Chapter Seven: Teachers, Students, and Teaching

7.5 Curricula

In addition to managing the placement and the time of students and teachers, schools are also responsible for organizing knowledge—for determining what is to be learned and how it is to be taught. The content that is to be taught in each grade or subject is termed the school’s curriculum. In addition to the formal curriculum of the school—the subjects and courses—there also exists something called the hidden curriculum, which has to do with all those things taught by the school (whether consciously or not) that are not part of the formal curriculum.

Formal Curricula

Covering the curriculum has already been mentioned as a central concern of teachers. The development of curricula, exemplified in Table 7.5.1, is primarily organized by the Department or Ministry of Education in each province. Usually groups of teachers and subject-area experts work to write a provincial curriculum document, which is then distributed to schools and teachers. The entire process—involving writing a curriculum, pilot testing it in some schools, and revising it—may take several years. Parents, students, and non-educators are formally involved in some provinces.

Table 7.5.1

Manitoba Education Flowchart on Curriculum Development

Curriculum Development Teams Review Panels Field Validation Authorized Provincial Use Continual Updating
A departmental project leader/specialist; Qualified writer(s); Exemplary subject area teachers Educational Partners who are invited by the department to provide feedback to drafts Balanced representation of field pilot teachers who receive in-service training Authorized by Ministry Project leaders/specialists work with educational partners
Gathering and coordinating all relevant research; Receiving and assessing information from educational partners; Developing and writing documents; Revising/evergreening curricula Offer feedback for document improvement Undertaken in those instances in which the content focus and instructional and assessment differ significantly from former documents; Testing so that necessary improvements can be made based on input from classroom teachers Occurs once a curriculum has been field tested and revised as necessary Identify and develop upgrades distributed to field; Reflect changing demands and ensures relevance

Source.  Manitoba Education. (2021).  Curriculum development process.

Provincial curricula vary in how prescriptive they are. A few curriculum documents are quite specific, outlining topics to be covered, giving examples of activities and assignments, and specifying the kinds of learning outcomes that are sought. In most provinces, however, the documents are more like guidelines. They may still contain a set of topics to be covered and provide ideas about classroom activities, but they leave to teachers matters such as the time and effort to be devoted to each topic and the order in which material is to be taken up.

In addition to provincial curricula, school districts may have their own curriculum development processes in which local teams of teachers develop curriculum units in those areas a district wants to emphasize. Again, these may be more or less prescriptive. In some schools, teams of teachers may make further modifications or develop school-based curricula in a particular area.

Although Canada does not have a Federal Department of Education similar to what exists in other countries, there have been moves on occasion towards regional and even national curriculum development. Groups of provinces in the west and in the Maritimes have formed consortia to develop courses that will be used across each region, and a similar project occurred for sciences at the national level. Although there have long been advocates in Canada of national curricula, these projects begun in the 1990s were the first real effort to move in that direction. However, these projects have had quite modest results, as provinces continue to maintain their autonomy in altering curricula, even those produced through the regional consortia, to suit their own needs and interests. In addition, the availability of curricula on the internet allows for a world-wide availability of material and ideas for teachers to use to support their instruction.

Curriculum Implementation

Curriculum use can be understood as emerging from two aspects of teaching. One is the teacher’s thinking both about content and about teaching. Each teacher has ideas about the subject to be taught and the best way to teach it. For example, a teacher may think of literature as being primarily about the analysis of language use and may regard carefully led class discussion of particular works as the best way to develop these skills. Another teacher may see literature as a means of reflecting on our own lives and may want to make considerable use of small groups in teaching. A third teacher may be teaching subjects about which he or she does not feel highly knowledgeable, and thus may be inclined to use the curriculum guide almost as a textbook. These three hypothetical teachers will approach the same curriculum document in quite different ways, looking for content and ideas that are consistent with their own understandings, both of the subject and of what teaching is about. A teacher may use all three approaches at different times.

