The Issue At Hand: Unpacking the Argument For and Against Subject-Centered Curriculum
What’s the best way to structure a curriculum? The debate rages on, but many in the world of education are learning towards the side of subject-centered curriculum. On the other hand, just as many others vehemently oppose the idea. But why? Why are some in favor and some against? What’s going on?
In the subject-centered curriculum, the curriculum is divided into subject areas, and there is little flexibility for cross-curricula activity. Subjects are siloed. Emphasis is placed on acquisition, memorization, and knowledge of each specific content area. Within this curriculum structure, strong emphasis is placed on instruction, teacher-to-student explanation, and direct strategies. Direct strategies include lectures, questions, and answers, as well as teacher–student discussions. These curricula often encourage memorization and repetitive practice of facts and ideas. Traditionally, students had little choice about what they studied under these curricula. Now students are given some degree of freedom in choosing elective subjects. They are also given more independence to choose from among key topics for personal project work.
Curricula organized around a given subject area (for example, World War II) will look at the facts, ideas, and skills of that subject area. Learning activities are then planned around acquisition and memorization of these facts, ideas, and skills. Teaching methods usually include oral discussions and explanations, lectures, and questions.
An example of a subject-centered curriculum is the spiral curriculum. The spiral curriculum is organized around the material to be taught, with less emphasis on the discipline structure itself, and more emphasis on the concepts and ideas. It is based around the structure of knowledge, rather than focusing on the detailed information itself.
A spiral curriculum takes emphasis away from learning specific topics or pieces of information within a certain time limit. Instead, it aims to expose students to a wide variety of ideas over and over again. A spiral curriculum, by moving in a circular pattern from topic to topic, aims to catch students when they first become ready to comprehend a concept. At the same time, a spiral curriculum works to continuously reinforce the fundamentals of this concept, so as to ingrain these fundamentals in the students’ knowledge base, and to prevent losing students who aren’t ready for the new lesson. With this technique, students repeat working on the same skill, but concepts gradually increase in difficulty. This is referred to as spiraling. What it means in practice is that each of the core topics of a particular subject is emphasized throughout the school year and repeated in all of the higher years, but with added complexities. Instead of covering the skill of “division” in the first semester of a math class, for example, simple division may be seen in the first semester, and again in the second semester, but with added double figures.
Subject-Centering: The Pros
Despite a recent trend to criticize subject-centered curricula, many educators defend the structure, arguing that dividing such a wide body of knowledge into subjects is the only logical and clear method of making comprehension and acquisition of knowledge possible. They argue that the approach has stood the test of time and that, quite simply, the subjects cannot be studied all at once. Ordering and segmenting the vast amount of information that must be taught allows it to be digested with clarity.
With regard to interdisciplinary skills, supporters might suggest using the structure of subject-centered curricula but splitting the topics into broader or combined disciplines. Students might be asked, for example, to study Darwinism and the phenomenon of cell mutation. Rather than studying the science of cell mutation and reproduction in isolation, the class first addresses the society in which Charles Darwin lived, then moves on to the theory of evolution, and then what this science is based on. This might be followed by a discussion of how society was affected by Darwin’s theories.
Subject-Centering: The Cons
Subject-centered curricula tend to be closed to cross-discipline knowledge and skills if they are not managed correctly. Many argue that the skills that bridge disciplines are those that become central in the lives and futures of the students. Unless you become a pure mathematician, for example, the ability to lead a team or to intervene in situations of conflict may be much more crucial than deeply theoretical knowledge of complex equations. Critics also argue that education should emphasize relationships among science, technology, sociology, and culture. Without this, real learning does not take place. Many feel that the subject-centered curriculum does not require students to develop critical or creative thinking or foster an understanding of societal issues, placing emphasis instead on the memorization and regurgitating of facts and ideas.
So, what do you think? Does subject-centered curriculum sound like an approach that would work well in your classroom, with your students? If you’re still undecided, read on in our other articles discussing what you need to know about the basics of curriculum, and what student-centered curricula have to offer.