Competencies and fighting syllabusism

Tomas Højgaard*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journal/Conference contribution in journal/Contribution to newspaperJournal articleResearchpeer-review


For decades, mastery ambitions related to processes like problem-solving, modelling, and reasoning have been incorporated in mathematics curricula around the world. Meanwhile, such ambitions are hindered by syllabusism, a term I use to denote a conviction that results in mastery of a subject being equated with proficiency in a specific subject matter and making that equation the fulcrum of educational processes from teaching to curriculum development. In this article, I argue that using an open two-dimensional structure for curricular content that comprises a set of subject-specific competencies and a modest range of subject matter can help fight syllabusism. I explore and motivate the concept of syllabusism, using the development of a width-depth model of possible curricular ambitions within a given period of time to visualise the detrimental consequences for the attained depth of student learning. In the final part of the article, I illustrate the use of the width-depth model by analysing a specific mathematics curriculum. This analysis leads to two conclusions. Firstly, by highlighting mastery ambitions at the structural level, an open two-dimensional content structure is a powerful means to fight syllabusism. Secondly, using such an approach requires the explicit expression of these mastery ambitions and their conceptualisation independent of the subject matter. In the case of mathematics education, this has taken the form of a set of mathematical competencies.

Original languageEnglish
JournalEducational Studies in Mathematics
Pages (from-to)459-479
Number of pages21
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2024


  • Annotated syllabus content structure
  • Mastery ambitions
  • Mathematical competencies
  • Syllabusism
  • Two-dimensional content structure
  • Width-depth model


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