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Curriculum: Concepts and approaches

Written by: Mark Priestly
9 min read

Curriculum studies has been in decline for some years in the UK. As an early career teacher in the 1990s, I was able to choose from a range of university Master’s-level programmes with a specialist focus on the curriculum. By 2019, only one university (the UCL Institute of Education) offers a dedicated curriculum studies Master’s degree. It is therefore heartening to see that the curriculum is back on the educational agenda across UK jurisdictions. This is in some respects due to new policy trajectories – in Scotland, Northern Ireland and, more recently, Wales – that actively construct teachers as professional curriculum-makers. This has led over time to increasingly nuanced discussion about curriculum by teachers and other educational professionals in those countries. In the past year, England has raised the status of the curriculum in professional discourse, as Ofsted has shifted its focus to the curriculum through, for example, its intent, implementation, impact initiative.

While this is encouraging, there is still considerable work to do. This article offers an overview of and  contribution to this debate, by surfacing some of the concepts that are needed to develop a more sophisticated approach to developing the curriculum in our schools.

What is a curriculum?

Curriculum is a contested and often misunderstood concept. At a simple level, the curriculum simply means a course of study. The word is derived from the Latin word meaning ‘racecourse’ or ‘race’, and has come to mean a general course, conveying the notion of going somewhere in a predefined direction.

However, such a conception of curriculum is obviously insufficient for understanding the complex processes of schooling in today’s society. A more sophisticated definition is required, and there have been many attempts to provide one. For example, Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence states that the curriculum is ‘the totality of all that is planned for children and young people throughout their education’ (Scottish Government, 2008, p. 13).

Such definitions are helpful in that they broaden thinking about the curriculum and what it comprises. However, this sort of broad definition can also be confusing, as the term ‘curriculum’ comes to mean different things to different people. For these reasons, it is necessary to be clear about the various facets that make up the curriculum, and the ways in which these link together and interact in practice. The following terminology will all be familiar, but reflecting on it again may help to make sense of the complexity that is the curriculum.

  • Curriculum – an umbrella term denoting the totality of the learning experience of children and young people in school. Considering the curriculum would thus include the questions of what, how and why listed below, as well as assessment.
  • Curriculum purposes – statements of what the curriculum is intended to achieve. These include narrowly defined outcomes or objectives, and more broadly defined aims or goals. This is the ‘why’ of the curriculum, and is often (but not always) made explicit in official documents.
  • Curriculum framework – the documents that outline the structure of the curriculum and its purposes. This also usually includes the content to be taught – the ‘what’ of the curriculum.
  • Curriculum provision – the systems and structures established in schools to organise teaching – for example, timetabling. This is the ‘how’ of the curriculum.
  • Pedagogy (often termed ‘instruction’ in the literature, especially in American writing) – usually referring to the teaching strategies and learning activities planned to achieve the aims and fulfil the planned framework. This is also the ‘how’ of the curriculum.
  • Assessment – the methods used to judge the extent of students’ learning (e.g. tests, homework, observation). Assessment judgments might be used formatively (to provide feedback to learners to inform future learning), summatively (to provide a grade) or evaluatively (to judge whether teaching has been effective).


The relationship between these elements is complex and can be problematic. I provide several examples to illustrate this point:

  • The particular curriculum-planning model that is outlined in the framework can exert a major influence on pedagogy. For instance, a framework that emphasises content to be learned might encourage teacher-centred approaches to teaching, whereas a model based on processes and skills may encourage activities that are student-centred.
  • The organisation of provision exerts an effect on pedagogy. For example, methods such as cooperative learning can be difficult if the school day is divided into small teaching blocks, as is the case in most secondary schools.
  • A heavy emphasis on assessment can encourage narrow ‘teach to the test’ approaches –so-called washback.

Curriculum planning is fundamentally a political process. In other words, it involves questions of value and is subject to disagreement. Different people have different views about what should be taught (or indeed omitted – the null curriculum). An important question is ‘whose curriculum?’: who is it for and who chooses? Some believe that content should be chosen to meet children’s needs and/or interests. Others suggest that there are bodies of knowledge that have intrinsic value or help us access society’s conversation, and which should be taught to all children. For example, social realists such as Young and Muller (2010) believe that children will be disadvantaged if they are not taught knowledge from the academic disciplines (which are recognised bodies of knowledge developed over generations by scholars using rigorous methods).

These complex debates are often reduced to spurious categories: traditional vs. progressive curricula; knowledge vs. skills; subjects vs. interdisciplinary approaches; teacher as sage-on-the-stage vs. teacher as guide-on-the-side, etc. It is far more fruitful to consider these dichotomies in a more nuanced way, for example:

  • Knowledge vs. skills is better seen as balance between different types of knowledge that are all essential for a meaningful education: propositional knowledge (knowing that), procedural knowledge (knowing how) and epistemic knowledge (knowledge structures and approaches to inquiry – such as scientific methods – that characterise different disciplines).
  • An accomplished teacher will both teach directly and facilitate learning, depending on the purposes of the learning being undertaken.


This in turn raises further questions about the choice and organisation of curriculum content. Should the curriculum be structured around subjects (the prevailing secondary model in the UK) or themes, a primary school approach? Should school knowledge focus more on ‘learning that’ or ‘learning how’? Should there be a core curriculum for all young people, or should there be choice? What about relevance to real life? Or is the school curriculum a sabre-tooth curriculum (Peddiwell, 1939), which rarely changes and drifts out of date as society evolves?

The curriculum operates (or is made) in different ways at different levels:

  • supra – transnational ideas about education
  • macro – national-level policy intentions
  • meso – policy guidance (ES, LEA)
  • micro – school-level curricular practices
  • nano – classroom interactions.

