Curriculum theory

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Curriculum theory (CT) is an academic discipline devoted to examining and shaping educational curricula. There are many interpretations of CT, being as narrow as the dynamics of the learning process of one child in a classroom to the lifelong learning path an individual takes. CT can be approached from the educational, philosophical, psychological and sociological perspectives. James MacDonald states "one central concern of theorists is identifying the fundamental unit of curriculum with which to build conceptual systems. Whether this be rational decisions, action processes, language patterns, or any other potential unit has not been agreed upon by the theorists." [1] Curriculum theory is fundamentally concerned with values, [2] the historical analysis of curriculum, ways of viewing current educational curriculum and policy decisions, and theorizing about the curricula of the future. [3]


Pinar defines the contemporary field of curriculum theory as "the effort to understand curriculum as a symbolic representation". [4]

The first mention of the word "curriculum" in university records was in 1582, at the University of Leiden, Holland: "having completed the curriculum of his studies". [5] However, curriculum theory as a field of study is thought to have been initiated with the publication of The Yale Report on the Defense of the Classics in 1828, which promoted the study of a classical curriculum, including Latin and Greek, by rote memorization. [6]

Faculty psychology

The school of faculty psychology, dominating the field from 1860-1890 in the United States, believed that the brain was a muscle that could be improved by the exercise of memorization (with comprehension a secondary consideration). [7] This supports the classical theory, which previously emphasized a method of teaching school subjects using memorization and recitation as primary instructional tools. [8] The theory itself claims three constituent faculties or power:

The idea is that education should expand the faculty of the mind and this is achieved through the key concepts of discipline and furniture. [9] The faculty theory, which steered curriculum policy for elementary, secondary, and high schools, was institutionalized by three committees appointed by the National Education Association (NEA) in the 1890s to follow faculty psychology principles: [10] the Committee of Ten on Secondary School Studies (1893), the Committee of Fifteen on Elementary Education (1895) and the Committee on College Entrance Requirements. [7]

The Herbartians

Different schools of Curriculum Theory developed as a reaction to the classicism of faculty psychology, including the Herbartians, who organized the Herbart Club in 1892, and later the National Herbart Society (1895-1899). Their philosophy was based on the thoughts of Johann Frederich Herbart, a German philosopher, psychologist and educator, who believed that "the mere memorizing of isolated facts, which had characterized school instruction for ages, had little value of either educational or moral ends". [11]

The social efficiency movement

The publication of John Bobbitt's The Curricula in 1918 took the prevalent industrial revolutionary concepts of experimental science and social efficiency and applied them to the classroom. He believed that "curriculum must directly and specifically prepare students for tasks in the adult world". [12] He also believed that "human life...consists in the performance of specific activities. Education that prepares for life is one that prepares definitely and adequately for these specific activities." [13] From this idea, he suggested that curriculum was a series of experiences that children have in order to meet "objectives," or abilities and habits that people need for particular activities.

Other famous theorists of this movement included Edward L. Thorndyke (1874-1949), the father of experimental psychology in education, Frederick Winslow Taylor (1856-1915), with his theory of scientific management, David Snedden, an educational sociologist who promoted social efficiency and vocational education, and W.W. Charters (1875-1952), a teacher educator who felt that "curriculum was comprised of those methods by which objectives are determined". [14] By using education as an efficiency tool, these theorists believed that society could be controlled. Students were scientifically evaluated by testing (such as IQ tests), and educated towards their predicted role in society. This involved the introduction of vocational and junior high schools to address the curriculum designed around specific life activities that correlated with each student's determined societal future. The socially efficient curriculum consisted of minute parts or tasks that together formed a bigger concept.

The progressive reform movement

The progressive reform movement began in the late 1870s with the work of Colonel Francis Parker, but is most identified with John Dewey, and also John Mayer Rice and Lester Frank Ward. Dewey's 1899 book The School and Society is often credited with starting the movement. [15] These reformers felt that curriculum should be child driven and at the child's present capacity level. To aid in understanding the relationship of curriculum and child, Dewey described curriculum as, "a map, a summary, an arranged and orderly view of previous experiences, serves as a guide to future experience; it gives direction; it facilitates control; it economizes effort, preventing useless wandering, and pointing out the paths which lead most quickly and most certainly to a desired result". He envisioned "the child and the curriculum are simply two limits which define a single process". [16]

The Social Efficiency and Progressive Reform movements were rivals throughout the 1920s in the United States, with the 1930s belonging to the Progressives, or a curriculum combining aspects of both. [17] Ralph W. Tyler's Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction (1949) swung the pendulum of curriculum theory away from child centeredness toward more generalized behaviors. [18]

Tyler's theory was based on four fundamental questions which became known as the Tyler Rationale:

  1. What educational purposes should the school seek to attain?
  2. What educational experiences can be provided that are likely to attain these purposes?
  3. How can these educational experiences be effectively organized?
  4. How can we determine whether these purposes are being attained?

