In my dealings with teachers, school leaders and policy actors, I am often struck by the need for education professionals to develop more nuanced concept maps relating to the curriculum. The following text is material written for our undergraduates, and may be useful/of interest to people working in the field.

What is a curriculum?

Curriculum is a contested and often misunderstood concept. At a simple level, the curriculum simply means a course of study. The word is derived from the Latin word meaning racecourse or race, and has come to mean a general course, conveying the notion of going somewhere in a predefined direction. Indeed, this simple definition is one that is current in many schools, where the curriculum is seen largely as the glossy booklets that contain the content to be taught.

However, such a conception of curriculum is clearly inadequate for understanding the complex processes of schooling in today’s society. A more sophisticated definition is required, and there have been many attempts to provide one. For example, a Dictionary of Education (Rowntree, 1981) offers the following definition:

[Curriculum] can refer to the total structure of ideas and activities developed by an educational institution to meet the learning needs of students, and to achieve desired educational aims. Some people use the term to refer simply to the content of what is being taught. Others include also the teaching and learning methods involved, how students’ attainment is measured and the underlying philosophy of education.

Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence, in line with this more holistic view, states that the curriculum is ‘the totality of all that is planned for children and young people throughout their education’ (Scottish Government, 2008).

Such definitions are helpful in that they provide a broad conception of the education that occurs in schools. However, this sort of broad definition can also be confusing, as the term curriculum comes to mean different things to different people. For these reasons, it is necessary to be clear about the various facets that make up the curriculum, and the ways in which these facets link together and interact in practice. The following terminology helps to make sense of the complexity that is the curriculum.

  • Curriculum – an umbrella term denoting the totality of the learning experience of children and young people in school. Considering the curriculum would thus include the questions of what, how and why listed below, as well as assessment (evaluation).
  • Curriculum purposes – statements of what the curriculum is intended to achieve. These include narrowly defined outcomes or objectives, and more broadly defined aims or goals. This is the why of the curriculum, and is often (but not always) made explicit in official documents that comprise the curriculum framework.
  • Curriculum framework – the documents that outline the structure of the curriculum and its purposes. This also usually includes and the content to be taught – the what of the curriculum.
  • Curriculum provision – the systems and structures established in schools to organise teaching, for example timetabling. This is the how of the curriculum.
  • Pedagogy (often referred to as instruction in the literature, especially American writing) – the teaching strategies and learning activities planned to achieve the aims and fulfil the planned framework. This is also the how of the curriculum.
  • Assessment – the methods used to judge the extent of students’ learning (e.g. tests, homework, observation). Assessment might be used formatively (to provide feedback to learners to inform future learning), summatively (to provide a grade) or evaluatively (to judge whether teaching has been effective).

The relationship between these elements is complex and can be problematic. I provide several examples to illustrate this point:

  • The particular curriculum planning model that is outlined in the framework can exert a major influence on pedagogy. For instance, a framework that emphasises content to be learned might encourage teacher-centred approaches to teaching, whereas a model based on processes and skills may encourage activities that are student-centred.
  • The organisation of provision exerts an effect on pedagogy. For example, inquiry-based methods such as cooperative learning can be difficult if the school day is divided into small teaching blocks, as is the case in most secondary schools.
  • A heavy emphasis on assessment can encourage narrow ‘teach to the test’ approaches

Curriculum planning is fundamentally a political process. In other words, it involves questions of value and is subject to disagreement. Different people have different views about what should be taught (or indeed omitted – the null curriculum). An important question is ‘whose curriculum?’: who is it for, and who chooses? Some believe that content should be chosen to meet children’s needs and/or interests? Others suggest that there are bodies of knowledge that have intrinsic value, and which should be taught to all children. For example, social realists such as Young and Muller (2010) believe that children will be disadvantaged if they are not taught knowledge from the academic disciplines (which are recognised bodies of knowledge developed over generations by scholars using rigorous methods).

These current debates are often reduced to spurious categories: traditional vs. progressive curricula; knowledge vs. skills; subjects vs. interdisciplinary approaches; teacher as sage-on-the-stage vs. teacher as guide-on-the-side, etc. It is far more fruitful to consider these dichotomies in a more nuanced way, for example:

  • Knowledge vs. skills is better seen as curriculum balance between different types of knowledge that are all essential for a balanced education: propositional knowledge (knowing that), procedural knowledge (knowing how) and epistemic knowledge (the approach to inquiry, such as scientific method, that characterise different disciplines).
  • An accomplished teacher will both teach directly and facilitate learning, depending on the purposes of the learning being undertaken.

