one approach.

So the absolute essentials are all about the nature and design of the learning environment, not specific sets of knowledge and skill we wish people to acquite.

I find your critique of curriculum very useful, and I think it entirely consistent with a 21st century approach to learning. Sort of like chaos theory. But I wonder whether you are really proposing an end to curriculum; the two examples you cite (the Virtual Community Project and the Connected Intelligence Project) both involve curricula (albeit more "skills" oriented and mastered through more exploratory learning). Do you really propose that there is no set of foundational knowledge (whether knowledge of process, skills, or content) that the society (or community) must establish as essential? If so, is it because you believe that there is no body of knowledge that everyone must know, or that you think learners will discover the essential knowledge of their own accord?

I ask not because I challenge your assumptions but because I'm campaigning in my own school district to winnow curriculum down to absolute essentials (operationally defined as, "if a kid doesn't know this, she has no chance in her adult life") -- campaigning, I should add, with little immediate success. My thinking is that if we could figure out the absolute essentials, we'd have more time to support the kind of learning we believe should occur. But your "end of curriculum" idea goes even further.

Hi Harold - This is quite odd but as I was writing this entry I was thinking about including a quote from Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie that refers to magic. In the spirit of your comment I have added it under "Curriculum Design." It seems that curriculum can be thought of as an illusion that has the appearance of truth.

Thank you for this excellent synthesis of the issues around education vs learning and the key role that curriculum plays.

A few years ago I was working on a project for a provincial Department of Education and I asked about their curriculum development process, particularly how they arrived at what subjects should be taught. After many more pointed questions (with the ADM in attendance) and very few clear answers, I came to my conclusion:

Curriculum is developed in a dark arts fashion, where a select group of wizards are sequestered into a closed environment and following some magical incantations arrive at the official curriculum. It's magic!

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