Thoughts - The Child and the Curriculum (Dewey)

This is the fifth in a series of short posts that stem from readings and classroom discussions in the course EDU S105 Philosophy of Education. Here is a link to the first post that also serves as an introduction to the series. Each post contains a link to the next post.

As always, try to make connections between the points and your own experiences. Ask yourself if (or how) you see these points playing out in the world around you today.

Each text and classroom discussion brought forth many ideas - not always connected and sometimes even at odds with each other! Thus, the posts in this series might lack the comfort of coherence. Think of the points as scattered seeds of thought...

For this classroom session, the assigned text was The Child and the Curriculum by Dewey. The version that we used in the course is freely available online and can be found here.

The child lives in a narrow, personal world; the curriculum is infinite and impersonal.

The child sees life as a whole; the curriculum has specialisations and divisions.

The child values practical and emotional bonds; the curriculum values abstract and logical principles.

  • For an explorer (or tourist), a map has to be selective in the information it conveys. Otherwise, there would be an information overload. An analogy can be drawn between the explorer and learner and between the map and the curriculum.
  • The map is a guide and not a substitute for a personal experience. It is a product of past human experiences that makes it most available for future generations.
  • The child is taken out of his familiar world and exposed to centuries of knowledge accrued by mankind through the curriculum. Facts in school are, quite often, learned and taught objectively without reference to their meaning and connection to one's lived experiences.


  • Dewey regarded curriculum as fluid and curriculum standards as providing general direction and a broad end goal to learners and teachers.
  • Every subject has two aspects: one for the scientist as a scientist and the other for the teacher as a teacher. These two aspects are in no sense opposed or conflicting. For the scientist, the subject-matter represents simply a given body of truth to be employed in locating and solving new problems. For the teacher, he/she is not concerned with adding new facts to the science, in propounding new hypotheses or in verifying them. The teacher is concerned with the subject-matter of the science as representing a given stage and phase of the development of experience. The teacher's problem is that of inducing a personal experience for the learner.


  • Who decides what goes into the curriculum when we narrow down the vast reserves of knowledge that mankind possesses? Is there (or can there) ever be a justifiable answer to this? Can this be articulated?
  • The curriculum is ideally supposed to organises a child's opportunities to experience and find his/her interests.
  • These interests are attitudes towards possible experiences - their value lies in the leverage they afford for the child's future.


  1. think it's very interesting how the things you've put under the sub heading of education make me think of my experiences with curriculum in school (as a student and a teacher). Do you see education and schooling as different, and if yes what is the main differentiator?

    1. Anjali,

      Thanks for the comment. I see education as broad and something that is applicable to multiple areas of one's life. In my opinion, schooling is a subset of education - a formal system set up by society to prepare children for the future and continue the survival of the human race (I have strong views on what kind of future we are currently building towards but that's another story!).

      The fundamental difference I see between education and schooling is that all educative endeavours need not be restricted to schools. In fact, most are not. I see an educative endeavour as one that aids the acquisition of knowledge and skills and/or the evolution of one's mindsets, principles and beliefs. So, learning driving with my father was an educative (and fun!) endeavour. Reading "The Week" magazine while waiting for a flight is an educative endeavour. Learning how to cook a new dish with my mother is an educative endeavour. Essentially, we are being continuously 'educated' during our time on earth and, to me, that is what makes each day one to look forward to. :-)

      I find it apt that the points under the subheading of "education" made you think of your experiences with curriculum in school as a student ("learning") and as a teacher ("teacher") - this reinforces a theme in the blog (and especially in this series) that learning-teaching-education are closely linked and often overlapping pursuits. Of the three points under that subheading, did any particular one strike a chord and, if so, why?

  2. Map vs. Curriculum- It is a wonderful analogy, though very intuitive but not so commonly used. I have a few questions which might/ might not be directly related to this blog. Reply as you like.

    1. To use a map, we need to know our destination as well as current location, how does a learner decide that?
    2. The existing curriculum offers discreet (not fluid) packages; akin to a small scale map, which can’t suit all purpose, it certainly can’t help me with my quest to explore short distances. Your thoughts?
    3. A map can only show a tentative pathway which, as mentioned is true to the best of existing human knowledge but the distance still needs to be covered to reach the destination and during the actual travel, a map never limits an explorer from discovering an alternate route. How much of this analogy tallies with curriculum?
    4. With technology (read internet, machine learning et al), can a curriculum alternative to Google maps come up? Free, one map serves many purposes without information bombardment, dynamic, up to date…

    Curriculum should just expose the learner to the quest of exploration and then hand over the map, now whether the learner takes an uber to the nearest restaurant or trek the highest mountain peak or swim on the faraway beach, it is upto him/ her.

    Curriculum can have essentially three roles to play-
    1) preparing the quest
    2) imparting the skill (read trekking, swimming etc.) (on choice?)
    3) providing access to humanity's collective knowledge bank.

    The current location, destination and the journey (mode, as well the journey itself) can be absolutely personal. How much do you agree?

    1. Hi,

      Thanks for the detailed reading and commentary on the post along with the thoughtful questions. Much appreciated! :-)

      Responding in order below and breaking it up into 2 comments for easier readability...

      (1.) Assuming the 'learner' as a child here (any age). I think that a learner cannot decide the destination on his/her own. That is where adults/teachers come in as guides. In fact, even the current location is hard to determine for all parties. That is what makes classroom teaching challenging - every child comes in at different levels (reading, math, science etc.) with different experiences.

