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Spring 2007

Curriculum for the 21st century

Does curriculum matter?

Ben Levin questions whether curriculum documents address the realities of teaching for teachers or students.

Curriculum used to be seen almost universally as the central element of schooling. It was assumed that students would learn what was in the course of study, so the content of curricula was vital. A very large part of the work of ministries of education and of schools focused on creating curriculum content.

Decades of experience with educational change have made it evident that the reality is much more complex. We have learned that the process of improving student outcomes involves much more than curriculum choices. School outcomes are affected by a wide array of factors both inside and outside the school, with many of the strongest influences related to students’ backgrounds, such as family income, ethnicity, and social and cultural capital. Even within schools, curriculum has come to be seen as only one element of the work of the school.

As governments have attempted to make large-scale changes in schooling, curriculum has become less an activity in its own right and more one element in a comprehensive approach to education change. In many jurisdictions, review and renewal processes have been altered to be more consistent with wider education programs. In other settings, curriculum has been a prime vehicle for realising wider change. But in all cases, curriculum can only be one part of a broader strategy.

When I became deputy minister (chief civil servant) for the Manitoba Department of Education (Canada) in 1999, the Department was well along in producing an entire new curriculum for our 700 schools—all subjects from kindergarten to high school graduation. One of the complaints I often heard was that these documents, created with a great deal of work and considered to be very high quality, often sat on classroom shelves in their original shrink wrap. I made a commitment that this situation would change; curriculum documents would no longer sit in that original wrapping— because we would stop shrink-wrapping them in the first place.

This rather flip response to a real issue is intended to highlight some challenges around the role of curriculum in schools and provide some warnings for any significant proposed revision of curriculum.

Curriculum and society

Although educators think of curriculum as a guide or resource of teaching, it actually has a variety of other purposes as well, including serving as a public statement of values.

Everyone in society wants her or his particular interests included in the work of the school, putting pressure on governments to include more and more in the curriculum. Increasing social diversity has also led to calls to add more content. When the media run a story about students’ supposedly inadequate knowledge of something, be it the names of all former prime ministers, or understanding of global warming, or being able to play a musical instrument, the response is typically to add more content to the curriculum.

The result is too many content areas and too many goals in the curriculum. Teachers feel this keenly but very real political pressures make it difficult to exclude material.

Curriculum and experts

These public political pressures are exacerbated by typical curriculum development processes, in which curricula are created by teams of experts. This has problematic consequences: experts tend to want more and more complex elements of their own disciplines or subject areas included in the curriculum.

A curriculum that would satisfy a regular elementary teacher of curriculum would not satisfy a specialist in any of the subject areas. The result is too many objectives in each subject area, and sometimes objectives at a more sophisticated level than most students will ever need. Mathematics is the prototypical example, in which only a tiny portion of the adult population ever uses most of the mathematics taught in the last years of secondary school. There is every reason to think that the construction of ‘a curriculum for the 21st century’ will lead to adding even more content.

In secondary schools, the same dispute is fought out over courses, compulsory and optional. Everyone—including specialists in the teaching profession—wants their area recognised with courses, and preferably compulsory courses.

A poll in 2001 showed that Canadians wanted more of every subject in the curriculum. If countries had on their compulsory course list everything supported in public polling, we would have to add three or four years of high school. However, people do not generally favour a longer school day or year, let alone more years.

The result is often too many separate courses so that most schools can offer only a small portion of what is officially available. This presents fewer problems for teachers in secondary schools, who are not asked to teach an overwhelming amount of content, but transfers the problem to students, who may not be able to pursue the areas of knowledge that actually interest them or are most consequential to their future lives.

Curriculum and teachers

Beyond this, specialist teams that create curriculum, especially in elementary schools, may pitch it at too high a level. A curriculum may imply content knowledge and pedagogical skills that most teachers do not have, especially in areas such as the arts or science, where elementary teachers— and even many secondary teachers—may have a fairly limited background. As a friend of mine said about one curriculum document: ‘This was created by the six best teachers in the province, and they are about the only ones who could teach it successfully; it’s too difficult for most teachers, not to mention students.’

Education systems attempt to address this problem by providing professional development for teachers, but it is highly unlikely, given the amount and variety of curriculum content, that we can ever provide enough support to enable most teachers to teach most subjects with a very high level of content and pedagogical knowledge.

Teaching is an intensely practical activity. Teachers have first and foremost to find activities every day that keep students occupied and reasonably interested while advancing their learning. This is very hard to do. Curriculum documents that do not address the realities of teaching in our increasingly diverse schools and classrooms will have little appeal to teachers and will not be used as intended.

Curriculum and students

Finally, curriculum often ignores the students. In the end, it is students who must do the learning. Although curriculum documents may speak about the importance of engaging students in constructivist learning, evidence from students suggests that we must have doubts about whether this is being achieved often enough. Where teachers feel pressure to ‘cover’ material they tend to be less likely to look for ways of engaging students.

Curriculum, when done well, can be a mainstay of effective teaching and learning, but if we are naïve about the real pressures on school curricula we are unlikely to be able to achieve our educational goals.

author picture Ben Levin holds a Canada research chair in Education Leadership and Policy at the Ontario Ins