In formal education, a curriculum (plural curricula) is the set of courses, and their content, offered at a school or university. As an idea, curriculum stems from the Latin word for race course, referring to the course of deed and experiences through which children grow and mature in becoming adults.
In The Curriculum, the first textbook published on the subject, in 1918, John Franklin Bobbitt said that curriculum, as an idea, has its roots in the Latin word for race-course, explaining the curriculum as the course of deeds and experiences through which children become the adults they should be, for success in adult society. Furthermore, the curriculum encompasses the entire scope of formative deed and experience occurring in and out of school, and not experiences occurring in school; experiences that are unplanned and undirected, and experiences intentionally directed for the purposeful formation of adult members of society. (cf. image at right.)
To Bobbitt, the curriculum is a social engineering arena. Per his cultural presumptions and social definitions, his curricular formulation has two notable features: (i) that scientific experts would best be qualified to and justified in designing curricula based upon their expert knowledge of what qualities are desirable in adult members of society, and which experiences would generate said qualities; and (ii) curriculum defined as the deeds-experiences the student ought to have to become the adult he or she ought become.
Hence, he defined the curriculum as an ideal, rather than as the concrete reality of the deeds and experiences that form people to who and what they are.
Contemporary views of curriculum reject these features of Bobbitt's postulates, but retain the basis of curriculum as the course of experience(s) that forms human beings in to persons. Personal formation via curricula is studied at the personal level and at the group level, i.e. cultures and societies (e.g. professional formation, academic discipline via historical experience). The formation of a group is reciprocal, with the formation of its individual participants.
Although it formally appeared in Bobbitt's definition, curriculum as a course of formative experience also pervades John Dewey's work (who disagreed with Bobbitt on important matters). Although Bobbitt's and Dewey's idealistic understanding of "curriculum" is different from current, restricted uses of the word, curriculum writers and researchers generally share it as common, substantive understanding of curriculum.
Curriculum means two things: (i) the range of courses from which students choose what subject matters to study, and (ii) a specific learning program. In the latter case, the curriculum collectively describes the teaching, learning, and assessment materials available for a given course of study.
Currently, a spiral curriculum (or tycoil curriculum) is promoted as allowing students to revisit a subject matter's content at the different levels of development of the subject matter being studied. The constructivist approach, of the tycoil curriculum, proposes that children learn best via active engagement with the educational environment, i.e. discovery learning.
A crucial aspect for learning, understanding by stimulating the imagination, is absent in the so-called "neo-conservative curriculum" that stresses the ineffective aspects of knowledge amounts and of logico-mathematical thinking, i.e. rote learning.
Crucial to the curriculum is the definition of the course objectives that usually are expressed as learning outcomes and normally include the program's assessment strategy. These outcomes and assessments are grouped as units' (or modules), and, therefore, the curriculum comprises a collection of such units, each, in turn, comprising a specialised, specific part of the curriculum. So, a typical curriculum includes communications, numeracy, information technology, and social skills units, with specific, specialized teaching of each.
In education, a core curriculum is a curriculum, or course of study, which is deemed central and usually made mandatory for all students of a school or school system. Core curricula are often instituted, at the primary and secondary levels, by school boards, Departments of Education, or other administrative agencies charged with overseeing education. At the undergraduate level, individual college and university administrations and faculties sometimes mandate core curricula, especially in the liberal arts. But because of increasing specialization and depth in the student's major field of study, a typical core curriculum in higher education mandates a far smaller proportion of a student's course work than a high school or elementary school core curriculum prescribes.
Amongst the best known and most expansive core curricula programs at leading American colleges are that of Columbia College at Columbia University, as well as the University of Chicago's. Both can take up to two years to complete without advanced standing, and are designed to foster critical skills in a broad range of academic disciplines, including: the social sciences, humanities, physical and biological sciences, mathematics, writing and foreign languages. However, other selective institutions have largely done away with core requirements in their entirety, the most famous being the student-driven course selection of Brown University, and Cornell University. Further, as core curricula began to be diminished over the course of the twentieth century at many American schools, several smaller institutions became famous for embracing a core curriculum that covers nearly the student’s entire undergraduate education, often utilizing classic texts of the western canon to teach all subjects including science. St. John’s College in the United States remains famous in this vein.
Many educational institutions are currently trying to balance two opposing forces: On the one hand, some believe students should have a common knowledge foundation, often in the form of a core curriculum; on the other hand, others want students to be able to pursue their own educational interests, often through early specialty in a major, however, other times through the free choice of courses. This tension has received a large amount of coverage due to Harvard University's reorganization of its core requirements.
For example, in 1999, the University of Chicago announced plans to reduce and modify the content of its core curriculum, including lowering the number of required courses from 21 to 15 and offering a wider range of content. When The New York Times, The Economist, and other major news outlets picked up this story, the University became the focal point of a national debate on education. The National Association of Scholars released a statement saying, "It is truly depressing to observe a steady abandonment of the University of Chicago's once imposing undergraduate core curriculum, which for so long stood as the benchmark of content and rigor among American academic institutions." Simultaneously, however, a set of university administrators, notably then-President Hugo Sonnenschein, argued that reducing the core curriculum had become both a financial and educational imperative, as the university was struggling to attract a commensurate volume of applicants to its undergraduate division compared to peer schools as a result of what was perceived by the pro-change camp as a reaction by “the average eighteen year old” to the expanse of the collegiate core.