1 Defining Curriculum and the Role of Open Educational Resources

“The needs of the child and the demands of the curriculum are mediated by teachers.” –Dewey, 1902

Image contains a stack of books with an apple on top, a row of colored pencils, and letters A, B, and C blocks vertically stacked.


Part of the journey in curriculum is to apply one’s own experiences and insights. By sharing personal stories, my goal as an author is to share insights as well as explain why curriculum is not only a driving force in education, but also a guide in making learning a meaningful experience for students.

Essential Questions

  • What difference does curriculum make?
  • What is curriculum, and how is it defined?
  • What definition best aligns with the reader’s approach to teaching and learning?
  • What are the three major types of curriculums?
  • What are OER, and why are they important in education?
  • What are OER repositories and resource collections, and where are they located?

Curriculum Makes a Difference!

In my most recent role as a faculty member and instructor of graduate curriculum courses, students often tell me that they were not initially interested in curriculum, but as they found out more about it, and why it is of great importance in the teaching and learning process, I have captured their initial questions, with some answers from my own experiences and insights.

Insight 1.1

Good curriculum meets the needs of the student(s).

When I began my journey as a first-grade teacher with a class of 33 students in a semi-rural school, my principal handed me the basal reader I was to teach from, and it just happened to be the same text I was not able to read when I was in first grade! It had beautiful pictures of children from an unknown suburb, and that, along with a phonics reader, constituted the reading curriculum. I know now this was a “text-based” curriculum, and as a new teacher, I stuck to it like glue because it was my job to teach using these books. In retrospect, it was a good starting place, but no text or series of texts constitutes a complete curriculum.

At the time, it did occur to me that if I had trouble learning to read, other students might have difficulty, too! I learned when I was 18 years old and a freshman in college that I was very far-sighted, and as a result, suffered from severe eye strain that caused me to see nothing but a black page in my history book. A visit to the ophthalmologist confirmed that, and in his words, I had “terrible vision since the age of four! Near-sighted students were often discovered earlier because they squinted at books that were close to their faces and so it was obvious they could not see the print clearly. Far-sighted children do not squint because they can see the eye chart, but print is difficult to see. I did not realize that print had always been small and fuzzy until I got my first pair of very thick glasses, and voila! for the first time I saw text that was easy to read! I should add that I am glad to live in a time when vision can be corrected through the efforts of skilled doctors who can prescribe custom lenses for people like me.

Insight 1.2

Children often have important insights about what and how they should learn, and we as educators should listen to them.

Back to the first-grade class. I diligently followed all the directions in the teacher’s guide and spent

Dr. Button as a first-year teacher.
The author as a first-year teacher.

hours preparing for lessons, and most of the students did learn to read. Some did not, but I was at a loss to know why. Certainly, all of them did not need glasses like I did, but beyond that I was uncertain. I knew something was wrong, but just what I did not know, and beyond that, how was I to help the children who struggled when learning to read?

The next year I had a smaller class and fewer reading groups, but a different problem presented itself. One of my students, Mary, read the Dick and Jane book with such ease that I was intrigued. I asked her to stay after her reading group had gone back to their seats. I said, “Mary, you can read this book.”

“I know,” she said confidently.

“Would you like me to read more?” she continued.

“Sure,” I said.

“What would you like to read to me?”, and her answer shocked me.

“How about the directions to the teacher?”, I said.

Then she proceeded to read the directions flawlessly. I was awestruck and temporarily at a loss for words. I thought for a moment and said, “Since you know how to read the first-grade books, would you like to go to second grade?”

I did not know at this point if this was even an option, and we had no gifted and talented program at the school at that time. Mary considered this offer, then stated, “No. My best friend, Jana, is here in this class, so I want to stay. What if I read some other books that are harder?”

I agreed, and Mary did just that. She continued to be in the same small group with her friends, and at her seat, she read chapter books that captured her interest.

I did not know it then, but Mary changed the curriculum and incorporated her own personalized learning plan. My “aha” moment was when I realized that a single text was not a curriculum and that to meet the needs of one child, in particular, I had to broaden my view of curriculum.

