Curriculum Development | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Curriculum Development

Curriculum development in Canada has gone from teaching survival skills, both practical and cultural, to emphasizing self-fulfillment and standards-based achievements. This evolution mirrors that which has occurred in other developed countries, namely in Europe.

Curriculum development in Canada has gone from teaching survival skills, both practical and cultural, to emphasizing self-fulfillment and standards-based achievements. This evolution mirrors that which has occurred in other developed countries, namely in Europe.

The term curriculum comes from the Latin currere, which means to run or proceed and refers to the experiences that shape children as they grow to mature adults. In modern times, curriculum includes statements of desired pupil outcomes (currently referred to as “standards”), descriptions of materials, and the planned sequence that will be used to help students attain specified educational objectives. Curricula are embodied in official documents (typically curriculum "guidelines" for teachers) and made mandatory by provincial and territorial ministries of education.

The primary focus of a curriculum is on what content should be taught and when it should be taught during the school or academic year. Teachers have traditionally possessed a considerable amount of discretion in deciding how this should be done. Learning objectives — not the instructional approaches — were mandated by provinces and territories. In practice, however, there has been no clear distinction between curriculum content and pedagogy since the manner in which a topic is taught often determines what is taught. For this reason, and for others, there is need to distinguish the official or planned curriculum — the formally approved program of study — from the de facto or lived (sometimes called hidden) curriculum — the norms, values, and beliefs that are often learned within classrooms and the broader social environment.

Attempts to change education by revising its mandated curriculum have often failed. This is likely due to the fact that touted curricular innovations are not always implemented in classrooms in an extensive or effective manner that would sustain such improvement. Because of a widespread reliance on textbooks as a basic teaching resource, textbooks often constitute the de facto content of the curriculum. In such cases, publishers hold a powerful role in curriculum development and implementation.


The history of Canadian curriculum development has been largely a battle among ideological camps for control over, or for greater space within, the curriculum. The direction and scope of curriculum change at any given time is often a fair reflection of which of the competing interests within mainstream educational circles has captured the educational agenda. These and outside advocacy groups — be they cultural, linguistic, intellectual, economic, political and religious — have noticeable impact on new direction.

The term "curriculum" seems to have been rarely used in Canada before Confederation. Nevertheless, the Jesuit term Ratio Studiorum ("plan of studies") was introduced in New France in the 1630s. Although the Ratio Studiorum was created for secondary education in Europe, New France Jesuits put it forth at the elementary level since Aboriginal communities had long maintained oral traditions but not texts — a key Jesuit focus was on literacy. Early French-Canadian education was expected to "render children good servants of the King ... and of God." Later, in Nova Scotia and Upper Canada, anglophone education took up similar goals, which were expressed in the teaching of Judeo-Christian morality and British patriotism. Not surprisingly, when education came under provincial jurisdiction after Confederation, the curriculum was based on common conservative social values. As such, schooling served, and continues to serve, a cultural imperative: to maintain or enhance the distinctive identities of selected groups in the Canadian mosaic. Some have argued that, given Canada’s geographic expanse, the autonomy of provincial curriculum development is essential.


Prior to 1840, schooling in Canada was an informal and intermittent experience not yet separated from work. It took place in a parent- and church-controlled "system" aimed at teaching basic literacy and religious precepts. In New France, a formal curriculum was available to only an elite minority who were trained for religious and other privileged vocations — a system similar to our European counterparts’ of the time. Following the British Conquest in 1759–60, church-controlled schooling in Québec was a primary agent of cultural survival and remained so until 1964, serving to maintain the French language and the Catholic religion.

It is important to note that our notions of schooling and the general organization of schools is largely a result of the Prussian model that was particularly influential after the French Revolution. This system required that all children between the ages of 5 and 13 years attend schools. Children were taught a national curriculum consisting of reading, writing and arithmetic, as well as ethics, discipline and obedience. This model was very successful — boasting an average literacy level of approximately 85 per cent by the later part of the 18th century — and was quickly adopted across much of Europe and was later emulated in North America and Japan.

School Promoters

In anglophone Canada, cultural survival was linked to fears of Americanization and to concerns raised with the arrival of the "famine Irish" and other dispossessed immigrants in the 1840s. School promoters such as Egerton Ryerson, the founding father of Canadian curriculum development, promoted secular reforms in Upper Canada that were designed to keep power from any one church. He saw state-controlled schooling as the primary means of assimilating "alien" elements and led School Acts that established libraries in every school, a centralized text book press (which used Canadian authors), professional development conventions for teachers, and land grants for universities — one of which bears his name in downtown Toronto.

Over the next half-century, school promoters elsewhere in Canada followed Ryerson's lead. They established administrative structures that enabled them to sort children into classes and grades, create a trained and hierarchically organized teaching force, and to devise a common curriculum for their province. This curriculum was implemented through uniform textbooks and was policed through inspection and examinations in a system that aspired to have all children taught to believe, to think and to behave in a similar way (see History of Education).

For several decades after the turn of the 20th century, this system produced a homogeneous curriculum across anglophone Canada. Curriculum change occurred by accretion during a period of urbanization and industrialization as traditional education was called into question in all Western nations. In Canada, cautious adaptation took the form of the "New Education" whereby such innovations as kindergarten, manual training, domestic science (home economics), agriculture and "nature study," temperance and health education, physical education and commercial education were introduced with varied success. Nevertheless, the schools were given credit for a sharp decline in illiteracy by the 1920s — a metric that continues to serve as a benchmark of school success. Schools helped assimilate huge numbers of non-English-speaking "new Canadians" who arrived in eastern cities and the Prairies. Anglo-Saxon values infused the curriculum while bilingual education in all "second languages," including French, was virtually eliminated.