The multicultural education movement

There is a racial crisis in America, which is exacerbated by the widening gap between the rich and the poor. [19] In order to address this gap within the multicultural education movement there is a body of knowledge which argues for the need to reconceptualise, re-envision, and rethink American schooling. [20] Numerous authors advocate the need for fundamental changes in the educational system which acknowledges that there is a plurality within teaching and learning for students of diversity. [21] [22] Current research suggests that educational structure is oppressive to students [23] of diversity and is an obstacle to integration into society and student achievement. Current multicultural education theory suggests that curriculum and institutional change is required to support the development of students from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds. This is a controversial view [24] but multicultural education argues [25] that traditional curriculum does not adequately represent the history of the non dominant group. [26] Nieto (1999) [27] supports this concern for students who do not belong to the dominant group and seem to have challenging curriculum experiences that conflict with their personal cultural identity and their wider community reference groups. [28]

Sputnik and the National Defense Act

The launch of Sputnik in 1957 created a focus on science and math in the United States curriculum. Admiral Hyman Rickover accused the American public of indifference to intellectual achievement. "Our schools must return to the tradition of formal education in Western civilization-transmission of cultural heritage, and preparation for life through rigorous intellectual training of young minds to think clearly, logically, and independently". [29] The result was a return to curricula similar to the classicists of the 1890s and the modern birth of the traditionalists, with massive federal funding for curriculum development provided by the National Defense Act of 1958.

Reconceptualized curriculum

Joseph J. Schwab was instrumental in provoking curriculum developers to think beyond the traditionalist approach. In his 1969 paper "The Practical: A Language for Curriculum" he declared the curriculum field "moribund". [30] This, plus the social unrest of the 1960s and '70s stirred a new movement of "reconceptualization" of curricula. A group of theorists, including James Macdonald, Dwayne Huebner, Ross Mooney, Herbert M. Kliebard, Paul Klohr, Michael Apple, W.F. Pinar, and others, created ways of thinking about curriculum and its role in the academy, in schools, and in society in general. [31] Their approach included perspectives from the social, racial, gender, phenomenological, political, autobiographical and theological points of view.


W.F. Pinar describes the present field "balkanized...divided into relatively separate fiefdoms or sectors of scholarship, each usually ignoring the other except for occasional criticism." [32] The top-down governmental control of educational curriculum in the Anglophone world, including the United States, has been criticized as being "ahistorical and atheoretical, and as a result prone to difficult problems in its implementation". [33] But there are theorists who are looking beyond curriculum as "simply as a collection of study plans, syllabi, and teaching subjects. Instead, the curriculum becomes the outcome of a process reflecting a political and societal agreement about the what, why, and how of education for the desired society of the future." [34]

See also

Related Research Articles

Progressive education is a pedagogical movement that began in the late nineteenth century and has persisted in various forms to the present. In Europe, progressive education took the form of the New Education Movement. The term progressive was engaged to distinguish this education from the traditional curricula of the 19th century, which was rooted in classical preparation for the university and strongly differentiated by social class. By contrast, progressive education finds its roots in modern experience. Most progressive education programs have these qualities in common:

Pedagogy Theory and practice of education

Pedagogy, most commonly understood as the approach to teaching, is the theory and practice of learning, and how this process influences, and is influenced by, the social, political and psychological development of learners. Pedagogy, taken as an academic discipline, is the study of how knowledge and skills are imparted in an educational context, and it considers the interactions that take place during learning. Both the theory and practice of pedagogy vary greatly, as they reflect different social, political, and cultural contexts.

Experiential education Philosophy of education

Experiential education is a philosophy of education that describes the process that occurs between a teacher and student that infuses direct experience with the learning environment and content. The term is not interchangeable with experiential learning; however experiential learning is a sub-field and operates under the methodologies of experiential education. The Association for Experiential Education regards experiential education as "a philosophy that informs many methodologies in which educators purposefully engage with learners in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills, clarify values, and develop people's capacity to contribute to their communities". Experiential education is the term for the philosophy and educational progressivism is the movement which it informed.

Curriculum Educational plan

In education, a curriculum is broadly defined as the totality of student experiences that occur in the educational process. The term often refers specifically to a planned sequence of instruction, or to a view of the student's experiences in terms of the educator's or school's instructional goals. A curriculum may incorporate the planned interaction of pupils with instructional content, materials, resources, and processes for evaluating the attainment of educational objectives. Curricula are split into several categories: the explicit, the implicit, the excluded, and the extracurricular.

