Curriculum Theory / EDUC-910 Week 3 Readings

John Dewey, the Dewey School and the vocational path that followed

Kliebard, H. (2004). The struggle for the American curriculum. Ch. 3–4, pp. 51–104. New York, NY: RoutledgeFalmer.

The University of Chicago Laboratory School (a.k.a. The Dewey School)

The University of Chicago Laboratory School (a.k.a. The Dewey School)

John Dewey’s ideas about education…

The Univ. of Chicago, Laboratory School (The Dewey School) opened in 1896. No fully worked out curriculum. Kliebard noted that subjects were described by Albion Small, Head Professor of Social Studies as ”an unorganized procession of pedantic abstractions” , in Demands of Sociology Upon Pedagogy, 1896 addressing the National Education Association. “[T]he rational centre is the student himself.” Knowledge was to be seen in its relations, not as self-sufficient.

Educators were makers of society, not leaders of children.

Kliebard here described many of the key points of Dewey’s work, contrasting them with those of the humanists and developmentalists. Finding neither of those positions adequate, Dewey “urged that we see human intellectual activity, and indeed the culture as a whole, in relation to the characteristic activities in which the individual or society engages and the ability of that individual to achieve command of his or her environment” (p. 60).

For Dewey, then,” Kliebard stated, “a curriculum built around fundamental social occupations would provide the bridge that would harmonize individual and social ends—what for him was the central problem to be resolved in any educational theory” (p. 61).

Kliebard argued that such a curriculum would, without abandoning the subject matter appreciated by the humanists, respect the needs and interests of the child so favored by the developmentalists while, at the same time, making the child part of what Dewey called “a miniature community, an embryonic society” (p. 68) in the form of a social, democratic, and active classroom.

Despite the Dewey School, Kliebard argued that Dewey’s theories “remained confined largely to the world of ideas rather than the world of practice” (p. 75). Dewey’s ideas didn’t hold much public or political attraction. Much more keen on education producing little robots that would obey nicely and slot into given roles in society. Too radical, too demanding, and too hard to measure?

Resources A selection of John Dewey’s work in audiobook format can be located for download (all under public domain licensing) from These include (but are not limited to) Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education; Pure Experience and Reality, A Disclaimer (in American Philosophy Collection Vol. 1 ); and The Knowledge Experience Again (in American Philosophy Collection Vol. 1 ).

Industrial revolution and a new technological society drove curriculum enquiry in the late 19th century, but curriculum remained a concern for producing working citizens. Kliebard related this to the growth of popular journalism and the growth of the railroads.

Great comparison of the miles of railroads in the U.S., to Great Britain, a country only a fraction of the size of the U.S. Kliebard not a statistician?

19th century—mental disciplinarians and the sequence of curriculum resulting in all-round mental fitness: see Yale faculty report, 1828, defending traditional education of the time… the mind as a muscle.

Empirical analysis (see, Thorndike), may have hastened the demise of mental discipline, but the changing social order was probably more causative.

Different cultures = different values and therefore different pressures on what is taught. Thus we have a fluctuation of different social groups and changing moral & ethical systems influencing what is taught. E.g., Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925 meant no evolution taught until the 60s, when the reverse happened and creationism was stamped upon.

The Committee of Ten—fitting for college is fitting for life, one size fits all policy. Weaknesses were apparent as school populations rose. Proponents of teaching to a probable destination were heavily criticized.

Bobbitt’s scientific curriculum leads to stagnation; social efficiency is workplace focussed; learner centered has a learner focus and is paced according to each student; academic/scholar focus is mostly wrote and didactic; social reconstruction rebuilds a “faulty” society.

Curriculum theory (with a big “C”), is a dedicated theory of tenets etc. A paradigmatic approach? Like relativity, it effects how other areas are studied in light of it’s premises. Curriculum theory (small “c”), thinking through the topic, without declaring major tenets.

Social Darwinists—a faulty premise, given that human beings can learn to move beyond survival of the fittest, a misunderstanding of adaptation via natural selection if ever there was one.

Dewey—a more psychological approach to teaching to the child… eventually. Attempted produce socially useful citizens by connecting curriculum to four main aspects of a child’s existing worldview—social, constructive, expressive, and artistic.

Whole period used fundamental misunderstandings of Darwinian theory to shape curriculum development—ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny—the development of an individual echoes the development of the species.

[T]he parallelism between the child and the race was not as literal as was sometimes supposed (p. 57).

Occupations—“[D]etermine the chief modes of satisfaction, the standards of success and failure. Hence they furnish the working classifications and definitions of value… So fundamental and pervasive is the group of occupational activities that it affords the scheme or pattern of the structural organization of mental traits.” (p. 61) Thus a curriculum was to be built around what Dewey considered to be the “fundamental social occupations” (p. 61). Organized subject matter such as science could be addressed by initiating the student into the social occupations from which science arose (p. 63). A task to be accomplished without any sense of why? (p. 67)

Jumping the Gun. The early 20th century saw a huge rise in school attendance with the engineering requirements of both world wars driving science and technology. The Committee of Ten symbolized the failure of education to adapt to social change. 1930s & 40s saw a rise in requirements of physicists and chemists in response to the new nuclear age. Post-Sputnik drove a science-based revision of curriculum, criticised heavily by the reconceptualists like Pinar.

Though no less radical, the ideas of the social efficiency educators, detailed in Chapter 4, were easier to implement and measure, in large part because they fit in with the emerging scientific paradigm in education and didn’t challenge the basic nature or structure of schooling in the way that Dewey’s did.

Frederick W. Taylor

Frederick W. Taylor

Though socially focused, as was Dewey, these reformers sought to “fit” students to the social and occupational status quo. Efficiency, specificity, productivity, obedience—watchwords of the factory system—became influential concepts in education through the work of people such as Frederick W. Taylor (left).

As with Dewey, “needs” were a focus, but for the social efficiency educators, the needs in question were primarily those of society, not the student per se. Buttressed by the new field of mental measurement (with its emphasis on innate intelligence as reflected by IQ) and psychology’s then-current belief that only specific training, not generalized learning, was possible, highly differentiated curricula, or “tracks,” emerged in the name of efficiency.

The Smith-Hughes Act, 1917. This legislation was the first federal intervention in curriculum in the 20th century, and authorized unprecedented federal funds for vocational education. It both reflected and spurred a shift in American thought to vocationalism—to the idea that preparation for work is and ought to be the primary justification for schooling and any subject matter.

“Precise and definite curricular objectives in advance of any educational activity” (p. 103), an attempt to lend specificity and accountability to the education process, were also a product of this mind-set.

Kliebard is rather light on attention to testing and measurement? Were they less prominent in 1984?


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