A second key aspect is the teacher’s need to have a set of activities for each class of students. Ideas are not enough; teachers are expected to facilitate the nature of the learning activities that go on in the classroom. Many teachers evaluate curriculum documents based on the extent to which these documents help them organize class time in ways that foster the learning outcomes they hope to achieve. A curriculum document with interesting concepts but no description of how teachers might use it is unlikely to get very much use in classrooms.

Curricula and the Organization of Knowledge

Whatever curriculum is used, it will have built into it a set of assumptions about what knowledge is and how knowledge is structured. In any textbook, such as this one, some topics are emphasized over others. Connections are made between some ideas and not others. These decisions are not naturally present in the world, but are made by people who prepare curricula, whether these are provincial committees or individual teachers in classrooms (Bascia et al., 2014). History books may focus on the actions of kings and prime ministers but say little about Indigenous peoples or female factory workers. Chemistry courses may talk about the composition of all sorts of compounds, but give few illustrations as to how these compounds are used or what their consequences are for the environment.

The same problems emerge in the division between subjects. Schools divide the curriculum into chunks—language, mathematics, science, and so on. These divisions are not inherent in the world, however, but are structures people have created as a way of thinking. When we look at a tree, we are seeing biology, botany, chemistry, physics, geography, sociology, history, and economics at work: all are related to this tree being what it is, where it is. Teachers have the privilege of deciding what it is about the tree that they want students to learn. Moreover, in adult life, work does not proceed in the neat divisions that are used by the school to organize its curriculum. For example, scientists are heavily involved in the use of both mathematics and language, and may work in a setting that is highly political. Writers are writing about something, for some purpose.

Choices about how to organize the school’s curriculum have to be made; we cannot teach everything. However, it is important to recognize that these are choices that reflect somebody’s view of the world rather than being a necessary way of thinking. Some important areas do not appear very often in school curricula—for example, economics or global culture. Education itself, an important subject of study in postsecondary education, is not part of the school curriculum. Important consequences flow from choices about which knowledge is valued in schools, and which is not. Nor are the decisions about which knowledge to value in schools made in an objective manner. The curriculum is a historical product, and thus largely reflects a white, male, middle-class view of what knowledge is valuable. Students who come to school knowing about the things that the school teaches—numbers, letters, geography, and so on—may feel valued and reinforced. Students who come to school knowing about things not valued in school—traditional culture, homelessness, parenting—do not find that same sense of reinforcement.

Hidden Curricula

The term “hidden curriculum” was coined by Jackson (1968), who was among the first to point out that much of what the school teaches and what students learn does not appear in any curriculum guide. For example, schools may emphasize behaviour such as punctuality, obedience, truthfulness, independence, or competitiveness. In the eyes of many, these characteristics are more important than learning to solve quadratic equations or identify elements in the periodic table. Much of what happens in schools has to do with the influencing of behaviour, rather than with the learning of prescribed content or skills. Indeed, students often get into much more serious trouble for violating the rules of the schools (e.g., fighting or being disrespectful to teachers) than they do for failing to learn whatever is in the academic program.

Another dimension of the hidden curriculum relates to the values implied by the formal curriculum. If textbooks are full of pictures of males in active roles and females in passive roles, students are more likely to absorb, however unintentionally, this view of how the world ought to be. If history courses do not talk about the ways in which government policy decimated traditional Indigenous cultures, or about biased policies against certain immigrant groups, or about the exclusion of women from many important spheres of life, then students do not come to understand the very different experiences some people may have of our country. If science and technology are presented as the best ways to solve social problems, students may not be able to make reasoned judgements about the appropriate role of other ways of viewing these areas in our lives.

Reviews of Canadian textbooks and curricula have shown how many biases and opinions were built into the curricula while being displayed as if they were the truth. In the last few years, considerable effort has been made to eliminate many of these representations. It is more than likely, though, that 20 or 30 years from now, as social values change, others will be looking at our current books and curricula and finding other kinds of bias. Indeed, the view taken in this book is that there cannot and should not be a single version of knowledge presented as if it were true for all time. As our views of the world change, our ways of explaining the world also change, and so must school curricula.





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