Curriculum Defined

Curriculum DefinedOrnstein & Hunkins (2009) state “debate continues regarding curriculum’s meaning, foundations, and knowledge domains” (p 13). The greatest issue in defining curriculum lies in the foundational theory of which the definition is based. Each theorist interprets curriculum as it aligns with their findings and beliefs according to the purpose of education. However, despite these differences, there are essentially five different aspects applied toward these definitions which can be applied to each curricular and educational theory. These characteristics include planning, experiential, systems, fields of study and subject matter (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2009).

“Hilda Taba described curriculum as a plan for learning and Ralph Tyler defined curriculum as all of the learning of students which is planned and directed by the school to attain its educational goals” (Scott, 2011, para 2). The Tyler model for curriculum development emphasizes the need for a plan which contains four steps. Each step reiterates the need for a strategy. These steps include determining a school’s purpose, identifying the experiences as they are associated with the school objectives, organize educational experiences and evaluation (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2009). Taba also emphasizes similar methods as he stresses the importance for creating an order to curriculum.

Hilda Taba taught a curriculum plan establishes “a sense of purpose and provide a basis for deciding what to include or emphasize” (Scott, 2011, para 2). This planning can be broken down into specific steps. Ball State University (2011) further adds several additional details toward the planning aspect. Planning should also base curriculum from the institution’s mission statement, being aware of goals, note the purpose of the curriculum as well as the assessment plan.

Curriculum can also be defined through experiences. “The humanistic curriculum also goes a long way toward solving a fundamental problem” (University of Chicago, 2012, para. 4). Wiley, a supporter of the humanistic approach toward education, believed that much of what is taught is through experiences. The humanistic curriculum must be exploratory, allowing students to experience their world surrounding them. The greatest dilemma between theorists is the debate on whether experiences can be planned or not planned within the confines of curriculum planning.

Dewey believed reflective thinking would unify the curriculum for both student and educator. Knowledge has no purpose without a practical application which can be derived through experience. Caswell also believed in experiential learning when he defined curriculum as “composed of all of the experiences children have under the guidance of the teacher” (Sweetland, 2012, para. 1). “This definition is shared by Smith, Stanley and Shores when they defined curriculum as a sequence of potential experiences set up in the schools for the purpose of disciplining children and youth in group ways of thinking and acting” (Bilbao, 2012).

The learner-centered design resonates experiential curriculum. The greatest benefits of the application of learner-centered instruction is the type of learner it creates. The learner moves from being a reactive recipient of knowledge to a proactive procurer for information. Self-directed learners who are inspired through the application of learner-centered instruction demonstrate a greater awareness of themselves and their responsibility to contribute to their society and community. Additionally, these learners develop the characteristics of “persistence, independence, self-discipline, self-confidence and goal-oriented” (Atherton, 2009, p. 1) as well as evolving their leadership skills. “One of the most important tasks of the teacher is to raise student awareness of their roles in learning” (ibid., p. 1).

An additional characteristic of curriculum is the creation of a system. Ornstein & Hunkins (2009) further explain the existence of systems within the curriculum definition. These systems can be either linear or nonlinear. Linear systems are a plan with a designated beginning and end. They are arranged with specific checkpoint. In comparison, nonlinear systems are those where a learner may begin at any point. Each aspect of the nonlinear curriculum permits the learner “to enter at various points of the model, skip parts, reverse order and work on more than one component at a time” (p. 11).

Fields of study consists of both theoretical and practical components. Daniel Tanner and Laurel Tanner define curriculum as the “reconstruction of knowledge and experience systematically developed under the auspices of the school (or university), to enable the learner to increase his or her control of knowledge and experience” (Sweetland, 2012, para. 1). This is based on theory and philosophies. Curriculum specialist who subscribe to this aspect of curriculum’s definition will depend heavily on theoretical contributions toward curriculum and are generally more “concerned with broad historical, philosophical, or social issues” (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2009, p. 11).

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Lastly, subject matter including the division by grade levels is attributed to the definition of curriculum. Bestor, theorist from the 1950s, subscribes to this definition. “The curriculum must consist essentially of disciplined study in five great areas:

1) command of mother tongue and the systematic study of grammar, literature, and writing.

2) mathematics,

3) sciences,

4) history,

5) foreign language” (Sweetland, 2012, para. 1).

However, this definition continues through modern times with Smith and Orlovsky’s contribution which states “the content pupils are expected to learn” (ibid., para. 1).

Defining curriculum is a challenging prospect for educators due to its both diverse and fragmented nature. Additionally, it is constantly changing in direct proportion to the larger society. “These definitions are influenced by modes of thoughts, pedagogies, political as well as social experiences” (Bilboa, 2012, para. 5). Curriculum can be defined as strictly as a specific set of knowledge to all of the experiences encountered by a student. However, in order to understand how to define curriculum, an educator may simply explore the different types of curriculum.

