Revisiting the ‘C’ word: Conceptualising curriculum as a practice of freedom

Year: 2018

Author: Hickey, Chris, Mooney, Amanda, Ovens, Alan, Quay, John, Trent, Brown

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

As editors of an international journal that uses ‘curriculum’ as an organising theme we are in ongoing discussion about its philosophical and practical application.  Whereas earlier understandings of curriculum tended to be read as a noun (‘the curriculum’) its current utility is subject to considerable contestation.  At its most knowable level, curriculum can be understood as the official document that articulates the content, knowledge and values of a particular discipline or course. Practically, the curriculum of the day is seen to outline the programme of study required to be completed in order to achieve espoused outcomes. Within this frame the curriculum can only ever be aspirational – espousing what is intended rather than what is actually delivered and received. Curriculum related descriptors such as hidden, null and implicit sharpen our attention to the slippage between what is intended and what is actually engaged at the complex interface of teaching and learning. Herein, conceptual distinctions are frequently drawn between the cascading layers of the intended, interpreted and enacted curriculum.
Adding further complexity to contemporary engagements with curriculum is a deepening recognition of its social, political, cultural and historical embeddedness. Here, contemporary manifestations of curriculum are seen to be rooted in neoliberal ideologies underpinned by meritocracy, individualism and self-determination.  Therein, the privileging of particular knowledge and values in the construction of curricula is never neutral or disinterested. By association, the HPE curriculum, like all other curricula, is seen to be heavily influenced by dominant ideologies of the day. Attempts to map or critique such influences have been undertaken from a range of philosophical standpoints. Whereas socio-critical lenses have sought to shed light on inherent issues of inequality and injustice, poststructural lenses have been drawn towards the concept of discourse to better understand the social and historical parameters of what is thinkable and knowable at any moment, and its provisionality.  
In this presentation we are drawn to Foucault’s ideas about ‘practices of freedom’ to discuss the contemporary shift from a ‘detail-dense’ approach to curriculum development towards more ‘student-centered’ approaches that seek to acknowledge the contextual and contingent nature of knowledge and learning.  Rather than be constrained by the contestations that pervade discussions of curriculum we argue that, ‘there are relations of power in every social field, this is because there is freedom everywhere’ (Foucault, 1994, p. 292). Here, curriculum becomes less of an object and more of a practice, neither owned nor guaranteed.