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The curriculum debate: why it is important today (IBE Working Papers on Curriculum Issues N° 10)

This document provides a concise overview of some issues currently being considered in the debate on the school curriculum, such as inclusive education and the competency-based approach, and highlights the importance of the curriculum also as the product of a social agreement on national education priorities and the future society.
The current debates on the purpose and role of education are linked to social imaginaries which should be convening and achievable. At the core of these imaginaries is the construction of a more just society. Increasingly, education is viewed as a necessary condition for such visions to be achievable. However, this situation is concomitant with the spreading of citizens’ strong distrust in governments’ capacity to shape and implement long-term educational policies, and in the effectiveness of the education system to respond to contemporary challenges and problems. This skepticism is particularly evident in the questioning of political actors, media, families and international evaluators. The education system is criticized due to the considerable gaps that still exist in the universalization of essential skills and knowledge (one of the main functions of education) as well as the persistent inequalities in the social distribution of those foundational skills and knowledge. The quality of education is often questioned, especially as it is increasingly measured by the results of national and international assessments. The traditional organization of the teaching and learning process and content are increasingly perceived as outdated with regards to the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values (the competences) needed to live in an ever-changing world and a century that is filled with uncertainties, but also opportunities.


The dilemmas faced by societies to sustain and ensure the welfare of their populations strongly contrast with the response capacity of the education system in regards to the what, why and how of education. Thus, a significant dissociation is observed between the political and social demands of education and its provision. The functioning of the school system is increasingly questioned by international and national assessments that tend to take the place of the curriculum in the teaching and learning process (Savolainen & Halinen 2009) and ‘make judgements’ about its effectiveness.


One of the consequences of the tension between society, the political system and education is the ‘guilty victim’ logic that prevents or hinders policy solutions to problems in education. External actors are dissatisfied because they feel that the education system is affected by conservatism, corporatism and low responsibility for results. Internal actors take defensive positions. Their discourse tends to focus on the conditions and inputs required to ensure successful teaching and learning processes. The assumption that education can produce the expected results only within a society where certain conditions of social inclusion are met paves the way towards certain fatalism and leaves no room for advancing inclusive education proposals. The excessive focus on conditions and inputs is also often accompanied by rhetorical statements about education as a right and public good, which do not take into account the reality of educational institutions and classrooms.

In a context characterized by serious concerns and incessant claims, giving a convincing purpose to education and learning must become a priority in the effort to redefine the ultimate goals pursued by national societies. The education and learning processes that are to be promoted cannot only be envisaged in terms of prescriptions and norms without reference to the actual circumstances. It is also essential that the renewed significance given to education and learning raises the enthusiasm of teachers, families, and communities, and encourages students to engage in their learning.


Within this conceptual framework, the curriculum can be considered as a means to providing content and coherence to education policies. Instead of being viewed simply as a collection of study plans, syllabi and teaching subjects, the curriculum becomes the outcome of a process reflecting a political and societal agreement about the what, why and how of education for the desired society of the future. The consensus reflected in the curriculum can potentially provide a reference framework for putting learner welfare and development at the core of the education system. This framework can also help strengthen the links between education policy and curriculum reform, and provide a more effective response to the expectations and demands of youth and society.

This document does not intend to cover the wide array of pending challenges and complex issues that currently preoccupy education authorities, educators and society at large. Rather, it briefly addresses some issues to emphasize the importance of the curriculum and its relevance to supporting more democratic and inclusive social imaginaries. The first part addresses the debate on the purpose of education for societies involved in a process of rapid and constant transformation that increasingly generates tensions and uncertainties. The second part focuses on certain elements of the current discussions – often controversial – about the school curriculum. In the last section we share some concluding remarks.