During the interwar years, further progressive (mainly American) ideas were adopted — including new notions of standardized testing, mental health, and administrative structures based on business management models — while the cultural content of the anglophone curriculum remained British. Postwar affluence, the baby boom, and unprecedented public demands led to an expansion of schooling at the same time that a conservative backlash emerged against the supposed excesses of progressive education. The after-effect of this backlash created a shift to a more subject-centred curriculum (see School Systems). This shift had been reinforced by 1960, as Canadians followed their American neighbours in demanding greater educational rigour, especially in science and mathematics, in order to "catch up with the Russians." This was to be achieved by teaching the "structure" (basic concepts and unique forms of reasoning) of each discipline by means of inquiry or "discovery" methods, which ironically owed much to the despised progressive theories. These ideas gained cautious approval in Canada where, typically, a lack of resources forced curriculum developers to rely on British and American innovations.


After 1965, a new permissiveness in school curriculum was manifested by a relaxation of centralized control, a proliferation of regionally developed courses of study, and a revived but modified child-centred thrust in elementary education. New knowledge, students' desire for more practical and more relevant schooling, a larger and more diverse school population — particularly in urban centres — and tensions in society resulting from a breakdown of the old social consensus and from a questioning of traditional values, led to demands for innovation.

With renewed fears of Americanization, with the rise of Québec separatism, and in response to the demands of Aboriginal and other minority groups for equality, curriculum developers moved to establish bilingual, multicultural and Aboriginal studies programs, while also seeking to counter racism and sexism through more balanced and accurate treatment of minorities and women in textbooks.

Special curricula were designed for the estimated 1 million exceptional children (see Special Education). Ontario's master list of approved classroom materials increased from 61 titles (1950) to 1648 (1972). Advocacy groups included not only liberal proponents of "values education" but conservative advocates of "values schools." The latter group demanded the inclusion of traditional Christian beliefs, the censorship of some curriculum materials, and stricter discipline.

Advocacy Groups

A plethora of new advocacy groups — federal agencies, human rights, environmental and consumer organizations, foundations, professional associations, labour and business groups and others who saw the school as a proselytizing agency — pressed for changes in the curriculum and directed streams of teaching materials at classrooms. What was most striking about these efforts to influence the curriculum (which continue to the present) is the implied faith both in the potential of curriculum revision to reform classroom practices and, in turn, in the power of schooling to redress social and economic inequities.

As the struggle over curriculum became more public, provincial policymakers were frequently forced to respond in an ad hoc fashion to broad but fleeting popular concerns. Sometimes demands led to immediate action for which teachers were often ill-prepared. Many cart-before-the-horse reforms hastily introduced curricular changes without adequate pilot testing and appropriate support materials and professional development to ensure a smooth transition. By 1980, ministries of education were reverting to centralization as demands for "accountability" and “standards” led to restoration, in most provinces, of previously abandoned province-wide testing. These and other trends revealed a new interest in "scientific" curriculum development, entailing precise statements of "objectives" and the assessment of pupil "behaviours" measured by skill performance in the traditional "three Rs" (reading, writing and artithmetic). One of the lasting effects of this return to basics was the establishment of a hierarchy of subjects that is still present today and manifested in large-scale provincial testing programs. Unfortunately, the lack of consensus on what constitutes “basics” remains a contentious issue, with many lamenting the lack of attention to the arts and other non-tested subject matter.

In 1976, a unique study of Canadian education conducted by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) praised the remarkable growth and the high standards of schooling in Canada but criticized the limited place in curriculum of such "frills" as music and art. This heightened interest in accountability was accompanied by a concern for curriculum "implementation," as developers sought to ensure "fidelity to the curriculum" — that programs were taught as prescribed. Increased attention on issues of implementation raised awareness of the teacher's central role in educational change — teachers are the "gatekeepers" of what transpires in the classroom.

Throughout the 1980s, teachers demanded more say in shaping the curriculum, refusing to be treated essentially as technicians involved in implementing "top-down" educational policy. The professional autonomy and responsibility of teachers to shape the curriculum became more widely accepted. Diverse notions of teaching still essentially pit teaching as a technical enterprise versus a craft that is developed through experience.

Later Trends

In the early 1990s, rallying around a call to prepare students for the 21st century, several provinces embarked on large-scale school reform. Debate about Canada's continued competitiveness in the global economy was fuelled by international studies comparing performance of students from Canada unfavourably to other industrialized countries and by perceptions of excessively high student drop-out rates. The perception was that swift action was needed to prepare our children for the demands of the new knowledge economy.

There was also concern that more equitable, inclusive curriculum was required to attend to the diversity of students' abilities, interests, backgrounds, and orientations. Among other changes, this meant going beyond what often was mere token representation of females and other groups in textbooks to a reshaping of curriculum and instruction to engage these groups. In many provinces children with disabilities were to be integrated into the main stream so that they spent the majority of their school day in regular classrooms with non-disabled students. Thus, the main curricular developments of the 1990s were on two fronts: establishing sets of common or essential elements that formed the "basics for all," and providing for flexibility so that students might pursue individual interests and ambitions.

Although the previous priorities still exist, the present educational landscape is more concerned with standards-based reforms designed to make provinces (and Canada as a whole) leaders in student learning and achievement. The global fascination with student achievement is akin to an educational zeitgeist — the characteristic thought, preoccupation, or spirit of a particular period in time. In Canada, as in other Western nations, this preoccupation is reinforced by the popular media reporting of international surveys results such as those administered by the OECD. Results from international comparison tests, such as the Programme for International Student Assessment, are often juxtaposed against large-scale provincial testing programs — which in turn influence curriculum development and more importantly, pedagogy within elementary and secondary schools. The intended and unintended consequences of this wave of “standards-based” reform present both opportunities and challenges for provincial education systems.

Further Reading

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