Instructing the Curriculum? Or a Curriculum for Better Instruction?

26Mar07

Evaluation and Assessment of Curriculum

This week, as I write this, I am also in the midst of finding a new job. My past few days have been filled with composing cover letters, browsing online job sites, sending emails out to my network of colleagues, and refining my CV—my curriculum vitae. “The course of life.” When looked at from that perspective, the term curriculum is certainly a weighty one; however, despite the import of the term, clarity about what constitutes a curriculum is still unclear for many people. Definitions become even hazier when restricted to academics and used alongside terms like instruction. The education field, like any other, has its share of jargon; curriculum and instruction are two of these. These two related terms are essential to the education field and deserve to be considered more closely.

Just as a CV tries to paint a complete picture of an individual’s life experience in relation to how they will perform on a job, the curriculum for a school can be seen as a student’s developmental and educational experience in relation to what the student should know. Unlike a CV, which is modified after a life changing experience, a school’s curriculum more closely resembles a guide to get the most out of an educational experience. Continuing with the analogy, job applicants may decide to include non-academic or non-work-related personal qualities in their CV, including special interests, clubs they have joined, or places they have traveled. This information helps provide a more detailed picture of the applicant, beyond what can be inferred from reviewing an applicant’s employment history and educational background alone. Similarly, at an educational institution, a curriculum may include non-instructional elements which help bring students closer to what they need to know. This includes project-based learning activities, assessments, and other opportunities for social and emotional development. In many cases, there is also what is termed the “hidden curriculum”—experiences that are not formally outlined in a curriculum but still have an impact on the educational experience a student has.

Notice in the former paragraph the use of the phrase “non-instructional elements.” Indeed, it is difficult to talk about curriculum without mentioning instruction. Furthermore, because instruction can have different meanings depending on how it is used, the terms curriculum and instruction are sometimes used interchangeably. After all, one synonym of instruction is direction. I can give a student instruction on how to assemble a model airplane, or I can program an instruction for a computer to follow. In this definition, there is a very close parallel between curriculum and instruction. Another view of instruction, however, is simply the act of teaching. In this sense, one uses the curriculum to guide instruction, but the two are not the same. The curriculum establishes the educational goals, and the instruction helps the student achieve the established goals. Here, again, ambiguous definitions add to confusion since broader definitions of curriculum can include programmatic elements such as the aforementioned project-based learning activities and so on.

With all the overlaps, how can one begin to better differentiate or better understand the role of instruction and curriculum? Perhaps the easiest way is to look beyond the experience at a classroom level, and instead, look at it from the perspective of a school or of a district. At the district level, for example, establishing a common curriculum across schools can help build social cohesion, facilitate easier transitions when students need to transfer to different schools, and make the act of assessing school performance easier and more easily comparable. It does so without telling teachers how to teach. In other words, it isolates itself from the “how” input of instruction, but maintains a role with regards to the “what” input. By doing so, the wealth of experiences a student can have are also improved since there is no governing body dictating how instruction should take place. For example, a teacher may decide that a given curriculum item is best taught by doing an art project or going on a field trip—activities which may have learning outcomes beyond that which was dictated by the curriculum.

Looking at curriculum and instruction from a broader perspective helps distinguish a little between two terms that are otherwise quite closely related. Reverting to the analogy between curriculum and an individual’s curriculum vitae, a school’s curriculum generates some of the life changing experiences we are proud to include on our curriculum vitae. However, there is a lot of learning that takes place outside of the school environment. In a way, instruction plays a major role here, with teachers taking innovative approaches to instill a passion for life-long learning in their students.

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