This in turn raises further questions about the choice and organisation of curriculum content. Should the curriculum be structured around subjects (the prevailing secondary model in Scotland) or themes (a primary school approach)? Should school knowledge focus on ‘learning that’ (propositional knowledge) or ‘learning how’ (skills)? Or is this a false dichotomy? Should there be a core curriculum for all young people, or should there be choice? What about relevance to real life? Or is the school curriculum a sabre-tooth curriculum (Peddiwell, 1939), which rarely changes and drifts out of date as society evolves?

The curriculum operates (or is made) in different ways at different levels:

  • Supra – transnational ideas about education
  • Macro – national level policy intentions
  • Meso – policy guidance (ES, LEA)
  • Micro – school-level curricular practices
  • Nano – classroom interactions

(Thijs & van den Akker, 2009)

Curriculum policy is sometimes referred to as the prescribed curriculum. This is the written curriculum, embodied in a school’s documents, curriculum guides, and programme of studies booklets. It is the ‘official’ curriculum. In most cases, the written curriculum is an instrument of control. Written curricula are essential, but they do not always reflect what is taught. At the level of practice the terms described curriculum, enacted curriculum and received curriculum are sometimes used. The first two terms comprise the taught curriculum – what teachers say they teach, and what they are actually observed to teach. The received curriculum is the ‘bottom line’ curriculum, in other words what the students actually learn. It is the most important curriculum of all; but it is also the one which is most difficult to quantify, and the one over which we have the least control. The described, enacted and received curricula can be very different to the prescribed curriculum, as teachers actively adapt official policy to meet local circumstances, and as learners assimilate and understand what is being taught in very different ways. As can be seen, curriculum is an inexact art form rather than a precise science. (See Thijs & van den Akker, 2009 for a more detailed discussion of this topic.)

A final point to consider concerns what is known as the hidden curriculum. Virtually everything that happens in schools that is not subject to reflection and intention can be seen as part of the hidden curriculum. The hidden curriculum of any institution is made up of:

  • The non-academic learning promoted by schools, through the attitudes, values, and culture promoted by the school (e.g. enforcement of rules).
  • The physical environment of the school (e.g. a shabby building may encourage vandalism).
  • The social environment of the school (e.g. a culture of bullying or bad behaviour amongst students).
  • The unconscious and unintended teaching that occurs in the classroom (e.g. the teacher who subconsciously but overtly gives preferential treatment to girls may encourage the development of certain behaviours and attitudes amongst both male and female students).

With the above in mind, I offer an alternative definition of curriculum: the multi-layered social practices, including infrastructure, pedagogy and assessment, through which education is structured, enacted and evaluated. This requires attention to:

  • Curriculum for what, by whom … and for whom?
  • The importance of context.
  • Teachers as (professional) curriculum makers: no curriculum development without teacher development (Stenhouse, 1975).
  • The role of system dynamics as barriers and drivers to curriculum making.
  • The perspectives and experiences of traditionally marginalised groups.

Over the last 30 years, curriculum has become a key political issue, as governments around the world have increasingly tried to control what is taught and learned in schools. Arguably this has been unsuccessful, with classroom teaching remaining today much as it was in the past; single teacher delivery, teacher centred methods and passive learners (Elmore, 2004).

Three curriculum planning models

There are a number of distinct approaches – or more accurately starting points – to curriculum planning. It is necessary to be clear on which model is being used to ensure coherence and conceptual clarity. Kelly (1999) offers three archetypal curriculum planning models and suggests that each model is inextricably linked with both underlying purposes and conceptions of knowledge, as well as with pedagogy. Kelly’s models are:

  • Curriculum as content and education as transmission.
  • Curriculum as product and education as instrumental.
  • Curriculum as process and education as development.

It is necessary to stress (again) that these models represent starting points for curriculum planning, rather than mutually exclusive categories; for example, supporters of the process model, would not argue that content is unnecessary or unimportant, simply that the selection of content is a secondary consideration, to be debated once the broad principles of the curriculum have been established.

Curriculum as content and education as transmission

The first of Kelly’s models takes the selection of content as its starting point. There have been systematic attempts to justify curriculum planning based upon choice of content. These can be broadly categorised as philosophical and cultural variants of the content model.

In the 1960s and 1970s the philosophical work of R.S. Peters and Paul Hirst dominated thinking in the UK about the nature and structure of the curriculum. Peters’ Ethics and Education (1966) and Hirst’s Knowledge and the Curriculum (1974) presented a powerful case for a content-based curriculum, comprising forms of knowledge that were regarded as ‘intrinsically worthwhile’. This view seemed to provide a justification for a traditional curriculum structured round ‘disciplines’ or ‘subjects’. Being educated, according to this model, requires initiation into the various forms of knowledge, each of which has their own central organising concepts and characteristic methods of investigation that had been developed over time. Drawing on this work, social realists (e.g. Young and Muller, 2010) have recently suggested that there is a distinction between disciplinary knowledge and everyday knowledge. They suggest that the former should form the basis for the school curriculum, and that the latter is not a matter for schools.

