Curriculum Theory / EDUC-910 Week 2 Readings

Curriculum theory: Give me a “for instance”

Kliebard, H. (1977). Curriculum theory: Give me a “for instance”. Curriculum Inquiry, 6(4), 257–269.

Herbert Kliebard
Herbert Kliebard

My scrapbook notes…

Kliebard (2004) told us that from 1918–1927 curriculum was on its way, in 1927 it arrived? Define arrived exactly? Western societies had a curriculum before then, well before 1918 we differentiated sciences enough to be well on the way to developing nuclear theory. Rutherford’s structure of the atom appeared in 1911 (Geiger–Marsden experiment). We must have had a functional, informal theory of curriculum. Arrived is overstating it I think.

Influential figures such as Judd, Counts, and William C. Bagley focussed on social needs and issues as the principal basis of curriculum making.

Frederick Bonser, Kilpatrick, and Franklin Bobbitt (pictured below Kliebard on the left), opined that the individual needs and interests of children should be the primary curriculum focus.

The thought occurs, why did it always have to be either or? Like the perennial debate of nature vs. nurture, it’s not as simple as that, it could and should be a balancing act.

Franklin Bobbitt

October, 1947: Conference on curriculum theory was held at the University of Chicago. In March 1950, papers delivered at the conference were published, Virgil E. Herrick and Ralph W. Tyler (Eds.)—Tyler pictured below left. They were published as a Supplementary Educational Monograph by the University of Chicago Press—Toward Improved Curriculum Theory.

Curriculum development without curriculum theory is tragic and that curriculum theory without curriculum development denies the essential purpose of the theory (Herrick and Tyler 1950, p. iii).

Social reconstruction and moral commitment became a major theme—not surprising, given the timeline, five years on from WWII, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Triumph of science, failure of humanity.

A concise definition of curriculum theory, despite all the efforts that have gone into the field, is still lacking. Maybe there can’t be a pithy definition. There are plenty of theories though…

Ralph W. Tyler

Ralph W. Tyler

Theories come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. (p. 259).

[I]n all the years that have been devoted to the central problems of curriculum, [has] anything emerged that in the light of our previous considerations could stand as an example of a curriculum theory [?] If there were such a thing, it might provide the most useful guidance of all in unravelling our problem.

[C]urriculum development, at least, may be regarded as that activity which gives systematic attention to the question of what we should teach.

At least curriculum development appears to have a solid, practical foundation. What practical application can theorizing have, when we can’t define the theory? Development may therefore provide a starting point for theory.

We may not be able to answer the question of what to teach? The subjects we choose and their sub-topics are arbitrary judgements. They can never be anything else, but they must serve a practical purpose. They must produce engineers that can make aeroplanes fly. Artists that can ply the tools of their talent. Musicians that can play their instruments. Priests that are theologically aware. Chemists that know the periodic table and biologists that can recognise the structure of DNA.

Does this define the scope and substance of curriculum theory? A curriculum theory? Isn’t life the ultimate curriculum? And if that is so, then curriculum theory really does just become an intellectual exercise, because it can’t be pinned down to make a practical contribution.

Curriculum differentiation—defined by differing capacities or probable destinations of different groups of students? Isn’t that just ability grouping? Surely differentiation should be about reaching students with different abilities, to impart a curriculum of study?

It’s not just what is taught, but how it’s taught. E.g., approaches to metaphysical claptrap versus empirical evidence. The approach of arts and humanities versus hard science. Morality and ethics versus calculation and estimates of probability.

As a normative theory, a curriculum theory is not, essentially, verifiable through empirical evidence… (p. 268)

Curriculum theory is not a scientific premise. Evidence may tell us what is teachable and at what stages of (variable measures?) of maturity, but it is not definitive. Curriculum theory should therefore be treated as a lens, through which to focus on what is important to curriculum. To curriculum? To curricula? To the study of curriculum? To curriculum development? All of the aforementioned.


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