Henry Armand Giroux is an American-Canadian scholar and cultural critic. One of the founding theorists of critical pedagogy in the United States, he is best known for his pioneering work in public pedagogy, cultural studies, youth studies, higher education, media studies, and critical theory. In 2002 Routledge named Giroux as one of the top fifty educational thinkers of the modern period.

A hidden curriculum is a set of lessons "which are learned but not openly intended" to be taught in school such as the norms, values, and beliefs conveyed in both the classroom and social environment.

The anti-bias curriculum is an activist approach to educational curricula which attempts to challenge prejudices such as racism, sexism, ableism, ageism, weightism, homophobia, classism, colorism, heightism, handism, religious discrimination and other forms of kyriarchy. The approach is favoured by civil rights organisations such as the Anti-Defamation League.

Integrative learning is a learning theory describing a movement toward integrated lessons helping students make connections across curricula. This higher education concept is distinct from the elementary and high school "integrated curriculum" movement.

Queer pedagogy (QP) is an academic discipline devoted to exploring the intersection between queer theory and critical pedagogy, which are both grounded in Marxist critical theory. It is also noted for challenging the so-called "compulsory cisheterosexual and normative structures, practices, and curricula" that marginalize or oppress non-heterosexual students and teachers.

Anti-oppressive education encompasses multiple approaches to learning that actively challenge forms of oppression.

Curriculum studies (CS) is a concentration within curriculum and instruction concerned with understanding curricula as an active force of human educational experience.

Joe Lyons Kincheloe was a professor and Canada Research Chair at the Faculty of Education, McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada and founder of The Paulo and Nita Freire International Project for Critical Pedagogy. He wrote more than 45 books, numerous book chapters, and hundreds of journal articles on issues including critical pedagogy, educational research, urban studies, cognition, curriculum, and cultural studies. Kincheloe received three graduate degrees from the University of Tennessee. The father of four children, he worked closely for the last 19 years of his life with his partner, Shirley R. Steinberg.

Education sciences or education theory seek to describe, understand, and prescribe education policy and practice. Education sciences include many topics, such as pedagogy, andragogy, curriculum, learning, and education policy, organization and leadership. Educational thought is informed by many disciplines, such as history, philosophy, sociology, and psychology.

Multicultural education is a set of educational strategies developed to assist teachers when responding to the rapidly changing demographics of their students. It provides students with knowledge about the histories, cultures, and contributions of diverse groups; it assumes that the future society is pluralistic. It draws on insights from a number of different fields, including ethnic studies and women studies, and reinterprets content from related academic disciplines. It is a way of teaching that promotes the principles of inclusion, diversity, democracy, skill acquisition, inquiry, critical thought, value of perspectives, and self-reflection. This method of teaching is found to be effective in promoting educational achievements among immigrants students and is thus attributed to the reform movement behind the transformation of schools.

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William Frederick Pinar is an American pedagogue. Known for his work in the area of curriculum theory, Pinar is strongly associated with the reconceptualist movement in curriculum theory since the early 1970s. In the early 1970s, along with Madeleine Grumet, Pinar introduced the notion of currere, shifting in a radical manner the notion of curriculum as a noun to curriculum as a verb. Apart from his fundamental contributions to theory, Pinar is notable for establishing the Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, founding the Bergamo Conference on Curriculum Theory and Classroom Practice, and founding the International Association for the Advancement of Curriculum Studies.

Christopher Darius Stonebanks is a full Professor of Education and currently the Chair of the Research Ethics Board at Bishop's University in Sherbrooke, Quebec, Canada.

Thomas S. Popkewitz is an American curriculum theorist on the faculty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison School of Education. His studies are concerned with the knowledge or systems of reason that govern educational policy and research related to pedagogy and teacher education. His research includes histories of the present, ethnographic and comparative studies of national educational reforms in Asia, Europe, Latin America, Southern Africa, and the US. His book Cosmopolitanism and the Age of School Reform (2008) explores the systems of reason in pedagogy through historically examining the changing images and narratives of Enlightenment concerns with cosmopolitanism. He has written or edited approximately 30 books and 300 articles in journals and book chapters. Two of his books have won awards for their contribution to educational studies. His work has been translated into twelve languages.

Joseph Mayer Rice was a physician, editor of The Forum magazine, and early advocate of progressive education in the United States. He is credited with being one of the first to bring the need for widespread school reform to the public eye, and with laying the foundation for future empirical educational research.

William "Bill" Elder Doll Jr. was an American educator, author and curriculum theorist. Doll's scholarly study started in progressivism, moved to Piaget, and gradually shifted to postmodernism, chaos theory and complexity and their implications for school curriculum. Doll is among the first group of scholars who introduced complexity thinking to education in the 1980s.


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