An alternative approach to rationalising choice of content derives from a concern to ensure that the curriculum reflects the culture of society. Denis Lawton, who was influential in policy debate in the UK during the 1970s and 1980s (Lawton, 1975), has suggested that cultural analysis is the starting point for curriculum planning, rather than the analysis of knowledge. According to Lawton, it is necessary to sub-divide culture in a way which is manageable yet meaningful; to achieve this he posited a set of nine cultural invariants – categories or systems that he claimed are universal to all societies. These are the socio-political, economic, communications, rationality, technology, morality, belief, aesthetic, and maturation systems.

At the level of policy, however, selection of content tends to be based upon more mundane considerations. Kelly (1999) has demonstrated that much selection is done for political ends, what he refers to as instrumental selection. Goodson (1995) suggests that content is often proposed in the face of moral panic about national decline. Goodson and Marsh (1996) have documented the ways in which school subjects evolve through various stages to become unquestioned components of the curriculum – fundamentally a socio-political process of turf wars and struggle over resources. Often such selection simply reflects tradition (the subject has always been taught in such a fashion) or is made for pragmatic reasons (for instance the availability of resources).

Curriculum as product and education as instrumental

A second archetype identified by Kelly is the objectives or outcomes model. Objectives and outcomes are clear statements which seek to define what students know or can do as a result of their education. This model has a long and somewhat controversial history, particularly in the USA, with roots in scientific management and behaviourist psychology. In the UK, objectives became a fundamental part of vocational Education and Training. They also form the basis of many national curriculum developments around the world; Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence is party defined through hundreds of Experiences and Outcomes, set out in levels to reflect the age and development of children and young people.

Many educationists have criticised attempts to define the developmental process of education in the form of rigid and predefined objectives. Dewey (1938), for instance, talked of the tendency of objectives to change as you approach them, and Kelly (1989) stated that ‘to adopt a …… linear view of teaching and learning, is to have rejected as largely irrelevant the insights offered by studies on child development’. Stenhouse (1975) saw objectives-based curricula as being too narrow in focus, too teacher-centred and insufficiently sensitive to the complexities of learning and the dynamics of the classroom. According to Stenhouse, it is ‘an ends-means model which sets arbitrary horizons to one’s efforts’. Predefinition of objectives is said to deny the validity of the original experience that children bring with them to the classroom, increase the difficulties involved in local curriculum planning, and may assume that the norms of present day society are fixed. Furthermore, such narrowing of learning, especially when objectives are tied to testing and when in turn the results of such tests are used to evaluate schools, has been linked with ‘teaching to the test’ approaches.

Kelly (1999) has noted the tendency for many modern curricula to conflate the content and objectives models, specifying content as objectives. Scotland’s former 5-14 framework can certainly be said to fit this model, with broad content being expressed as objectives that then form the basis of assessment decisions about individual students, data being subsequently used to compare schools’ performance. Kelly refers to such conflation as the mastery model of curriculum.

Curriculum as process and education as development

The process model of curriculum is designed to be flexible and open-ended, rather than pre-determined, maximising the potential for growth and development. Process curricula are based upon intrinsic principles and procedures rather than upon extrinsic objectives. Typically, they are predicated around a view of what an autonomous adult should become as a result of their education and a learning process (often dialogical, inquiry-based and experiential) that helps achieve this state. According to Kelly (1999), a process curriculum is fundamentally a curriculum based upon democratic values, comprising a set of structured activities enabling students to practise citizenship, to develop the capacity to question critically. Typically, teachers using the process approach will discuss and make sense of the core concepts or big ideas of education (the broad goals or purposes) and develop fit-for-purpose practices (content and pedagogy) to realise them.

However, Stenhouse acknowledged two important caveats in relation to the process model. First, much depends on the quality of the teacher:

  • Any process model rests on teacher judgement rather than on teacher direction. It is far more demanding on teachers and thus far more difficult to implement in practice. (Stenhouse, 1975)
  • Second, ‘the process model of curriculum development raises problems for the assessment of student work’ (Stenhouse, 1975). There is tension between the desire to assess objectively through formal, public examinations and the informal, critical, developmental learning that Stenhouse advocates.


