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What is curriculum?

Posted by Tommy Lu on April 20, 2012

We all know the term “curriculum” and we probably can explain what we think the curriculum is and should be. When we see a bad one, we can also identify it. However, exactly what is curriculum? Interestingly enough, this is the most difficult term to define.

My take of curriculum is that a curriculum is a theory or a concept. All other things or objects we have associated with curriculum such as syllabus, schedules, text books, teaching plans, teaching methods, content delivery, and so on are the “products” of curriculum. To me, the most important question to ask or the most important “thing” to design is “what do we want our students to do or perform after they finished their learning?”

Based on the above, I think curriculum design should be outcome based, formative, and focus on application. I am not just talking about teachers at Chinese School of Delaware, many teachers from other schools (whether they are elementary, middle, high, or even college professors) often focus the learning outcome on the tests. Even worse, the so called tests are merely a repeatition of what teachers said or what appeared on the text books. That’s why many of our students could not be a critical thinkers or problem solvers.

So what is this “concept” about curriculum? In my mind, this “concept” is what I have mentioned in the beginning of this post. This “concept” is what we want our students to be able to do? Therefore, a curriculum can be as high level as K-16 education or as low level as individual courses in each grade. In this blog and the wiki for our school, I think we need to address each level in its own space. However, the high level curriculum concept should drive the low level curriculum concepts. All viewers are welcome to voice their ideas of this concept but allow me to address mine here first.

My curriculum concept for the entire school is that students, after complete 12 years of learning, should be able to meet intermediate-low to intermediate-mid proficiency level for heritage students and novice-high to intermediate-low for non-heritage students. These proficiency levels come from ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) standards. You might wonder how many levels are there and what are these levels. Well, ACTFL divide language proficiency into novice, intermediate, advanced, and superior levels. Each level can be sub divided into low, mid, and high. Novice level is achieved by single character recognition, simple and common phrases, be able to construct simple but not necessarily connected sentences, be able to identify basic objects (colors, shapes, weekdays, month names, and so on), and can conduct simple conversation. Intermediate level is achieved by more character and phrase recognitions, can describe own feelings and past experiences using simple sentences, be able to give simple directions, relay messages, and can solve simple and basic problems such as asking for directions and placing orders. Advanced level is achieved by applying characters and phrases to express a complete idea, be able to compare both couture and context differences, can engage an argument or serious discussion or even lead a discussion, can write well connected sentences into paragraphs and linked those related paragrpahs into an article. Superior level is achieved by understanding language, culture, and literature and can transfer the knowledge to others (AKA teach).

After the “concept” is formulated, syllabus is next followed by teaching plan, content knowledge, teaching activities, teaching methods, content delivery, and finally assessment.

Syllabus contains topics covered, schedule, sequence, and evaluation methods Teaching plan contains breadth, depth, how to…, and assessment plans Content knowledge contains what to teach Teaching activities includes different in-class and out-of-class type activities for both teachers and students Teaching methods refer to the way how teachers teach and how students learn Content delivery refers to methods teachers and students can use to achieve their learning objectives

One thing I would like to stress is that we need to focus on learning, not teaching. Can you see the difference?


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