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  • Writer's pictureRuth Ashbee

The language of curriculum

This post is part of the “Curriculum in Science” symposium curated by Adam Boxer (@adamboxer1). Read Adam’s introduction here.

Curriculum is a hard thing to talk about. It’s interesting to think about why this is.

I think that the best way to understand what we mean by “curriculum” is to begin at the end. What is it we want our students to have at the end of their time studying our course in the subject? We want them to have a rich, detailed, and well-organised schema. This schema is what we are talking about when we say “knowledge”: we’re not just talking about facts but we are very much including them: lots and lots of them, and we accord them a high status. In addition, we have links between the facts, logical relationships of things like cause and effect, explanations, proximity in morphology, proximity in time… a multitude of relationships that reflect the diversity of our subjects. We have themes, overarching principles, and criteria for validating knowledge. We have procedures, techniques and devices. All of these things are linked together, and the resulting web of knowledge is our schema.

How do we build this glorious structure in the minds of our students? The answer is curriculum. The schema must be built, piece by piece, link by link. The journey that we take in order to build this structure is our curriculum. What are the principles or key statements in the web? What are the examples we use to strengthen them? And crucially, what sequence should we follow?

Martin Robinson, one of the most thought-provoking and eloquent writers we have on curriculum, argues here  that curriculum is not a journey because focusing on the destination (the qualification, suitability for employment) leads to  a desolate and miserably instrumentalist view of education and indeed humanity. Robinson prefers “narrative” to characterise what curriculum should be.  While I agree that “narrative” is a very powerful concept for understanding curriculum, I don’t think that “curriculum is a journey” need be consigned to a soviet rubbish dump. Not all journeys are about destinations. If you visit Rome for a tour of the city, you go back home at the end, but something has changed inside you, something has been built.

I often think of curriculum as a curated journey we guide our students along, designed to build the web in the way that a journey around a city might build an image of its layout in the mind of the traveller. As with a city, it’s impossible to see the whole web at once, and yet we can build a complete picture by travelling through it.

But it’s more than this, because if the city is our expert schema, then the curriculum doesn’t just make a map for the learner: it makes them a city of their very own.

The terrain we will travel on this journey is varied. The nature of the knowledge we want to build in our students is heterogeneous. We’ve always known this, but we’ve only recently been given the language to discuss it and think about its implications. Declarative. Procedural. Tacit. Causal. Sequential. The list is long.

Our journey in science is not the same as it is in other subjects, because the nature of each discipline is unique. We need to be able to articulate these differences in order to resist genericism and defend the honour of our subject.

It is a privilege to contribute to the “Curriculum in Science Symposium.” I think the reason curriculum is a challenging topic is that it is an abstract domain with a unique structure and logic that demands specialist terminology. My post is an attempt to list and define the key concepts and terms that we might wish to use in discussing curriculum. Curriculum study and epistemology is vast and I have only scratched the surface, but I hope that with the terms defined below we will have a starting point from which to explore our science curriculum. Some of the concepts I have described are incredibly complex and if any experts read and disagree then please do get in touch and let me know!

The first group of terms I would like to introduce are some very general ones. Most are sociological terms, with the exception of “subject” and “school science”: two very prosaic but nonetheless I think useful and important for our discussions.

General sociological terms to support the discussion


Next, we need terms for the nature of knowledge. We have to understand the nature of the knowledge before we can plan our route to building it. I have given some thought to the nature of school science knowledge here.

Terms for the nature of knowledge


Terms for the organisation of knowledge

The above section dealt with the nature of the knowledge, and it is my belief that the organisation of the knowledge in a discipline is tightly bound up with, if not completely inseparable from, the nature of the knowledge. However, there are different characteristics to be described for organisation, so here is a set of terms that may be used:




Terms for the relationship between people and curriculum:


Terms for the movement through a curriculum:



Curriculum is a rather terrifying thing to write about. I think this is perhaps because it is so big, too big for us to see it properly. There are so many aspects: the nature and the organisation of the knowledge in the schemas, but on top of that, the temporal narrowness, the fact that in teaching we have to travel through a linear, one-way path in time in and yet somehow to build a vast, multi-dimensional structure as the product of this timeline. The scale of this challenge is fearsome, but the first step in a discussion is to establish a shared language . So here’s my list of names for things in curriculum. Thank you for reading.


Karl Maton (2014) Knowledge and Knowers: Towards a Realist Sociology of Education

Thanks to Mark Enser, Gareth Sturdy, Christine Counsell, Karl Maton, Helen Georgiou, Grace Healy, @mildthing99, Ben Newmark and Steven Cooke for their Twitter help

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