The above discussion suggests that the school curriculum is complex, involving considerations of how policy translates into practice and considerable variation in how this happens from school to school. The process of planning and implementing a curriculum is therefore difficult and uncertain. A successful curriculum must pay attention to underlying purposes of education. How, for example does it ensure that young people are socialised into society, while avoiding indoctrination and developing individual capacity for active citizenship? How does it make sure that young people develop skills for work without becoming too focused on narrow training? How does it cover essential content, given that this changes as society changes, without becoming overcrowded? How can it remain relevant in a pluralist society where there are competing demands for different content and differing views as to what is important? Where do decisions about content lie? With the teacher? The politician? Parents? Or students? How does it set the scene for learning that is active and teaching that is inspirational?


Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and Education (New York, Collier-Macmillan).

Elmore, R.F. (2004). School Reform from the Inside Out: policy, practice, performance (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard Education Press)

Goodson, I.F. (1995). The Making of Curriculum: some collected essays (London, The Falmer Press).

Goodson, I.F. & Marsh, C.J. (1996). Studying School Subjects: a guide (London, The Falmer Press).

Hirst, P.H. (1974). Knowledge and the Curriculum (London, Routledge).

Hirst, P.H. (1993). Education, knowledge and practices. In R. Barrow & P. White (eds.) Essays in honour of Paul Hirst (London, Routledge).

Kelly, A. V. (1989). The Curriculum: Theory and Practice, 2nd edition (London, Paul Chapman Publishing).

Kelly, A. V. (1999). The Curriculum: Theory and Practice, 4th edition (London: Sage).

Lawton, D. (1975). Class, Culture and the Curriculum (London, Routledge & Kegan Paul).

Peddiwell, A.J. (1939). The Saber-Tooth Curriculum. Online at

Peters, R.S. (1966). Ethics and Education (London, Allen & Unwin).

Rowntree, D. (1981). A Dictionary of Education (London, Harper & Row).

Scottish Government (2008). Building the Curriculum 3: a framework for learning and teaching (Edinburgh, Scottish Government).

Stenhouse, L. (1975) An Introduction to Curriculum Research and Development (London, Heinemann).

Thijs, A. & van den Akker, J. (Eds.) (2009). Curriculum in Development (Entschede Netherlands, SLO). Online at

Young, M. & Muller, J. (2010). Three educational scenarios for the future: lessons from the sociology of knowledge. European Journal of Education, 45, 11-27.

6 thoughts on “Curriculum: concepts and approaches

  1. Mark
    I work in Education Scotland as HMI and a support officer for inclusion. I also live in Stirling. I always follow your interesting posts/ reports etc. I found the work on the curriculum very clear and helpful-thank you for sharing
    Kindest regards
    Mary Berrill
    Sent from my iPhone

  2. ” Arguably this has been unsuccessful, with classroom teaching remaining today much as it was in the past; single teacher delivery, teacher centred methods and passive learners (Elmore, 2004).”
    2004 ! I would dispute this and would venture that there is much different, certainly in Primary Teaching. Single Teacher delivery is variable: first, McCrone hours limit mean that there has to be more than one teacher involved per class; second, there are more part-time ones be they mums or those becoming retirees; … As for teacher centred methods the layout of classrooms has altered from the serried ranks of my day to groupings of tables and increased observation of staff by SMT who encourage change. Passive learning is similarly a thing of the past with various new techniques pushed by the surfeit of bureaucracy beyond the school gates.

    As for “Where do decisions about content lie?” it depends. At upper stages of Secondary it is SQA (politicians ?) ie exam led – though clearly kids can choose subjects and even within there are options at exam time. At Jnr High level the transition from Primary to Secondary seems a bit of a mish mash and I suspect it is teachers & their leaders. Meanwhile at Primary mainly teachers but again with input from their superiors but they have far more to cope with these days with the like of inclusion. And finally every Tom Dick & Harry has the option of demanding that so and so is taught via the National Press

  3. A fine summary Mark, which opens up, as you intended, the interactive, multi-level complexity of the concept and practice of curriculum in contemporary schooling. Is there space for exploring where ‘syllabus’ fits in??

  4. Dear Prof Mark Priestley, thank you for shedding light on the different conceptualisations of curriculum. Especially, I liked the part about three planning models.
    I have worked with formal and informal education programmes and discovered that many practitioners in formal sector assume that curriculum is the mere course outline or syllabus. In contrast, educators from informal adult education programmes in Glasgow East End Curriculum perceived curriculum as process and education as development.
    However, it seems that the current scholarship on curriculum mostly focuses on formal education. Is there any research on curriculum design and implementation for informal and non-formal education, specially for adult education, that you can recommend reading?
    Thank you.
    Best wishes, Aisara Yessenova.

    1. Hi Aisara
      I don’t know much of the literature around adult education. Martyn Bloomer springs to mind, but quite old now (1990s). Perhaps look at Nell Noddings, and of course Freire. I very much share the view that curriculum is much more than syllabuses – see our recent curriculum journal editorials on curriculum as social practice

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