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Monday, June 20, 2016

Do I Need a Homeschool Curriculum? And What is Curriculum, Anyway?

A couple of big questions that tend to come up in homeschool circles are: What curriculum do you use?  Do I need to buy a curriculum to get started.  I think there’s some confusion about what curriculum is and what purpose it serves, so let’s first talk about what curriculum is and then whether or not it is needed.

Let’s start with a simple dictionary definition (credit to


noun, plural curricula, curriculums (note: yes, both plural forms are acceptable Winking smile, so let’s not beat each other up over that!  I personally prefer “curricula,” so that’s what I use.)


the aggregate of courses of study given in a school, college, university,etc.:

The school is adding more science courses to its curriculum.


the regular or a particular course of study in a school, college, etc.

origin: 1625-35; < Latin: action of running, course of action, race, chariot,equivalent to curr (ere) to run + -i- -i- + -culum –cule2

Notice that curriculum is defined as an “aggregate of courses,” or “regular or a particular course of study.”  Also notice the use of “curriculum” in the example under definition #1---it is clear here that we are talking about an overall framework into which the individual courses fit.



4. (note:  the other definitions are for other parts of speech or for specific uses in the sciences)

a sum, mass, or assemblage of particulars; a total or gross amount: the aggregate of all past experience.

In other words, a curriculum is meant to be a sum of multiple parts, not the parts themselves.  It’s an overarching framework.

If you’ve ever visited your local school district’s website and looked at their curriculum description, you may have noticed that they typically do not list particular programs, books, or materials.  Rather, they describe what is meant to be accomplished (goals) overall and in particular grades.  They tend to use a lot of educational jargon to describe it, and I realize that those descriptions seem vague, but bear with me a bit here.  I think there’s something to be learned from those descriptions.

Traditionally, the “curriculum” for a school or college is not any one subject or particular course (e.g. Algebra 1, Saxon Algebra 1, or even all of Saxon Math), but an all encompassing course of study.  In other words, the whole course of study from beginning to end would be your curriculum. 

It might help to think about what the word “extracurricular” means.  It literally means “outside of the curriculum” or outside of the course of study. 

Now, in the homeschool world, the word “curriculum” seems to have taken on a different meaning.

It is often used to refer to this or that particular educational program or this or that particular product line,  or even an educational publisher.  So, to some Saxon Algebra 1 (program) is a curriculum.  To some, Saxon Math (line of products) is a curriculum.  And to some, Saxon (the publisher) is a curriculum.  There are also those who use a boxed curriculum that covers all the subjects (e.g. Seton Home Study or My Father’s World)---this last example would be very much like the traditional meaning of curriculum.

It can be a bit confusing when the question is asked, “what curriculum do you use?” 

Notice the difference here?  Typically a school will have a curriculum (general course of study) that they follow to decide upon what individual courses will be taught and what materials will be used to teach those courses.  And yet homeschoolers talk about buying or using curriculum---it’s a very different way of looking at it.

Now, I’m not saying that the way that homeschoolers use the word “curriculum” is wrong.

It may be different from what is traditionally meant by the word “curriculum,”  but there is some support for using the word in this way.

First, take a look at that second definition, again: the regular or a particular course of study in a school, college, etc.   A “course of study” could be interpreted as all encompassing, or it could be interpreted as being a single course.  It could be interpreted as a outline of what is to be studied, or it could be interpreted as a particular course as outlined by a particular published resource.  In fact, if you google “course of study,” you will get all kinds of different interpretations of what that phrase means.  I think you can argue for using curriculum to signify this or that particular course as outlined by a particular purchased product and I have used the word in this way.

Secondly, language evolves over time and this how it evolves---through how people use it.  If a word is commonly used in a new way, eventually the new definition or connotation sticks and thus the language changes.  There’s no way to stop this from happening and I don’t think we want to stop it from happening.  The word “curriculum” first came into use in the English language almost 400 years ago---might be time for some change.

But I’m going to suggest that we try to stick to the traditional definition of curriculum and here’s why…

For one thing, there are other words already in use for referring to particular subjects, programs, publishers, resources, etc.  One reason to use the right particular word is because it helps others to understand what you mean.  It simplifies the conversation as we both know that we are talking about the same thing.

But, perhaps more importantly, the words that we use also help to frame things in our own minds. 

Calling our math program a “curriculum” instead of a “program” can change its importance in our minds.  It draws importance to the resource we are using and draws our eyes and minds to it instead of what it is that we are using it to accomplish.

You’ve probably heard the expression, “don’t lose sight of the forest for all the trees,” meaning don’t focus so much on the particular parts that you lose sight of the whole.   While this or that particular part of what we choose to do in our homeschools has value, it isn’t the most valuable thing.  It’s just one little piece of the puzzle, one tool that we use to accomplish our goals. 

Focusing too much on the specifics can be harmful to us as educators.  It can lead to tunnel vision and it can lead us to lose focus on the bigger picture.

Language matters.  How we use words matters.

When we call a math program a “curriculum,” we risk elevating it to an importance it doesn’t deserve.  Even when we see it as part of our curriculum, we risk being afraid to cut it out or change it to something that works better for our child.  But if we can instead look at the math program as just that, a “math program,” we can see it as a tool that we have chosen to accomplish the goals for our overall curriculum. 

And when the math program doesn’t work to achieve those goals?  What if it ceases to fit our curriculum?

It’s much easier to replace it or tweak it.  It isn’t essential.  It is just a particular that we chose to use.  It’s not like cutting off a limb, but like buying a new shirt or even dying the shirt a different color.

In other words, when we give this math program a special name, we are giving it power over us that it doesn’t deserve.

Getting back to the original question:  Do I need a homeschool curriculum?

I think most probably homeschoolers do, unless they are unschooling (although, I think it could be argued that even unschoolers can have a curriculum, it just looks different).  But unless you are buying an all encompassing course of study, for most of us our curriculum is something we develop over time, rather than something that we buy.  It is the framework of goals we have for our children that we fit our purchased programs and resources into rather than the other way around. 

Our curriculum is a like a road map that keeps us on track and helps us to see the whole picture.

It will be influenced by our philosophy of education and by our personal goals for our students.  As such, each homeschool family’s curriculum will be a little different, even if they are using the same boxed program.

But you don’t have to necessarily buy a particular program to get there.  There are lots of different ways to meet your goals.

What do you think?  Do you think that the word “curriculum” is overused in the homeschool  world?  Or do you think that it is time for this word to evolve in its use?

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