Curriculum content vs. methodology: An autonomous or symbiotic relationship? A Reader Response by Deborah Kealey

Curriculum content vs. methodology: An autonomous or symbiotic relationship?  A Reader Response by Deborah Kealey

I was a child who loved everything about school. I was fortunate enough to navigate through elementary school with ease. I valued high marks and being involved in school activities. As I progressed through high school the challenges I faced were not academic but normal social challenges young adults face. Throughout these fifteen years of schooling I never once considered, let alone questioned, what I was learning, nor how accurate it was. I was satisfied with achieving good grades and developing lasting friendships. It was not until I was in my second year of university that I encountered a professor who challenged me to question what I was reading and how I interpreted the information – what lens was I wearing? Even so, I was content to carry on in other courses being oblivious to any grand narratives or other biases. It was not until I had the opportunity to travel and experience for myself contrasting cultures and personal bias that the idea of questioning norms really began to permeate my being. The idea of questioning and evaluating information became part of my everyday self. When I started teaching, students sat in front of me willing to accept whatever goods I had for sale, no questions asked. I realized that part of my responsibility as their teacher was to figure out how to change years of passive education, into students who challenge and learn through inquiry. I turned to the curriculum for the answers. What I did not know at the time is that curriculum was not only the solution, but it was also part of the problem.

What forms curriculum, the content or the methodology? Much of history has focussed its attention to the “what” of curriculum and not until the last century has the “how” been considered an important factor (Egan, 2003). The ‘what’ or content is specific and concrete – we determine what is important and that is what students learn. The ‘how’ or methodology provides a variety of routes to ensure learning occurs in a meaningful and lasting way. Is one more important than the other? Can we have one without the other?

Egan begins with Cicero and the origin of the word curriculum. He explains well the meaning and context of the word however he does not explore the implementation of curriculum. I suggest that because it was considered a “course” or “container” and no connection to actual learning was made or recognized at this point, as “questions of method were largely ignored, and questions about the organization of content were still considered unimportant”(Egan, p.11). I propose that methodology did exist, but was not recognized in educational circles. The concept of methodology infers how the learning will occur. Ideally, a teacher would use a method that would provide the student with an engagement in the lesson that leads to an understanding and connection to the knowledge learned, much like today’s students learning must possess value, purpose and meaning. The early teaching methods were done through the spoken word. The grand narratives that have survived through centuries are just that, narratives (fairy tales, religious teachings, cultural traditions etc…) with value, purpose and meaning. They provide a context for learning within a ‘story’ that those who hear it can relate to, discuss and derive meaning for them and for society. Consider many of the aboriginal peoples and the value they place on oral storytelling as a major focus of their culture and education. The oral history of a people is a type of methodology that encapsulates knowledge, and can be identified by the people/students as specific to their lives and learning. Stories are an enduring required curriculum for these cultures. These narratives do not have a ‘container’ from which they are learned. They rely on the methodology for the transmission of knowledge as opposed to a duration or syllabus of content.

What is considered by educators and theorists alike is the idea of method as an ‘ism’. Historically, the idea of method emerged, Doll tells us, from the work of logician Ramus. His work took up the concept of method in a more formal and rigid manner. The idea of a structured method became even more popular during industrial era and can be seen in educational textbooks.

“Textbooks, an inheritance of this legacy, by their very design and presentation are organized to provide us with a short-cut to knowing. Knowledge memorized is substituted for the act of knowing” (Doll, pp.86-87)

The idea of standard knowledge as a method still focuses on the content. Dewey criticizes this idea of method as the content is condensed and prioritized but no credence was given to the way in which it was acquired or how it relates to the students individual experience (Doll, 2006).

It was not until the eighteenth century, when researchers like Pinel focussed on how to teach deaf mutes to communicate. It was at this time that the methodology of teaching began to be recognized in the mainstream (Egan, 2003). Egan (2003) identifies

“how concern with methodology in education moves slowly at first then with accumulating speed, from an interest confined to those dealing with extreme cases to the mainstream of normal schooling” (p.12).

