What the heck is curriculum? Null’s book offers insights

In a recent blog, Catherine Gewertz points out that those arguing about curriculum aren’t in agreement about what it acually is:

The Gates-Pearson work certainly isn’t the first entree into common-core curriculum development and won’t be the last, even as folks disagree on what the heck “curriculum” means. The field is getting increasingly crowded. Who is crowding it and what they’re creating are sure to be topics of interest and argument for a good long while.

Yes, indeed, when people argue about curriculum, it often seems they’re arguing about many concepts at the same time (some of them compatible, some not). Now there’s a new book that can help us sort out these concepts.

In his new book, Curriculum: From Theory to Practice (Rowman & Littlefield, 2011), Wesley Null considers five traditions of curriculum: systematic curriculum, existentialist curriculum, radical curriculum, pragmatic curriculum, and deliberative curriculum. If they don’t sound familiar at the outset, they will as you start reading. I had the honor of reading the book at the manuscript stage, and I found it illuminating and enjoyable.

Null looks at each of these traditions in terms of their approach to the five “commonplaces” as defined by Joseph Schwab: teachers, learners, subject matter, context, and curriculum making. A tradition may emphasize one commonplace over another, but all of them are present.

Null argues that curriculum is an ethical and philosophical matter and that it is found at the center of education debates, even those that seem to skirt curriculum. He writes in the introduction:

Curriculum is at the center of every controversial issue within teaching and schooling today. Debates rage on with regard to moral education, sex education, religious education, state-mandated testing, intelligent design, whole language versus phonics in the teaching of reading, prayer in schools, and other hot-button topics. What is the common theme that unites these debates? At their foundation, they are curricular in nature. Partisan advocates for one view or another may discuss these issues as if they are about eduaction, but in reality they are about curriculum and education at the same time. They are curricular because they are ethical and teleological, leading us inevitably to the subject of purpose.

As one reads along, one starts to see interesting contrasts and similarities among the traditions. For instance, after reading about systematic and existentialist curriculum, which seem in many ways opposite, I saw how they might be compatible. This explains to me, in part, the rise of the New York City “workshop model,” which is systematic on the one hand (in that it is supposed to apply to a whole school system) and existentialist on the other (in that it is supposed to center around the student and his or her construction of meaning). Aha! I thought. No wonder the NYC DOE awarded big contracts to Teachers College! Their very conceptions of curricula made room for a handshake. But onward.

The author analyzes each tradition, pointing out its strengths and weaknesses, and argues in favor of the deliberative tradition, which “places the practical art of deliberation at the center of good curriculum making.” Deliberation is at the heart of a liberal education; thus a liberal arts curriculum should be created and maintained in a deliberative spirit. Deliberation is not the same as debate: according to Null (who draws on William A. Reid), “The goal of deliberation is to find a creative solution to a practical problem, whereas the goal of debate is to win an argument and silence one’s adversaries.” Deliberation can sound a little cumbersome, but it allows those involved to keep curriculum alive and to argue for what they find important.

The deliberative curriculum is not only the curriculum on paper but also the teachers’ interpretation of it. For instance, in the Didaktik tradition in Germany (which Null describes in the book), the written curriculum, the Lehrplan, describes the subject matter that teachers should teach. Teachers then translate subject matter “into a cultural and educative force in the classroom.” Didaktik recognizes that teachers do not just “implement” a curriculum; they interpret and transform it.

After describing these five traditions of curriculum, Null poses practical questions and illustrates them with imaginary examples, each of which involves some sort of dilemma. For instance, there is the case of Michelle Ochoa, who majored in history and accepted a position as a fifth-grade teacher. She found that there was hardly any time to teach social studies, as the emphasis was on the tested subjects (in this case reading, science, and math). How could she balance the school’s demands with her own conviction that students should learn about their history and government? The discussion is interesting, and many more case studies follow.

In the final chapter, Null returns to the idea of deliberative curriculum. He argues that Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics has much to tell us about curriculum making. The virtues that Aristotle describes are the result of deliberation: considering various options and finding one’s way to the right one, which often lies between extremes. Null argues that a high-quality curriculum depends on the virtue of the institution and curriculum makers. “If for example the moral virtue of generosity is not present in the character of those who make a school’s curriculum, then that school’s program will lose its identity as a public good. It will become a balkanized product that special interests seek to control for their private gain, not a public trust that holds communities together.”

In the Appendix, Null brings up five curriculum diliemmas and leaves it to the reader to decide how to resolve them.

I am a little torn over the concept of deliberation. It sounds promising in many ways, but it places so much emphasis on process that it seems the curriculum might not have a chance to stay still. To teach something well, you have to work with it for a while, and that’s hard to do when it keeps changing. Perhaps there could be some sort of deliberative curriculum with a limit on the frequency of change. Otherwise I find the idea promising, precisely because it demands that the curriculum makers exercise their best thinking and character as they work out problems together.

Whether I agreed or disagreed with the points in the book, I found myself thinking about it long after I finished reading it. It does a lot to clarify the curriculum discussion. The idea of a deliberative curriculum is hard to put aside. At worst, it could descend into squabbles or never-ending revision; at best, it could lead to strong currricula that all or almost all members of an educational community support, understand, and shape.

Back to Gewertz: yes, indeed, we disagree about what the heck “curriculum” is. Null’s book can help us ask the right questions.


  1. One of the California standards for 7th grade is to expand vocabulary by learning Greek and Latin roots.

    Taking a look at the work “curriculum,” we see that it means “running in circles.”

  2. I support the idea of a fairly prescriptive curriculum in large part because that’s one less hard thing that I have to create by myself. Even with pretty detailed history standards here in CA, I find that there is STILL SO MUCH work to do turning those standards into coherent and lucid units and lesson plans. I’ve been teaching seventh grade medieval and early modern world history for seven years now and it still seems that turning it into the course I want it to be could easily constitute a life’s work.

    Eventually I hope to have two file drawers of folders with everything I need to teach a powerful, ultra-vivid, enlightening course –lecture notes, models of student notes, illustrations, props, videos, my own tests and quizzes, model student essays.

    One thing that’s become clear to me is that there will never be an excellent off-the-shelf curriculum because of the Language Police. Some of what I do to make the subject lucid leads me into non-PC territory (e.g. comparing Western civilization to Islamic civilization; discussing the reasons for philosophes’ disillusionment with Christianity; using students’ ethnic background as a hook to get them interested in European history). Teachers need some interpretive “wiggle room” to compensate for the Language Police’s sterilizing influence.

  3. See, I wouldn’t call the unit and lesson plans “curriculum.” I’d call them materials that supplement or flesh out the curriculum. The distinction is important, because it leaves room within a given curriculum for teachers and schools to choose different unit and lesson plans, textbooks, etc.

    Such materials should definitely exist. I agree that for a history class, it’s daunting to create them by oneself. But as you say, teachers should have wiggle room.

    Many will disagree with me, but I see the CK Sequence as a curriculum. The accompanying materials (books and other resources) flesh it out. They help a great deal; for one thing, one doesn’t have to go digging for the literary works, and one can read up easily on topics that aren’t fresh in one’s mind. But I could see teaching from the CK sequence with an array of materials from different sources. It would mean more work, but it would be very interesting work.