      This is not to say that adults/teachers are always right; merely that they have had more experiences on which to base their decisions. In a very young child, the parents will have a larger say in the decision making process; as a child grows older, he/she should, in my opinion, begin to have more of a say in deciding their goal/destination (as they mature and become more self-aware, they will also begin to get a handle on the current location). However, the adult/teacher-learner partnership still exists with continuously evolving dynamics.

      The adult/teacher and learner decide the destination based on their understanding of where they currently stand and where they want to end up. It need not be linear or a one-time activity. In fact, it will often be broken up into multiple intermediate destinations (or sub-goals) that lead to the final destination. The process of how these sub-goals are made depends on what is being learned. The adult/teacher is there to guide the child into formulating these sub-goals and to hold their hand when the ride becomes a little bumpy!

      (2.) While the curriculum does appear to be packaged into discrete modules, I think the job of establishing the links and connections to make it fluid rests with both the adult/teacher and the learner. If either party is not engaged with the what/how of the learning, then it will remain discrete (and seemingly unrelated) packages. I think about how material learned in 7th standard (say) might not be actively referenced to in a later grade leading to children developing the mindset that their learning has an expiry date that matches the end of the academic year rather than seeing learning as something organic that builds, layer by layer. The zooming in required to make a large scale map to help with shorter distances needs to be periodically done (along with zooming out for the big picture view) to aid the learning journey. Your Google maps parallel holds here too!

    2. (3.) I think that the analogy should hold fairly well for curriculum but it currently does not. Discovering alternate paths, whether in a physical journey guided by a map or a learning journey guided by the curriculum, involves uncertainty which is not currently embraced or looked upon favourably by systems. What children need to learn is pre-determined, how much time the teacher has to teach that content is pre-determined, how they will be tested on the content is pre-determined - with so much being decided beforehand, I don't think that learners and teachers often get to actually explore alternate ways of studying a concept.

      Your comment reminded me of two different trekking groups - one that has a guide and a route planned out and another that heads to the base of the hill with a general idea and then figures out a way up from there!

      (4.) I certainly think it could! Perhaps, like Google maps, it could also tell the user roadblocks (pun intended) in their journey towards a particular career or in learning a new skill!

      I think that you have elucidated the roles of curriculum quite well. I have a clarification - can you please explain what you mean by "preparing the quest"?

      Coming to your final question, I do not think that the location-journey-destination triad can ever be absolutely personal. There are certain norms that one adheres to if one wishes to function in society; there are financial constraints that govern both the journey and destination; relationships can play a major role in the path that one's life journey (or learning journey) takes; political conditions impact what a person can/cannot do and so on. I would say that the learner has a certain degree of choice within a bubble whose size and flexibility is dictated by circumstances and constraints. What do you think?

    3. Every journey has a quest. The quest can even be to wander, but there's no denying that there is always a quest. Without the quest, one won't embark on a journey. In the context of my example, it can be- summiting a peak, swimming in a sea!

      The learner has a certain degree of choice within a bubble whose size and flexibility is dictated by circumstances and constraints.
      Of course! But my concern was with the degree of freedom within the bubble.

      This also connects to an earlier point where I mentioned the discrete nature of our curriculum. Over there, I also wanted to point to the structuring of courses. For example, my engineering degree is a 4 year commitment, or for that matter, choosing science after 10th also was a long-term commitment.

      Let me give an example, which can serve my context. What if I am interested in the anthropological study of houses over the course of history to help make affordable, sustainable and culturally contextual houses for tribal people. I would need a certain amount of knowledge of civil engineering but the 4 year long course? A full anthropology course or a history course? I don't know!

      What I want to emphasize here is the cross-discipline fluidity, which I feel is going to be the future of education. The way we identify ourselves now is going to be outdated (hopefully) very soon. Am I a civil engineer? Am I a teacher? Am I a curriculum designer? Am I this or that? It is irrelevant.

      'I am a set of skills with a quest'.

  3. Loved the comparison between a map and the curriculum, explorer and student, scientist and teacher. It also made a lot of sense to open up the difficult question of what purpose a curriculum is supposed to serve from a point of view of what is supposed to be part of it in an ideal case scenario.

    1. Thanks Kartik. :-)

      What are your views on the purpose of the curriculum in an ideal case scenario?

  4. In an ideal case scenario, the curriculum should be as dynamic as the student itself (on a very high level). The curriculum for the subsequent year should be based on how the student has progressed with his or her interests/capabilities in the previous year.
    For instance, it should not be a must for all students to learn all subjects to the level they are taught in each standard/class as of today. Even from as early as middle school, a curriculum should be unique to a child, and should serve all of the student's interests at the least and at the same time, provide adequate exposure to what are believed to be "basic" subjects and build on it in the subsequent years according to the direction of interest of the student. Let me know if this is too ambitious an opinion :)

    1. Thanks for the comment, Kartik. Here are some of my thoughts/questions...

      (1.) Dynamic curriculum <=> dynamic student that you wrote in the first sentence - how does this look on a larger scale where student to teacher ratios are high? Who would be responsible for this fluid curriculum?

      Additionally, educators see tests as serving two purposes - one is to gauge learning and the other is to serve as a gatekeeper of sorts to ensure students get opportunities based on merit. While tests have their flaws, how would an assessment system look in the dynamic curriculum scenario? I can see technology possibly helping but not sure how far it could take us... I feel that some human intervention is essential and am wondering about how that intervention would play out at scale.

      (2.) Regarding the second para of your comment - are you saying that children should still be exposed to all subjects in school but not the level that they are currently taught OR are you saying that children should be exposed to a lesser number of subjects in school than they currently are?

      On a related note, what are your views on the current "level" to which children are taught subjects?

      (3.) What about cases when a child, in middle school, is unclear on his/her interest? Should they be given more in-depth content in the "basic" subjects in that case?


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