The main precipitous of this shift is the influence of Rousseau and his philosophy that children are naturally good, thus the child if given choice will choose the good and as such the “what or content of curriculum is less crucial for curriculum designers”(Egan, p.13). The focus has shifted from the ‘container’, to the learner. The student is now considered in the process, which is translated through the consideration of teaching methodology.

The idea that the student plays a role in curriculum continues to expand with the influence of Dewey on education. Here “the emphasis on the question “how” is distinct from what, led to focusing on the individual learner as an important variable” (Egan, 2003). Dewey emphasized that a students’ ability, background, learning style all impact on what they can learn – but the ‘how’ they learn it is priority to the content (Doll, 2006; Egan, 2003). With the prioritizing of methodology an expansion of the initial concept of curriculum occurs and opens to other areas of study, particularly those fields that study the person (child development, brain activity, communication, spirituality etc…) (Egan, 2003). The idea of curriculum is no longer static, but interpretive and pliable.

This modern curriculum also recognizes the ideas of curriculum within other areas outside of the education system. The consideration of experiential learning and as an extension, cultural knowledge that has reaffirmed the idea that methodology has existed although in a limited and unrecognized manner. Curriculum considers people’s personal experiences/histories. It is within these cultural and personal curriculum’s that one can identify the significance of learning needing to be meaningful to the student. Weenie (2008) suggests that the way we think of curriculum is rooted in our own life experiences, “my notion of curriculum has evolved within the realm of my lived experiences and those of my students” (pp. 545). It is our experiences both in life and in school that provide for us an inner curriculum and voice that helps filter, accept and reject additional knowledge. Aoki identifies this as “the distinction between ‘curriculum-as-plan/curriculum-as-live(d)” (quoted in Weenie, 2008, p.549). When the personal curriculum is related to the educational curriculum strong ties intertwine so that knowledge begins to be woven. Similar to what Chambers refers to as metissage of stories and culture, curriculum as an intertwining of experiences, methodologies and content is the ultimate goal.

Governments have implemented revised curricula incorporating both specific content and methodology which can be seen in Ontario through the use of standardized curricula (& testing); required community service hours; expanded experiential learning programs and professional development in the area of instruction, but to what end? Are the varied identities of curricula being gathered, woven and intertwined to form a unique, varied and authentic metissage? Are we making our students aware of the various curriculums within their school/community? Can a balance between the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ be achieved? Can we leave this question up to policy makers? Educators? Curricular theorists?

Egan (2003) highlights the reality that our society is changing at such a rapid rate that content-based education cannot fulfill the demands of society in the future. This has led to a shift from “students not to learn specific things so much as how to learn” (p.14). Clearly, the importance is again placed not on the ‘what’, but on the how of curriculum theory. Methodology is important because it can determine what knowledge/understanding is gained – which is not what is always prescribed by the documents (Den Heyer, 2011). I found this out when I went looking for answers in the curriculum documents at the beginning of my teaching career. I scoured the documents, made copious notes and lesson plans filled with curriculum knowledge. I planned out my classes, units and semester to ensure all content would be covered. I composed assessments to validate the curriculum. What I discovered was that the students were missing from the equation. When I included them in the planning and preparation process the more I realized how much of the content needed to be questioned. And with students in mind the methodology took the forefront of all planning, preparation, assessment and evaluation. In order to plan ‘what’ students need to learn I had to engage in the process of ‘how’ they should learn/experience it.


Den Heyer, K., & Abbott, L. (2011). Reverberating echoes: Challenging teacher candidates to tell and learn from entwined narrations of canadian history. Curriculum inquiry, 41(5), 612-635. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-873X.2011.00567.x

Doll,W. (2006). Mthod and its culture: An historical approach. Complicity: An international journal of complexity and education, 3(1), 85-89.

Egan, K. (2003). What is curriculum?. Journal of the canadian association for curriculum studies, 1(1), 9-16.

O’Sullivan, B. (1999). Global change and educational reform in ontario and canada. Canadian journal of education, 24(3), 311-325.

Weenie, A. (2008). Curricular theorizing from the periphery. Curriculum Inquiry, 38(5), 545-557. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-873X.2008.00435.x