Curriculum refers to the set of outcomes students will gain through their education. In layman’s terms, curriculum indicates the knowledge and skills schools want their students to acquire. In modern education, many things influence how the curriculum is structured: the needs of individual students, the values of the society at large and the content itself.


The oldest, and perhaps most obvious way to organize curriculum is through a subject-centered approach. This type of curriculum separates knowledge into various content areas. Modern schools, particularly middle and high schools, tend to operate in this fashion. Students take classes in English/language arts, math, science, social studies, fine arts, career and technical education, and so forth.


Ancient Greek scholars, such as Aristotle, used a subject-centered approach to curriculum.
Ancient Greek scholars, such as Aristotle, used a subject-centered approach to curriculum.

The subject-centered approach to education can be traced to ancient Greek society. The scholars of antiquity studied the seven liberal arts: music, grammar, astronomy, rhetoric, geometry, dialectic and arithmetic. Modern day subject-centered curriculum began in the 1870s in the St. Louis school system, headed by Superintendent William Harris.

Focus of Approach

In a subject-centered approach to curriculum, each content area contains its own set of skills and concepts for mastering that content. For example, in science, students learn about the scientific method and science-related vocabulary. This knowledge is then used when students conduct experiments and investigations. In English, students are taught grammatical rules which they will need to produce appropriate written products. Teachers in these subject areas are specialists in their content.

Types of Content

Schools that maintain a subject-centered approach categorize subjects into three different types. “Common content” represents subjects all students must study. In elementary schools, this consists of arithmetic, reading and writing (the three R’s). In secondary schools, these subjects include: math, science, social studies/history and English/language arts. “Special content” describes classes that prepare students for specific professions. These might include vocational and technical education courses. “Elective content” refers to optional classes students can take to further their knowledge and skills. These might include college courses taken while still in high school, advanced auto mechanics courses, or special interest courses, such as photography or aeronautics.

Objectives and Accountability

The central objective for any subject-centered approach to curriculum is student mastery of content knowledge. The teacher presents content and skills to students in a logical sequence. This step-by-step approach ensures that students gain all the information and skills needed to master this content area. There is little or no emphasis on the overlap of various subjects. Teachers only present the subject matter from their individual subject and are only accountable for student mastery of their content area.