The Difference between Curriculum and Pedagogy

Education is rife with “eduspeak”: abbreviations, terminology, acronyms, and complicated phraseology. Like many other professions, we love our common vocabulary, but it can be confusing for the layperson.

I'd like to “differentiate” (a popular educational term I wrote about in a previous blog) between two important and common terms we use: curriculum and pedagogy.


Curriculum = Content

The “curriculum” is the body of skills and knowledge to which we subscribe in order to educate our students. Curriculum is the “what” we teach and hopefully what our students learn. There are many curricula taught in different schools. In the US, for example, each state (and in some cases each school) decides on learning outcomes for each grade level. Curricula are then designed to meet them. Countries such as England and France have national curricula determined by the government for all schools.

For example, if we want young people to know about the history of Portugal, that is a general learning outcome. We would design a curriculum to enable children to understand the parts of history we deem appropriate and important. This includes day and year plans, and considerable detail about which items students will learn. It is, therefore, entirely possible for two schools to reach broad outcomes in many ways. One school might teach the economics of the times to illustrate how industry, stock markets, and currency fluctuations affected the lives of people. Another might look at the influential people of those periods–often politicians or military leaders–who changed the course of history. Both schools are teaching Portuguese history, but with different content, materials, and approaches.

Who Decides on Curriculum?

Some schools allow teachers to make the decisions about the curriculum they teach, giving each teacher the autonomy to decide which artifacts, knowledge, and skills to employ (more on this in “pedagogy," below). A school with a highly articulated curriculum like Core Knowledge identifies both the learning outcomes and the topics to be covered, and connects them thematically by grade level.

For example, music and art might contain themes similar to what is being taught in language arts and history. This approach leads to congruence and consistency at each grade level. It does not mandate how to teach these skills and knowledge, but it does articulate the canon of knowledge and the resources used to impart it.

Pedagogy = Process

Pedagogy is the “how” of teaching. It is the means by which teachers impart knowledge and skills. It is the way teachers organize and structure student learning, often referred to as the teaching method. It is more process than content.

For example, pedagogical styles include rote learning, drill and practice, group work, project-based learning, inquiry, play-based, constructivism, etc. One very popular method is called the Socratic Method. This method  makes reference to the great philosopher Socrates, whose continual questioning, designed to draw out information and opinions from students, has been universally endorsed for more than two thousand years. Almost all teachers employ this method, although there are many ways to utilize it.

Some have attempted to put pedagogical approaches in two camps: “teacher-centered” and “student-centered.” While this is a somewhat artificial separation, these terms are used frequently. Some schools say that they take a “student-centered approach,” as if to suggest it is superior to a “teacher-centered” one. But we have to remember that even Socrates was a master teacher directing the learning processes and curriculum to skillfully extract what each of his disciples knew. In reality, in an effective teaching environment, it is difficult to be solely one or the other.

I hope this helps with understanding these two common educational terms.

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