Curriculum–The Master’s House

How are curricula developed?

I had never put a lot of thought into how the curriculum came to be, but I suppose the “how” of the curriculum is just as important as the “why” or “what.” Of course, we need to know what items are within the curriculum and why curriculum writers thought to include them, but in order to gain a deeper sense of awareness regarding the “what” and “why” of the curriculum, we need context for that curriculum–we need to know the circumstances under which the curriculum was developed, the manner in which it was created, and the people who made it all happen.

I think that the curriculum writing process is very tedious, and probably tremendously boring. It is probably comprised of a bunch of former teachers, division heads, etc. gathered in a stuffy room, typing away furiously on their laptops (or maybe scratching away at notebooks, depending on just how old [fashioned] these brave architects are) and arguing about the semantics of the whole thing. Or maybe it’s quite the opposite–that same group of people gathered in that same stuffy room (I don’t know why the room has to be so unpleasant, but I’m just going to roll with that image now), silently staring at each other in puzzlement, absolutely unsure of how exactly to start.

Of course, I’m getting ahead of myself in these scenarios, skipping to the actual writing process before dealing with the compiling of information. The curriculum writing group probably begins by reviewing the province’s official statement on education–because of course government input would be important in this process. There may also be a review of the old curriculum, noting which parts are applicable to present contexts and which parts need to go. There may also be a great deal of compiling ideas from other sources–what do businesses think kids need to know? What about Indigenous elders? Parents? Exactly one other group that I can’t think of but probably has something to say about education?

After gathering all these ideas, the weary group returns to the stuffy room to sit down and discuss all their findings until they are blue in the face–or maybe just sit in an overwhelmed silence because wow that would be a lot to take in (especially when I’ve depicted the situation in such a way that suggests this process occurs over the course of a day, not the several years it most likely takes). Then, and only then, is the group able to start turning all those ideas into outcomes and indicators, and thus a baby curriculum is formed.

Okay, but how are curricula actually developed?

Now that I have actually read up on the topic of creating curricula, I have discovered that my ideas were not that far off–still inaccurate, but not to the extent I assumed they would be. The curriculum is of course heavily dictated at the government level. That really did not come as a surprise considering the highly political nature of curricula and schools themselves. What was surprising was how little involvement teachers actually had in developing the curriculum’s content. There are so many different hands involved in the formation of curricula, yet very few of those hands belong to educators. I am sure many of you reading this will already understand why this process doesn’t make a lot of sense, but for any of you who may be confused, let me use a different analogy:

Let’s say you are a doctor, and you have a patient with some sort of illness that I’m not going to specify because I’m not creative enough to do so. Now, it is your job to treat that patient, but despite your fancy degree and background in medical studies, you aren’t actually allowed to diagnose that patient. Instead, it’s the patient’s family, it’s the government, it’s the hospital’s board of directors (if they even have one of those), it’s the local businesses, it’s some random person on the street, who get to determine the diagnosis. It doesn’t matter that, besides the family, these people have had little to no involvement with this patient; they suddenly know what’s best for that patient, and it is your job to treat your patient according to what those “outsiders” say. That’s pretty messed up, isn’t it? What are the chances that you will be able to accurately and effectively treat that patient? Pretty slim, right?

Okay, I know that that analogy is pretty dramatic and not exactly accurate, but you do get the idea now, hopefully. I want to point out something here real quickly that you may have already noticed: in both of these situations, the one who will be most affected by the decisions–whether the patient in the analogy or the student in reality–has the least amount of say in the decision-making process. And what amount of say is that? Absolutely none. 

Let me repeat myself, for added dramatic effect: the one who will be most affected by the decisions has no say in the decision-making process.

This statement has two major implications that stand out to me: on the one hand, it implies that students do not know what it is that they need to know. On the other hand–and pay really close attention to this one–it implies that we, as a society, don’t care what students think. We erase their voices from the curriculum developing process because they don’t know what they need, but society supposedly does.

On the surface, this doesn’t seem like a big deal, but let’s dig a little deeper because this statement should terrify you–or at least make you a little nervous. You see, we don’t listen to student voices because more often than not, those voices will contradict what society is saying–and society doesn’t like that. Because when I say society, I don’t mean all of society; I really mean those in dominant positions, in positions of power within society. And what do we know about people in those positions?

They are largely part of the dominant structure that has both created and continues to maintain systems of oppression within society. 

Not only are students left out of the curriculum developing process, so too are other minorities–whether racial, gendered, abled, you name it. There are very few distinct voices involved in creating curriculum, and although it isn’t nearly as bad as it was in the days of olde, it still leaves a lot to be desired. After all, if it’s always the same voices talking, it’s always the same words being said, it’s always the same ideas being taught. If we don’t change those voices, we can’t change anything.

I’d like to leave you today with a quote from Audre Lorde: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”.

(this is where I drop the mic)


2 Comments Add yours

  1. sgajda says:

    Hi Rae,
    I always find your blog entertaining to read! I think we had a lot of similar ideas about how curriculum was developed before hand. Your doctors analogy is a good comparison, because although it is dramatic, sometimes you have to be to demonstrate how ludicrous a situation is. If students were involved in curriculum changes and development, I wonder how far those would get in the government voting/bill passing processes? I think our examination of the sex ed. curriculum in Ontario might give us an unfortunate example.



  2. jaimepierce says:

    The way curriculum is developed is super messed up, as you pointed out. Not only does it give the message to students that no one cares what they think, it also completely dismisses the value of their prior knowledge. It’s a very western, paternalistic view of knowledge and the way it is “distributed”.

    This is why it makes me hopeful to see the increased value being placed on Indigenous ways of knowing, as they value learning from all sources. Community, environment, self. If this was more common, the way that school passes on knowledge isn’t the be-all, end-all. It’s just one way of learning some kinds of knowledge. Not devalued, but not valued over all the rest.


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