3.8.1 Models of Curricula/Curriculum Design

Learning objectives for this chapter:

By the end of this chapter, you should able to:

  • Define and explain what a curriculum is from a range of standpoints
  • Appreciate the contested nature of the concept of curriculum
  • Identify the main points of process, product, and praxis models of curriculum
  • Discuss competing factors which may lead to curriculum revision, streamlining, or withdrawal.

What is a curriculum?

At its most straightforward, we might think of the word 'curriculum' as being related to the content of a programme of study. The definition offered above gives a sense of the concept which we might relate to such terms as 'syllabus', 'programme of study, or 'course'; this curriculum is that which defines and itemises the course content, as well as its level of study, the mode of delivery, its duration, and its methods of assessment. There may be other information included in the documentation related to the curriculum, such as the course's relationship to other courses in a larger suite of qualifications, or entry criteria. We might expect a curriculum document to have a statement on the aims and objectives of the course being described, and the learning outcomes which are to be achieved.

Any curriculum requires interpretation. There is, for example, the difference between the curriculum as written, and the curriculum as planned. Curriculum documentation needs to be contextualised to the teacher and the cohort being taught; the burden of this falls on the person or the group of people writing the scheme of work. The scheme of work in effect, interprets the curriculum for practical teaching purposes. Different teachers will teach the same topics in different ways - indeed, the same teacher may teach the same topic in different ways to different groups. Thus, there may well be differences at the level of the individual classroom experience of the curriculum. We might determine, therefore, that the curriculum as originally written may differ from the curriculum as planned for teaching at the level of scheme of work, and then shift again, both at the level of individual planning, and as enacted in a live teaching environment.

The presence of a curriculum usually means that the intent is to provide an official and formal offering, though there may be differences between that and the curriculum as experienced and/or enacted; we might say that the curriculum exists both formally and informally. Depending on the teaching context, a further form of curriculum might exist. A negotiated curriculum is one where the learners have input and direction in to the direction and outcomes of study. Negotiated curricula may exist in different contexts: in research-oriented postgraduate work, where there may be student-led inquiry or project work; in leisure or recreational classes, particularly for adult learners; in vocational contexts, where the elements being studied may be contextualised to the prior learning and immediate needs of the learner. Where a learner is being supported in a one-to-one situation because of identified specific learning difficulties, there may well be active engagement about what is to be covered in the sessions for maximum impact and usefulness of the support worker as a resource.    

Though there may be an everyday definition of 'curriculum' which we might take to refer to the contents of a course, curriculum can shift meaning according to context, and that the curriculum for a given course is open to reinterpretation and to being experienced in different ways, depending on those contexts.  

What are the most prominent models of curriculum?

Curriculum studies is a long-established aspect of pedagogical enquiry, and whole books can quite easily be written about curricula in theory, and how theoretical and philosophical aspects of education interact with the practical aspects of teaching. This section explores the basics of three significant conceptualisations of curricula: curriculum as process, as product, and as praxis.

1. Process models of curriculum

Process-based approaches to curriculum theory tend to be focused less on summative activity - the final grades, the end-point assessments, and the grading and achievements associated with them - than with the pathway which learners take though a course. For process-oriented thinkers, the journey is the chief concern, rather than the destination. 

You may have come across phrases like "distance travelled" (a measure of the improvement over time a learner has shown) or "value added" (often used in referring to the boosts given to the qualitative aspects of an educational experience) in teaching before (Tummons, 2012). Such terms are process-centric in that they are related to learners' subjective experience of learning, and of qualitative measures of that educational experience. As such, there is, in general terms, a qualitative impetus to process models of curricula which might be contrasted with the more quantitative focus of product-oriented models.

That is not to say that process models of curriculum are not concerned with the end results of learning, but that this is a set of concerns which is placed as being of secondary relevance to that of the actual learning activities themselves. This makes a kind of sense: if you undergo a year-long course, then what is the more important: the final assessment, or the year spent studying to get to that final point? Both are of importance and neither should be dismissed, but there is a logic to the position that the course-long experience is of significance, and should be a priority of focus.

Process models originate with Laurence Stenhouse - in his 1975 book An Introduction to Curriculum Research and Development, he argued that there were three aspects to curricula:

  • the curriculum should contain planning aspects: content, sequence, and strategies relevant to teaching that content in that sequence
  • the curriculum should embody methods for the research and evaluation of learner and teacher experiences, and the contexts of delivery
  • the curriculum should be open to external scrutiny, so that the curriculum may be justified

Stenhouse's focus was on curriculum development as learner-centric, with an additional focus on the autonomy of the individual teacher in effecting learner development; curricula should therefore be not overly prescriptive, and have latitude built in so that diverse methodologies and assessments may be used at the educator's discretion (Stenhouse, 1975). Perhaps naturally, process-oriented conceptualisations are popular within education as they privilege the practice of teaching, and place a value on the professional judgement of the educator, while supporting the cognitive development of learners.

2. Product models of curriculum

Where a process-centric conceptualisation of curriculum enquiry is centred on the holistic experience of the learner, and on the teacher's role in supporting the pupil and their development, models of curriculum which are product-oriented are focused on destinations rather than on journeys. Indeed, alternative terms for this kind of approach include 'objectives model'; central to product models of curricula are questions related to achievement and to learner competencies after having completed the course of instruction.

A prominent early educationalist who is associated with the development of the product model as a curriculum paradigm is Ralph Tyler. Tyler's 1948 paper Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction asked four sets key questions which remain the bedrock of product-based curriculum enquiry:

  • What are the educational purposes of the curriculum? What are its aims and objectives?
  • Which learning experiences will help these aims and objectives to be attained?
  • How should these experiences be best organised so that the curriculum is as effective as it can be?
  • How should the curriculum be evaluated? Which parts of it were not effective?