Insight 1.3

Curriculums can change in response to the needs of students and their learning potential.

I realized that the books/curriculum are appropriate for some of the students, but not for the most capable readers and not for the struggling readers. I proceeded to get a master’s degree in Special Education because I wanted to know more about how to adapt a curriculum to meet the needs of all the students. I continued this pursuit as a teacher in a private education center since my husband had accepted a university position in a different city. I learned a great deal from the special education program and students with special needs, and for the first time, I taught students of all ages.

While working at the center, I discovered that any person could become disabled in a matter of minutes from an accident or catastrophic illness. A majority of the students were young men who had been involved in accidents. Dan, who was previously a university student, suffered a brain injury in a plane crash. As a result, he was unable to complete his engineering degree at a nearby university. Dan was in a coma for two weeks, and when he awoke, he had to re-learn basic skills such as tying his shoes, eating, speaking, etc. After several months, he came to the center to re-learn how to read and write. He did reasonably well, but I shared his sorrow in not being able to complete his university degree.

The goal shifted to Dan regaining literacy and numeracy skills that would help him become successful in an entry-level job. His life, as well as the curriculum he needed, had changed. I came to realize how critical the skills of reading, writing, listening, speaking, and viewing are for a person to function in this society. The curriculum at the center was very different than the one Dan had experienced at the university, but it was now what was appropriate for him in view of his knowledge and skills.

I wanted to find out more about how to effectively teach these skills, so my next step was to pursue a doctorate. I learned a great deal about different literacy curriculums, current research, and best practices in teaching. This new direction changed the course of my career and my life.

Dan made progress at the center, and left to pursue a job. I saw Dan a year later, and he told me that he had finally accepted the fact that he could not become an engineer, but he had a new goal.

“I want to become a surgeon,” he stated confidently.

I shared Dan’s vision with my supervisor at the center, who was a clinical psychologist. He said, “Sometimes dreams die slowly.”

Dan was ultimately able to work at an entry-level job which he did adapt to with moderate success.

Insight 1.4

Meeting the needs of students should be a critical factor in developing or choosing curriculum.

When my children started school, I was hired as a middle-school, special-education teacher. Again, I was given a book that was to “be the curriculum.” But, this time I was equipped with more knowledge. What I did not anticipate was how this knowledge would become a problem.

The required textbook was very “skills-based” and the next book in the same series the students had begun in elementary school. By the time they came to middle school, they never wanted to see any of the books in the series. Their response to the book ranged from apathy to downright hatred. As I grappled with how to solve this problem, the principal mentioned that he was looking for someone to take over the school newspaper since the GT (gifted and talented) teacher no longer wanted it. I volunteered to be the editor and announced to the students that they could be reporters for the Falcon Times. Their response to this new idea was immediate: they were excited! All of a sudden, they saw a purpose for reading and writing! Some students decided to do interviews, one wrote restaurant reviews, one an advice column, and several wanted to do surveys to find out what the most popular music in the school was. It was a new beginning because we had goals, objectives, resources, and a new curriculum! The newspaper was a hit, not only with my students but with the other students in the school.

For supporting resources, I brought in books related to their interests, and again, there was a purpose for reading and writing. I was now able to determine individual student’s reading levels and to personalize the curriculum. They were making excellent gains, but then tragedy struck.

One of the students, Cindy, suffered a cardiac arrest when she was at home. Her parents got her to the hospital in time, but she suffered from oxygen deprivation. When she came back to school, she could not speak, write, or walk. This active adolescent was now in a wheelchair. With help from a very skilled speech and language pathologist, physical therapist, and caring parents, Cindy began to talk, but she was echolalic, meaning that she repeated many words, “Dr. Button, Dr. Button, Dr. Button, I, I, I want, want, want, to, to, to, write,” she told me.

And write she did! She slowly and carefully wrote an account of how she “died and went up to heaven and the angels sent me back.” I was stunned. Cindy looked at me and said, “I, I, want, want, want this, this, in, in, the newspaper.”

I said I would think about it. I talked with her mother who said she thought it would be fine to publish Cindy’s story, so we did. Cindy was thrilled and had a renewed sense of confidence.

