One of the most exciting things about being involved in the development of a new school is that nothing can be taken for granted. All decisions are being made for the first time and so there is the opportunity to examine every aspect of how we provide learning in a secondary school environment. Some of these decisions are small and straightforward but many are more important and require a detailed examination of the fundamentals of secondary education and how we enable learning in a modern world.

One of the biggest areas that needs to be examined is the whole question of what does, and what should, constitute the curriculum? In fact even more fundamental than this is first asking the question, what is a curriculum?

Put simply curriculum can be defined as, ‘the subjects comprising a course of study in a school or college.’  It typically refers to the knowledge and skills students are expected to learn.

It comes originally from the Latin to mean  “a race” or “the course of a race” and entered the English language when there was a desire to bring  greater order to education, it has, over time become almost synonymous with the concept of a ‘course’ that is studied.

All too often this has led to a rather narrow definition of the concept when referring to curriculum in a school setting. All too often it has simply become the word to describe the content that needs to be delivered. The knowledge that needs to be transmitted, learnt and assessed. So the curriculum of a particular subject often looks like a description of ‘what’ content needs to be delivered, including the ‘when’ and ‘how’ as well as how it is to be assessed.

No one can deny that knowledge and content are vitally important parts of any relevant curriculum but I would argue that they are not the total picture. Depending on what curriculum philosophy is adhered to the concept of curriculum can, in fact, take on a much broader perspective. The following quote comes from the  “Glossary of Educational Reform.”

“Schools that follow the Expeditionary Learning model, for example, embrace a variety of approaches to teaching generally known as project-based learning, which encompasses related strategies such as community-based learning and authentic learning. In Expeditionary Learning schools, students complete multifaceted projects called “expeditions” that require teachers to develop and structure curriculum in ways that are quite different from the more traditional approaches commonly used in schools.”

I include it here to show that if you define the learning experience as being broader than just the delivery of content then the definition of what constitutes the curriculum also needs to be broader.

I prefer to define curriculum in this broader context and see it, as described by Tony Wagner, as a tripod of support. The three legs representing content knowledge, skills and wills [or attitudes /dispositions] I see the interaction of these three components as constituting a relevant secondary school curriculum.

I am not saying that schools have not addressed skills and wills in the past but there has been a tendency to relegate them as useful by-products that emerge form the core business of content delivery. There is a strong body of opinion now that supports the idea that skills and dispositions are as important as content knowledge and therefore all three ‘legs’ need to be valued as being of equal, or near equal, importance.

On a personal level I know just how much my own children benefited from being involved in Outdoor Education programmes during their time at secondary school. The skills and attitudes developed and honed in challenging situations certainly allowed them to develop resilience and confidence in a way that class based activities could never have managed to.

The ‘New Zealand Curriculum’ clearly supports this broader definition.The front part of this document outlines the required values, principles and key competencies that need to be developed alongside the specific learning area objectives. All factors need to be included in curriculum design, a concept that has taken us as an educational community a few years to fully comes to terms with.

I tend to see the curriculum as being defined as what is not only taught but what is experienced within a school. For this reason I can relate to the diagram below, taken from the Summit Prep schools curriculum design.



I relate to the idea of a curriculum incorporating not only content knowledge but also ensuring that there is time spent on experiences outside the classroom as well as developing personal skills and habits. In this way the curriculum can address a wide range of learner needs and be better ‘geared’ to cope with a more personalised approach.

The idea of the curriculum needing to be broader in its perspective is given further weight when you closely examine all that happens within a school context and what constitutes important learning. It can be argued that there are actually four curricula,

Explicit curriculum: subjects that will be taught, the identified “mission” of the school, and the knowledge and skills that the school expects successful students to acquire.

Implicit curriculum: lessons that arise from the culture of the school and the behaviours, attitudes, and expectations that characterize that culture.

Null curriculum: topics or perspectives that are specifically excluded from the curriculum.

Extra curriculum: school-sponsored programs that are intended to supplement the academic aspect of the school experience.

These definitions are taken from,

What starts to emerge from all of this is the realisation that however curriculum is defined it is clear that it is no longer merely content delivery and assessment, it needs allow for personalisation, adaptability and the interconnection of a variety of factors.  That does sound daunting but what must be remembered is that this is not a debate that is occurring in isolation, it is part of a global educational debate and the flow of ideas and opinions will ensure that what does emerge will be the combination of addressing local needs but also placed in the wider context of global trends and thinking.


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