I’ve been co-teaching on a curriculum design course these last two weeks, and the question has inevitably come up as to what’s the difference between a curriculum and a syllabus. The A-Z has this to say:
The terms curriculum and syllabus are often used interchangeably, but it is useful to distinguish between them. The curriculum is concerned with beliefs, values and theory (all of which may be captured in some kind of “mission statement”). The syllabus represents the way these beliefs, values and theories are realised in terms of a step-by-step instructional programme. The curriculum is, therefore, both larger than the syllabus, and more general.
The distinction seems to be born out in the corpus data. A quick check of their respective collocations shows that (in US English) syllabus very often collocates with course, whereas curriculum hardly ever does. On the other hand, curriculum collocates with school much more than syllabus does. In British English, syllabus is often associated with particular subjects (language, mathematics, sciences) whereas curriculum collocates with national, core … and hidden (more on that one later).
However, this distinction between the general and the specific, and between principles and practice, is not one that all writers on the subject adhere to.
David Nunan, for example, argues that the curriculum is the totality of what actually happens in an educational setting:
Traditionally “curriculum” is taken to refer to a statement or statements of intent – the “what should be” of a course of study. In this work a rather different perspective is taken. The curriculum is seen in terms of what teachers actually do; that is, in terms of “what is”, rather than “what should be.” (1988, p. 1)
According to this view, the curriculum is instantiated in classroom practice, whether or not this practice actually reflects the (often lofty) intentions of program designers and materials writers. Douglas Barnes (1976) makes a similar point, with reference to mainstream education:
When people talk about ‘the school curriculum’ they often mean ‘what teachers plan in advance for their pupils to learn’. But a curriculum made only of teachers’ intentions would be an insubstantial thing from which nobody would learn much. To become meaningful a curriculum has to be enacted by pupils as well as teachers … A curriculum as soon as it becomes more than intentions is embodied in the communicative life of an institution .. In this sense curriculum is a form of communication. (p. 14).
Applebee (1996) extends this line of thought to argue that we need to re-construe the concept of curriculum, not as disembodied ‘knowledge-out-of-context’, but as ‘knowledge-in-action': “A curriculum provides domains for conversation, and the conversations that take place within those domains are the primary means of teaching and learning” (p. 37). He adds: “If curriculum is approached in terms of the significant conversations into which students enter… the emphasis form the beginning will be on knowledge-in-action”. (p. 118). This echoes Neil Mercer’s (1995) notion of teaching and learning as being a ‘long conversation’, as well as being a key tenet of Dogme philosophy, i.e. that language teaching should be ‘conversation-driven’.
Nevertheless, the notion persists that a curriculum articulates an institution’s principles and goals, made operational through syllabuses, lesson plans, etc. At this point you may be wondering what the curriculum of your own school or college is. Where is it written down? Is there a ‘mission statement’? Who wrote it? Who has access to it? And, if there isn’t one, shouldn’t there be?
Of course, it is often the case that the curriculum is implicit. In the case of public-sector schools, the curriculum of the school may simply be that of the education ministry itself, and it will be embodied in such things as acts of parliament, policy statements, and official bulletins. These in turn will determine the nature of public examinations and the way materials, such as coursebooks, are specified and prescribed.
In fact, examinations and officially approved coursebooks offer insights as to the real values that the curriculum designers espouse, irrespective of how these are actually articulated. This ‘hidden curriculum’ can often be inferred by “reading between the lines”. Thus the blurb on a coursebook – or the publicity for a language school – might profess a communicative methodology, but at the same time the small print will extol its ‘step-by-step grammatical syllabus’. Likewise, a school’s website might promote its internationalist and globalised values while elsewhere boasting that it employs only native-speaker teachers. The very fact that a school uses coursebooks at all might suggest that it subscribes to a reproductive, ‘delivery model’ of education, rather than a critical or transformative one. More insidiously, an institution may claim to be commited to educational excellence, but in reality be nothing more than a lucrative exam prep factory.
A useful exercise might be to ask your colleagues: What is our curriculum? That is to say, what is it that we value, and to what extent are our practices consistent with these values?
Applebee, A. 1996. Curriculum as Conversation: Transforming Traditions of Teaching and Learning. University of Chicago Press.
Barnes, D. 1976. From Communication to Curriculum. Penguin.
Mercer, N. 1995. The Guided Construction of Knowledge: Talk amongst teachers and learners. Multilingual Matters.
Nunan, D. 1988. The Learner-Centred Curriculum. Cambridge University Press.