A little later, I got a call from a supervisor at the district office who stated, “Cindy has to use the required literacy program.”

I did not know what to say at first. After considering the program, which was very structured, and Cindy’s needs, I said it would not be appropriate since the program required students to repeat words after the teacher pronounced them, and Cindy was already echolalic. I was told that I should use it anyway. I knew the program would be a mistake, so I did not put Cindy in the program.  Cindy deserved better. She was making great progress in reading, writing, and speech and her motor skills were also improving. She just needed a curriculum that fit her needs.

The supervisor at the district office struck back by organizing a staffing for Cindy with the intention of moving Cindy to another school where they used the required program. At the conclusion of the staffing, Cindy’s parents said, “Cindy needs to stay in this school.”

They were pleased with her progress and insisted she not be moved. Cindy continued to make tremendous progress that year. Her reading and writing skills improved, and she loved school. She was able to walk without the wheelchair and at the end of the year, she was able to participate in field day!

I thought all was well until the principal came to me and said, “You won the battle, but you will not the war. This is your tenure year. The district office people will work to get you fired, so you need to move to another school.”

I was sad to leave that middle school, but I knew the principal was right. I transferred to another school that welcomed my ideas, but I had learned a lesson. It was the teacher equivalent of, “You can’t fight city hall.”

I saw Cindy four years later after she and her family moved to another town, and she was doing very well. She was about to graduate from high school and had plans for a career in childcare. With a supportive family and a positive attitude, she was able to meet her goal. Later, when I became a district administrator, I learned that the supervisor (who was longer employed by the district) had been a paid consultant for the textbook company that published the book they wanted me to use with Cindy. Somehow, it did not surprise me. Curriculum can be political and also suffer from a conflict of interest.

Insight 1.5

Good curriculum is more than a single text or series.

Dr. Button as a more experienced teacher.
The author as an elementary school teacher.

After leaving the middle school, I was happy to be teaching at an elementary school with site-based management because teachers had a say in the curriculum. In fact, in many schools, each teacher could decide what curriculum to teach, what books to use, and what educational philosophy to have! This worked well for me because I initiated another student newspaper, and I used a variety of other books and instructional resources with the students. Having all the teachers decide what curriculum (or text) to use sounded like a great idea, but there were problems. Some kindergartens were all about play and socialization, so the students had few reading skills when they went to first grade. Other kindergartens were focused on academics, and they learned to read before first grade. This presented a problem for students who changed schools during the year. There was a lot of academic freedom, but very little coordination across grade levels, and articulation between grade levels were spotty at best.

Some of the parents in the community were unhappy about the children’s progress and the absence of an organized curriculum, so the parents began a private school which filled up quickly. The disappointment with site-based management was not confined to our community, and the unrest spread to other schools, districts, and states. In response, the standards movement gained much traction because schools needed to have coordinated and articulated learning plans for the students. In my state, the legislature began by asking districts to develop their own standards.

But where to start? This was a flashpoint since reading practices and philosophies varied greatly. I should add that mathematics teachers stayed above the fray in all of this because the scope and sequence for teaching mathematics are dependent upon students having the prerequisite skills for the next courses, e.g., general math, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, math analysis, etc., and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) had already developed standards for what students needed to know and be able to do in all the grades and courses. If students possessed the prerequisite skills for the next course of study, they will be successful in both that course and ultimately in college courses in science, technology, engineering, and math—and the STEM-related careers.

Most disciplines, particularly reading, writing, and social studies, did not have a scope and sequence that was as clearly defined as mathematics because of the various views about what students should know and be able to do, and when. This view required that teachers, administrators, and the community look beyond individual textbooks. It was a good step because it had the potential to provide students with a learning plan that was not just text-based. Certainly, textbooks can be a part of the curriculum, but a comprehensive curriculum includes more such as multi-media resources, problem-based activities, differentiated instruction, and a host of other possibilities to make learning more engaging and meaningful. For those teachers who saw curriculum only as a text (and I was one of those teachers early on), this meant that a newer, broader definition of curriculum was necessary.