Ornstein & Hunkins (2009) quotes Allan Glatthorn’s seven different types of curriculum. These distinct interpretations include recommended, written, taught, supported, assessed, learned and hidden. As educators recognize the many arenas in which their students are exposed to information, they recognize the difficulty in defining curriculum. It is as dynamic as the world in which the students reside, continually morphing and changing.

The definition of curriculum varies from theorist to philosopher to educator. It is a term under constant metamorphosis which demands one to periodically re-examine how one subscribes to each attribute. Although, the writer subscribes to each characteristic represented, the traits would be compiled in a different manner according to their importance. Experiential contributes the greater portion toward curriculum as students are in a continual state of experience. Every aspect of their lives is an experience which adds to their knowledge. Content needs to be used not to simply cover information but to develop learning skills, self-awareness of learning, learning preferences, assessments and strengths -all discovered through active learning experiences. Although this may lead to a loss of information being instructed in classrooms, students will be given the tools necessary to pursue further acquisition of knowledge throughout their lives (Hawai, 2010).

Curriculum is definitely a plan whereby students are introduced to essential information to be used throughout their lives. Taba adds to the importance of a plan by defining curriculum as “all curricula, no matter what their particular design, composed of certain elements.  A curriculum usually contains a statement of aims and of specific objectives; it indicates some selection and organization of content; it either implies or manifests certain patterns of learning and teaching, whether because the objectives demand them or because the content organization requires them.  Finally, it includes a program of evaluation of the outcomes” (Sweetland, 2012, para. 1). Having a plan gives direction to educators as short-term goals and objectives are aligned with the mission statement and curriculum directive.

Both contributors of the field of study and the subject matter supply an equal amount toward the definition. However, the component with the least amount of weight in defining curriculum is a system. Ornstein & Hunkins (2009) shares that this piece of the definition is “less popular” as a “system for dealing with people” (p. 11).

Erroneously, curriculum and instruction are often used interchangeably. However, they are different entities. Curriculum may be compared to the map for an educator. Whereas instruction is the vehicle. Curriculum guide the instruction to arrive at the goal. It “arranges objectives, content, instruction, and evaluation” (ibid., p. 182).

Defining curriculum continues to possess a pendulum of confusing contributions. Recent characteristics tend to direct the definition away from the traditional views regarding content. However, with this redirection from subject matter, a loose definition has left many to examine and re-evaluate curriculum attributes. In it’s most simplistic and all-encompassing definition, “the school curriculum provides a plan of instruction that indicates structured learning experiences and outcomes for students. It specifies the details of student learning, instructional strategies, the teachers’ roles, and the context in which teaching and learning take place” (Pattison & Berkas, 2000, para. 4).



Atherton, J. (2009). Learning and teaching; learning contracts. Retrieved January 8, 2012 from

Ball State University. (2011). Curriculum development plans. Retrieved January 8, 2012 from

Bilbao, P. (2012). Curriculum, concept, nature and perceptions. Retrieved January 8, 2012 from

Hawai, N. (2010). The exploration of student-centered approaches for the improvement of learning programming in higher education. US China Education Review, 7(9), 47-57.

Ornstein, A. C., & Hunkins, F. P.   (2009).  Curriculum: Foundations, principles, and issues. Allyn & Bacon.

Pattison, C. & Berkas, N. (2000). Critical issue: integrating standards into curriculum. Retrieved January 8, 2012 from

Scott, H. (2011). Relevancy of classic curriculum theories of Ralph Tyler and Hilda Taba. Retrieved January 7, 2012 from

Sweetland, R. (2012). Curriculum definition collection. Retrieved January 8, 2012 from

University of Chicago. (2012). The humanistic curriculum. Retrieved January 8, 2012 from

Tracy Harrington AtkinsonBy Tracy Atkinson

Tracy Atkinson, mother of six, lives in the Midwest with her husband and spirited long-haired miniature dachshunds. She is a teacher, having taught elementary school to higher education, holding degrees in elementary education and a master’s in higher education. Her passion is researching, studying and investigating the attributes related to self-directed learners and learning styles. She has published several titles, including MBTI Learning Styles: A Practical Approach, The Art of Learning Journals, Calais: The Annals of the Hidden, Lemosa: The Annals of the Hidden, Book Two, Rachel’s 8,   The Personal Pursuit of Perfection and Securing Your Tent. She is currently working on a non-fiction text exploring the attributes of self-directed learners: The Five Characteristics of Self-directed Learners.

Tracy Harrington-Atkinson

Tracy Harrington-Atkinson, mother of six, lives in the mid-west with her husband. She loved storytelling and sharing her stories with her children. As they grew, she started writing her stories down for them. She is a teacher, having taught from elementary school to higher education, holding degrees in elementary education, masters in higher education and continued on to a PhD in curriculum design. Her husband, Kerry and Tracy breed miniature dachshunds and love to spend time with their growing family. She has published several books including Calais: The Annals of the Hidden, Rachel's 8 and Securing Your Tent.