Curriculum Theory / EDUC-910 Week 4 Readings

The scientific method in curriculum-making and standardized education

Bobbitt, F. (2013). Scientific method in curriculum-making. In: D. J. Flinders & S. J. Thornton (Eds.), Curriculum Studies Reader (4th ed.), pp. 11–18. New York, NY: RoutledgeFalmer.

Franklin Bobbitt

Franklin Bobbitt

In 1918, then Professor of educational administration at the University of Chicago, Franklin Bobbitt, wrote the above essay which presented a theory of curriculum development, based on the principles of scientific management espoused by Frederick W. Taylor earlier in the century.

Bobbitt and his ideas of scientific curriculum-making, along with other notable educators of the time, were to form what later became known as the scientific efficiency movement. As was later the case following WWII, far fewer soldiers returned home than had left to fight. Men were looking for constructive employment and there was demand for efficient education and training.

Bobbitt’s method identified a list of skills required to work in roles (predominantly trades), through interview and observations:

Investigators, without pre-suppositions as to content of vocational curriculum, set out to discover the major occupations of the city, the processes to be performed in each, and the knowledge, habits and skills needed for -effective work. They talked with expert workmen; and observed the work-processes. (p. 15)

Curriculum was designed and implemented in order to have students attain the appropriate level of skillset. Similar to the Tyler Rationale of 1949, the curriculum and learning objectives could be amended by observing how well (or not) the process achieved its goals:

It is by putting the workers to work, whether adolescent or adult, and by noting the kinds of shortcomings and mistakes that show themselves when training is absent or deficient, that we can discover the curriculum tasks for directed vocational education. (p. 16)

Talking Point: “A major obstacle is lack of agreement as to what constitutes social deficiency.” (p. 17) Bobbitt himself highlighted an issue with his method of curriculum development. It was easier to define what could and should be addressed by training in some subjects than others. Bobbit’s method, and later Tyler’s, were to be criticized for being too focused on “principles guiding curriculum development and implementation” (Pinar, 1978b, p. 6); what are the shortcomings of an education system which places social, personal, and civic responsibilities entirely in the realm of the external community?

Scientism (positivism) and standardized learning. In a kind of echo of Socrates’ anamnesis—the idea that learning is really a matter of the soul recollecting what it has learned before—Bobbit’s approach was that practical, socially useful knowledge, already existed and could simply be acquired through an efficiently designed scientific process. According to Bobbitt’s positivistic approach, gaining scientific knowledge involved a process of was a process of developing hypotheses and through well-designed protocol, testing, observing and collecting empirical data, in a replicable manner to produce generalizable results. Bobbitt argued that, in education, learning involved periods of observation, teaching and assessment. Methods of assessment should be similar (e.g., certification), providing a workforce (Tyler’s product?) with a comparable set of skills.

Talking point: How is this process of standardization still with us? What are its pros and cons?

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Contributions to Education and Society. Bobbitt was one of the first American educators to propose that the identification of objectives should be the starting point for curriculum making. He argued that curriculum content had to be derived from objectives that addressed the working needs of society. Education in its own right was not important, its value was in the preparation of children to become a functioning adult workforce.

His so-called scientific approach to curriculum making remains popular conventional wisdom among American curricularists almost 100 years later.

Bobbitt argued that the curriculum ought to be differentiated into academic and vocational programs. Students would then be directed to a program according to aptitude. Today this has become tracking and ability groupingstreaming in the U.K.

Bobbitt—before Tyler’s indoctrination into the American Dream—was one of the first American educators to define the curriculum as an instrument of addressing the problems of society.

Social efficiency saw the task of educational institution schools as instilling in youth the attributes required to become functioning, positively contributing members of society.

Talking Point: What are the pros and cons of Bobbitt’s contributions to modern curriculum development and—arguably—society?

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2 thoughts on “The scientific method in curriculum-making and standardized education

  1. As a college professor, I have taken the need for objectives for granted most of the time, and the notion that we are preparing students for future specific work tends to drive college curriculum. If we consider employers and students to be our consumers, then we must have a way to define and rationalize our “product”. In light of the standards and tests we now take for granted as necessary in K-12 and higher ed levels, it becomes clear that we can create and check off as many boxes as we want. However, if students are disenfranchised from the processes and experiences of learning we provide, we will not succeed in creating the kind of engaged citizenry we are truly aiming at achieving. Worse, we may create unhappy students who grow to be dissatisfied adults, no matter their training or occupation.

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    • You are of course completely correct C. H., and I would add that the education systems of the UK, US and Canada have been creating such dissatisfied adults for many years. The problem really lies in a rigid system which cannot adapt to the learning needs of all students. I’m not sure a system that flexible would even be possible, but a range of curricula and assessment options would go a long way to meeting student needs.

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