Conclusions from Insights

The insights into curriculum paint a picture of the difference curriculum makes while also revealing what curriculum should be: more than a single text or series that can include organically developed teaching and learning activities like a school newspaper, problem solving activities that are based on standards. A curriculum like this can positively impact instruction and learning in classroom.

To create a deeper understanding of what curriculum is, let us take a look at what the definitions of curriculum are, why the foundations of curriculum are important, and how this affects education today.

Definitions of Curriculum

From Nyagah, G. Curriculum Studies, p. 36.

The term ‘curriculum’ originated from the Greek word “curere” meaning to “run a course.” Therefore, it represents a course of subjects covered by learners in their race towards a certain educational goal or target. Curriculum definitions have developed along a continuum from narrow to broad ones. There are also a myriad of curriculum definitions by different scholars.

Narrow definitions see curriculum as a plan, program, course of study, or a package that can bring about learning. Following are some definitions from this narrow perspective:

  • a course of study;
  • a plan for teaching and instruction;
  • a blueprint for instruction (Pratt, 1994).

Broad definitions on the other hand see curriculum as a process. This  includes the thinking behind coming up with a ‘package’ and the continuous effort of making it serve the needs of society. It includes values, attitudes, and experiences of students inside and outside the school. Elements/components of a curriculum: A curriculum generally is expected to consist of the following elements:

  • aims, goals, and objectives;
  • subject content/learning experiences;
  • methods/strategies of delivery/learning activities;
  • organization of learning experiences.

Curriculum may refer to the range of courses from which students choose,  the subject areas, or  specific learning programs that include teaching, learning, and assessments for a course of study.

Curriculum may also  described as “curriculum guides” by teachers and administrators, and the “work plans.” (English, 2000). In the 21st century, the written curriculums in most states in the U.S. are based on standards, either common core, or those developed by individual states. According to Leslie Owen Wilson (2013) there are many definitions of curriculum, including:

  • that which is taught in schools;
  • a set of subjects;
  • content;
  • a program of studies;
  • a set of materials;
  • a sequence of courses;
  • a set of performance objectives;
  • a course of study;
  • everything that goes on within the school, including extra-class activities, guidance, and interpersonal relationships;
  • everything that is planned by school personnel;
  • a series of experiences undergone by learners in a school;
  • that which an individual learner experiences as a result of schooling.

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 specialized, specific part of the curriculum.

After reflecting on the different definitions of curriculums, pause and define curriculum in your own words. This is an important step in determining what you value, and what you will emphasize in the journey as an educator.

Open Educational Resources

A relatively new and exciting curriculum innovation is Open Educational Resources (OER). In an era of costly textbooks on top of loans for tuition, OER offer an excellent resource for teachers and students who want a variety of current and engaging course content that is also free. The following video describes what OER are, where they are located, and how they can be incorporated into classes at all levels.

The preceding video by Laura Rachfalski is licensed with Creative Commons license: Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0

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Interactive Learning Activity (ILA) 1

Use the ILA Responses Group in the Hypothesis annotation tool to discuss what the advantages might be in incorporating OER as a part of the regular or special needs classroom. Any disadvantages?

NOTE: The annotation tool may be accessed from the top, right-hand sidebar of the eText.


Curriculum does make a difference in the lives of teachers and students because it guides what learning takes place in the classroom, and so it impacts the lives of those it touches. As educators, we are obligated to mediate the needs of the student with the demands of the curriculum, as Dewey stated. It is important to explore the definitions of curriculum to gain insight into what curriculum is and why a personal definition is important in the individual’s approach to teaching and learning.

  • What difference does curriculum make?
  • What is curriculum, and how is it defined?
  • What definition best aligns with the reader’s approach to teaching and learning?
  • What are OER, and why are they important in education?
  • What are OER repositories and resource collections, and where are they located?

Just as the history of curriculum has shaped how it is defined, by applying this diverse knowledge base, educators will be able to create and articulate a congruent personal philosophy of teaching and learning – one that will drive future personal and professional choices.


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Curriculum Essentials: A Journey by Linda J. Button, Ed.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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