Tyler argued that the more rigorous and clear the curriculum was, the better it could be scrutinised to assess its effectiveness, and the more apparent the issues which might lead to underperformance in assessment terms might be.

There are many positives which can be associated with product models of curriculum. Achievements are important, and clarity in curriculum design, and in aims and objectives which lend themselves to measurable determination of their being satisfied or otherwise means that there can be data-driven analysis of the effectiveness or otherwise of a course of instruction (or of its delivery by a particular institution/teacher). Outcomes-based measurement may be comparatively straightforward, in that an outcome either has or has not been met, or a cohort is above or below the national average, but it inevitably downplays the importance and the detail of a qualitative-informed analysis.

3. Praxis models of curriculum

Praxis, in the sense of critically-informed practice, has long been an aspect of academic and philosophical inquiry into education. Praxis-focused conceptualisations of curriculum focus on the notion that curricula are designed and taught not merely out of unquestioning obedience, or through managerial diktat, but because there are aspects of teaching which accord with the individual's philosophical or political attitudes to the world.

Teaching is not value-free, and the curriculum may similarly be imbued with social and cultural positions that have moral significance. Sometimes these are more overt than others. A course in religious education may have curriculum elements which foster the respect of all faiths, for example. That is not to say that all teaching is driven by the imperative of setting and reinforcing values encoded into curricula, though there may be an aspect of this to an individual's teaching practice. Similarly, there may be elements of a course to which the teacher may raise objections of one form or another, and this may influence the ways in which that topic or position is introduced or discussed in the classroom environment. The extent to which this is appropriate may depend on the subject, topic, and context of teaching (Kelly, 2009).

No-one would wish to be taught by someone who does not have some kind of personal enthusiasm or other investment in their subject and its communication to learners, and in the support of developing those learners towards achievement in terms referable back to the curriculum.  

Alternatives and synthesis of models

You may feel that the three models of curriculum outlined in this section are not readily separated. There are aspects of product, praxis, and of process which have usefulness to us as educators; each informs the educational journey, underpinning moral and cultural conditions, and outcomes of our learners. However, by separating out different aspects of enquiry into curriculum-related matters, each of these positions seeks to explore them in more detail, as well as stressing the relevance of each aspect to us. These are not either/or choices to make, but approaches which an individual teacher may privilege regarding a specific curriculum may realistically and pragmatically draw from each mode of analysis outlined above.

Why is it important to develop and streamline curricula?

It is perhaps inevitable that curricula will change over time. As an example, in 2016, there was controversy over the withdrawal of some A level programmes including history of art, archaeology, and classical civilisation courses at this level (Weale, 2016). There are several parameters to decisions such as the one outlined above. There is an economic argument on one hand for cutting, and political and cultural arguments on the side of retaining the courses.

The vast majority of curriculum decisions are not made at the level of course removal, of course, but there are multiple variables which may be at play. Some decisions may be straightforward, and reflect new knowledge, or the developing consensus on subject-related content at the time. Political considerations may be invoked; the development of curriculum strands fostering positive attitudes towards diversity, inclusiveness, and tolerance in civil society not only reflect contemporary moral values, but also work to ensure that education is compliant with equality legislation. Economic parameters might suggest directions in education; not merely in providing the skills demanded by industry and commerce in the workforce, but the competencies in wider society which foster engagement with the economic realities of the time. Successive drives towards embedding key and functional numeracy and literacy skills into curricula have been related back to industry demands for a literate and numerate workforce at all levels (Gatto and Moore, 2002).

There are also questions of relevance and of making education palatable to learners. Reading lists are often refreshed, and the primary texts studied in English classes at all levels consistently revised to give what is thought to be not only a grounding in literature and popular culture, but also a reflection of society as it exists. Commercial interests may also play a part in curriculum design. More than ever before, learners are conceptualised as customers- the curriculum needs to be attractive to potential students, not least when those prospective learners might be taking on loans to fund their educational experience. 

Curricula are not live documents, but they need to be flexible and responsive over time to the contexts in which that education experience is provided.


Gatto, J.T. and Moore, T. (2002) Dumbing us down: the hidden curriculum of compulsory schooling. 4th edn. Philadelphia, PA: New Society Publishers.

Kelly, A.V. (2009) The curriculum: theory and practice. 6th edn. London: SAGE Publications.

Oxford English Dictionary (2016) Definition: Curriculum. Available at: https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/curriculum (Accessed: 12 November 2016).

Schiro, M. (2012) Curriculum theory: conflicting visions and enduring concerns. 2nd edn. London: SAGE Publications.

Smith, M. (2013) Curriculum theory and practice. Available at: http://infed.org/mobi/curriculum-theory-and-practice/#process (Accessed: 13 November 2016).

Stenhouse, L. (1975) An introduction to curriculum research and development. London: Heinemann Educational.

Tummons, J. (2012) Curriculum studies in the lifelong learning sector. 2nd edn. Exeter: Learning Matters.

Tyler, R. (1948) Basic principles of curriculum and instruction. Available at: http://blogs.ubc.ca/ewayne/files/2009/02/tyler_001.pdf (Accessed: 13 November 2016).

UNESCO (2016) Different meanings of 'curriculum'. Available at: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/education/themes/strengthening-education-systems/quality-framework/technical-notes/different-meaning-of-curriculum/ (Accessed: 12 November 2016).

Weale, S. (2016) Scrapping of archaeology and classics a-levels criticised as 'barbaric act'. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/oct/17/scrapping-archeology-classics-a-levels-barbaric-tony-robinson (Accessed: 13 November 2016).

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