“Curriculum” is a term used in a number of related ways.

Forms of Curriculum

For our present, practical purposes, we can let the form (if not the content) of the curriculum be dictated by the question, "What are you teaching this material for?"  Students have a variation on this: "Why do we have to learn this?"

We can set up a model which works along two dimensions: (click on the labels if you want to go straight to the associated notes)

To the "Learning" side of the site "Teaching" home

Click here for some examples: (which you may not agree with.) If not, why not?


The material is deemed to be important in its own right, either because the students are interested in it, or they ought to be interested in it. Either there is no great concern that they should use it, or the variety of ways in which it might be used is so great that we do not concern ourselves with it.

So this applies to important elements of our cultural heritage, such as history or literature. The reply to the alienated student's question, "Why do we have to learn this stuff?" is basically, "Because it's good for you". If that assumption is not shared, the teacher of an academic subject is in trouble — and often takes refuge in a vocational/professional orientation (below).

We may be strictly practical on this site, but this can't pass without a note about the political and cultural assumptions which are inevitably built in any academic curriculum — less so in the case of, say, an evening class on the history of art for which members have signed up purely out of their own interest, but more so in any situation where the learners are being taught a package selected by those in authority. The choice of the canon of good literature, or what is left out of a music appreciation course, or Darwinism vs. Creationism: all contain inescapable value judgements.

It is often when we disagree with those judgements that we declare that "education" has become "indoctrination", particularly when the content of the material taught is regarded as not open to debate

While academic study is often more highly valued than vocational and professional study, in practice it is often more concerned with the lower reaches of Bloom's taxonomy in the cognitive domain (which may of course be a critical comment on Bloom's construction of "application" as the third level). The distinctive contribution of the academic curriculum, however, is to the more complex affective domain.          

Back to diagram

Vocational/ professional

"Why do we have to learn this stuff?"   "Because you can use it to..."

The emphasis is on using the material in order to do something else. Mathematics is often justified in this way, but so are law, perspective in drawing and cookery skills. The content is not necessarily different from the academic curriculum. Detailed analysis of Shakespeare's plays may be justifiable to hone the skills of a political speech-writer. Physics is necessary to know how to service a photo-copier.

But — the selection of the material may be different, (we are not so interested in the character of Mark Antony, as in how he gets his effect in the "Friends, Romans, countrymen" speech), and what you expect the students to take away with them is different.

That means that it may not matter whether you can remember (or reproduce in assessment) how to derive the equation for working out a standard deviation, but it may matter whether you know when to use it. Does anyone care whether you can name the main food groups, as long as you eat a balanced diet?

Education becomes training (in my opinion) when the balance shifts so far in the direction of utility, that you do not concern yourself with the background material, and in particular when continuing debates about the validity of that material are ignored. This may be legitimate: surveyors can safely be trained without reference to the curvature of the earth. It may not: counsellors are often trained without reference to the extremely dubious content of some of their psychology.

Back to diagram      

Mastery / Induction

This kind of curriculum assumes that what needs to be learned exists "out there" — that the task of education (or training) is to induct you into an established body of knowledge.

It has been argued that this is true of most academic knowledge up to first-degree level, and certainly it is necessary to provide a basic foundation. Not everyone will need to build beyond that foundation. Lawyers, for example, need to know the law, which already exists: only a few judges (and lawyers who become politicians) will go on to make it. The laws of physics, too, are well-established and tested: only the occasional jumped-up patent-office clerk modifies them.

Competence-based curricula are almost necessarily based on this model. It is assumed that the curriculum designer knows what competence consists of, in a particular vocational area, and what performance criteria constitute evidence of it.

However, subjects differ in how soon in your educational career you stop being simply inducted and start contributing to the endless debate of your subject. In the humanities that stage may come earlier than the sciences. And sometimes there is a continual oscillation: the musician first masters a piece and then adds her interpretation — and then masters another one ...

Back to diagram

Mastery curriculum

In this diagram, a number of learners, with different starting points, are all working towards mastery of a particular topic, indicated by the dotted line. Bill and Estelle do not have far to go, but once they reach the threshold the course will not necessarily have much more to offer them. Carol and Franklin on the other hand, start from further behind and as the dotted line indicates, require additional help to reach the "finish line"                      

Developmental / Constructive

The other kind of curriculum — often concerned with quite advanced skills (rather than simple knowledge) — is a developmental one.

It is centred on the development of the student — "maximising potential" is the jargon phrase — and tries to take them forwards from wherever they are to a more sophisticated understanding or skill in a particular area: the measure is "improvement" rather than the achievement of a particular level.

Back to diagram

Developmental curriculum

In this version, everyone gets to travel the same developmental distance from their starting point: Estelle benefits, and most people do better than the required threshold: but two never make it.   

Thus there are continuing debates about the justification of any curriculum. You may not need to engage with all of them, but to build yours you do need to be clear about where you stand with your material, not least because it affects how you assess it.                          


The above model is just one of many ways of conceptualising different models of the curriculum. What all of them do is to direct your attention to the fact that the assumptions you make about what you are up to will affect the way you set about teaching.

These are all "ideal types" — in the real world most teaching and learning contains mixtures. All have their place, despite the vociferous arguments of proponents of one model or another. Nevertheless, it helps to be clear about what you are trying to do.

A mini-test on this.


VAMDeg.gif (5338 bytes)


To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.

Search and associated sites:

Delicious Save this on Delicious        Click here to send to a friend     Print

This site is independent and self-funded, although the contribution of the Higher Education Academy to its development via the award of a National Teaching Fellowship, in 2004 has been greatly appreciated. The site does not accept advertising or sponsorship (apart from what I am lumbered with on the reports from the site Search facility above), and invitations/proposals/demands will be ignored, as will SEO spam. I am of course not responsible for the content of any external links; any endorsement is on the basis only of my quixotic judgement. Suggestions for new pages and corrections of errors or reasonable disagreements are of course always welcome. I am not on FaceBook or LinkedIn.

Back to top