(Thijs and van den Akker, 2009)

Curriculum-making across these levels (or layers of activity) may not be coherent, and there may be good reasons for this (for example, to account for differences in school contexts). Curriculum policy is sometimes referred to as the prescribed curriculum. This is the written curriculum, embodied in a school’s documents, curriculum guides and programme of studies booklets. It is the ‘official’ curriculum. Written curricula are essential, but they do not always reflect what is taught. At the level of practice, the terms described curriculum, enacted curriculum and received curriculum are sometimes used. The first two terms comprise the taught curriculum – what teachers say they teach and what they are actually observed to teach. The received curriculum is the ‘bottom line’ curriculum – in other words, what the students actually learn. It is the most important curriculum of all; but it is also the one that is most difficult to quantify, and the one over which we have the least control. The described, enacted and received curricula can be very different to the prescribed curriculum, as teachers actively adapt official policy to meet local circumstances, and as learners assimilate and understand what is being taught in very different ways. As can be seen, curriculum is an inexact art form rather than a precise science. (See Thijs and van den Akker, 2009, for a more detailed discussion of this topic.)

A final point to consider concerns what is known as the hidden curriculum. Virtually everything that happens in schools that is not subject to reflection and intention can be seen as part of the hidden curriculum. The hidden curriculum of any institution is made up of:

  • the non-academic learning promoted by schools, through the attitudes, values and culture promoted by the school (e.g. enforcement of rules)
  • the physical environment of the school (e.g. a shabby building may be perceived to permit vandalism)
  • the social environment of the school (e.g. a culture of bullying or bad behaviour amongst students)
  • the unconscious and unintended teaching that occurs in the classroom (e.g. the teacher who subconsciously but overtly gives preferential treatment to girls or boys may encourage the development of certain behaviours and attitudes amongst both male and female students).


With the above in mind, I offer an alternative definition of curriculum: the multi-layered social practices, including infrastructure, pedagogy and assessment, through which education is structured, enacted and evaluated. This requires attention to:

  • curriculum for what, by whom… and for whom?
  • appropriate selection of knowledge/content and teaching methodologies that are fit for purpose
  • the importance of context – what works in one school may not work in another
  • teachers as (professional) curriculum-makers – no curriculum development without teacher development (Stenhouse, 1975); teachers’ professional agency (Priestley et al., 2015) is a vital part of this
  • the role of system dynamics as barriers and drivers to curriculum-making
  • the perspectives and experiences of traditionally marginalised groups.

Three curriculum-planning models

There are a number of distinct approaches – or, more accurately, starting points – to curriculum-planning. It is necessary to be clear on which model is being used to ensure coherence and conceptual clarity. Kelly (1999) offers three archetypal curriculum-planning models and suggests that each model is inextricably linked with both underlying purposes and conceptions of knowledge, as well as with pedagogy. Kelly’s models are:

  • Curriculum as content and education as transmission. In this approach, the starting point is the content to be taught, often neglecting questions of purpose, and frequently conflating knowledge (an end of education) with subjects (one of various means available for accessing knowledge).
  • Curriculum as product and education as instrumental. In this approach, education is defined as assessable statements, such as learning outcomes, often specified in great detail across multiple linear levels. This approach has been associated with bureaucracy, over-assessment and instrumental ‘tick-box’ approaches to curriculum development (e.g. Priestley and Minty, 2013).
  • Curriculum as process and education as development. In this approach, planning will start with consideration of purposes and values, and content and methods are selected to be fit for purpose. Process approaches can be complex and demanding on schools and teachers.


It is necessary to stress (again) that these models represent starting points for curriculum-planning, rather than mutually exclusive categories; for example, supporters of the process model would not argue that content is unnecessary or unimportant, simply that the selection of content is a secondary consideration, to be debated once the broad principles of the curriculum have been established.


The above discussion suggests that the school curriculum is complex, involving considerations of how policy translates into practice and considerable variation in how this happens from school to school. The process of planning and implementing a curriculum is therefore difficult and uncertain. A successful curriculum must pay attention to underlying purposes of education. How, for example, does it ensure that young people are socialised into society, while avoiding indoctrination and developing individual capacity for active citizenship? How does it make sure that young people develop skills for work without becoming too focused on narrow training? How does it cover essential content, given that this changes as society changes, without becoming overcrowded? How can it remain relevant in a pluralist society where there are competing demands for different content and differing views as to what is important? Where do decisions about content lie? With the teacher? The politician? Parents? Or students? How does it set the scene for learning that is active and teaching that is inspirational?

This article is based on a longer piece by the author, originally published here:


Kelly AV (1999) The Curriculum: Theory and Practice (4th ed). London: Sage.

Peddiwell AJ (1939) The saber-tooth curriculum. Available at: (accessed 20 March 2019).

Priestley M, Biesta GJJ and Robinson S (2015) Teacher Agency: An Ecological Approach. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Priestley M and Minty S (2013) Curriculum for excellence: ‘A brilliant idea, but…’ Scottish Educational Review 45: 39–52.

Scottish Government (2008). Building the Curriculum 3: A Framework for Learning and Teaching. Edinburgh: Scottish Government.

Stenhouse L (1975) An Introduction to Curriculum Research and Development. London: Heinemann.

Thijs A and van den Akker J (2009) Curriculum in development. Enschede: Stichting Leerplan Ontwikkeling (SLO).

Young M and Muller J (2010) Three educational scenarios for the future: Lessons from the sociology of knowledge. European Journal of Education 45: 11–27.

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