Working Paper

Approaches to specifying curriculum areas of learning



Priestley M (2017) Approaches to specifying curriculum areas of learning.

The question of how to frame a national curriculum is one that has preoccupied many governments in recent years. A key issue lies in the nature of curricular specification – of knowledge/content, skills/competencies and methodology/pedagogy. This has several dimensions, for example: the extent to which such issues should be specified by government or left to professional judgment at a local level (i.e. the level of detail in specification); and whether regulation should primarily rest at the level of input (e.g. through specification of content to be taught) or at the level of output (e.g. through evaluation of student achievement as measured against learning outcomes). These are thorny questions, which have elicited a great deal of debate (and often little agreement). Moreover, an examination of recent curricular history illustrates that policy has been subject to global trends, with changes in emphasis being evident over time. Thus, for example, the original National Curriculum for England and Wales (1990) was framed as hundreds of detailed statements of subject content, set out in hierarchically arrayed levels – in other words, a highly prescriptive form of input regulation (often termed a teacher-proof curriculum). Subsequent development in the 1990s (for example New Zealand Curriculum Framework (1993), or the 5-14 Curriculum in Scotland (1992) sought to offer a less prescriptive curriculum (in terms of content), but maintained the emphasis on curricular objectives set out in hierarchical levels. These statements of outcome – or learning outcomes as they increasingly came to be known – shifted the balance to some extent from input to output regulation (see: Nieveen & Kuiper, 2012; Leat, Livingston and Priestley, 2013), but maintained a fairly detailed prescription of content, expressed as outcomes (Kelly, 2004). Since the turn of the millennium, we have witnessed the development of yet more generic curricula (see: Priestley & Biesta, 2013), which have placed a renewed emphasis on local teacher autonomy, and which have been accused of downgrading knowledge and privileging the development of what are termed 21st Century Skills (e.g. see: Yates &Young, 2010; Young & Muller, 2010; Priestley & Sinnema, 2014). These curricula, which include Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (2004) and the revised New Zealand Curriculum Framework (2007), have further developed the shift from input to output regulation; their learning outcomes only lightly specify content, but have been used as the basis for student assessment, and for the evaluation of school performance through the collation and comparison of data relating to student achievement.

curriculum; policy; learning outcomes

PublisherUniversity of Stirling/Welsh Government

People (1)


Professor Mark Priestley

Professor Mark Priestley

Professor, Education