Curriculum Theory

Pratt’s Curriculum Perspectives

Historically, curriculum questions have been seen to address a number of major themes…

  1. Citizenship/societal needs: Where it has been argued that schooling should aim to provide citizens, ready to participate in a democracy; or even schooling as a politically subversive activity (Counts, 1932; Freire, 2008).
  2. Individual growth/self-actualization: Education for a life of the mind; education for happiness; education for psychological well-being (Dewey, 1897; Maslow, 1943).
  3. Workforce training: Schooling for future jobs (Bobbitt, 2013 originally published 1918; Tyler, 2013 originally published 1949).
  4. Cultural transmission of the culture: Schooling for the maintenance of cultural traditions; schooling as a conservative activity.

Each of these perspectives is analysed in the following excerpt from David Pratt’s (1994) book Curriculum planning: A handbook for professionals.

Pratt, D. (1994). Curriculum perspectives. In Curriculum planning: A handbook for professionals, (pp. 8–22). Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.

Surprisingly, few curriculum theorists have discussed curriculum directly in terms of well-being and happiness. More commonly, curriculum is viewed as a vehicle for helping people construct meaning in their lives (Pratt, 1994, p. 8).

Or as a vehicle for fuelling an economy by providing bodies to slot into trades via the Tyler Rationale of more than fifty years earlier (Tyler, 2013). An approach which has, arguably, never entirely disappeared.

Bypassing a philosophical discussion of the history of curriculum thought, Pratt acknowledged the contributions of others, and selected four orientations of thought:

cultural_transmissionCultural Transmission
According to Pratt, is the position that curriculum “transmit[s] the best products of the intellectual culture… often associated with a belief in the generalizability of learning—that learning in one area will have beneficial effects in many areas” (Pratt, 1994, p. 9). This school of thought has historically placed a priority on traditional academic disciplines such as mathematics, science, art and literature. Sources of instruction are primarily didactic in nature, via traditional student-teacher exchange and generalizability is an instrumental concept, whereby knowledge garnered from one area may be applied to another.

To me, this seems to highlight the idea of generic, transferrable skills, that can provide an aptitude or foundation for further learning (e.g, literacy, numeracy, communication skills, IT skills), that the U.K. has tried—with scant success—to teach as a curriculum all of its own called “Key Skills”.

In theory, this would seem an eminently logical school of thought to follow… “relatively easy to teach and to test (Pratt, 1994, p. 10)” and provides an excellent basis for a wide variety of curricula, except it really doesn’t allow for much in the way of problem-solving, critical thinking and self-fulfillment.

Talking Point: Freire (2008) had quite a bit to say about the shortcomings of education controlled by a hegemonic class. Pros and cons?

9uth december student cuts protests as govt votesSocial Transformation
A mechanism by which social change may occur through the education system. Epitomized in 1932 by George S. Counts, Counts challenged teachers to use schools as a means to openly indoctrinate a positive social vision and to combat the negative forces of society, “agnosticism, skepticism, and even experimentalism” (Counts, 1932, para. 17), and impose more thoughtful, beneficial values, resulting in cries of imposition. Counts freely admitted to the notion of indoctrination through education, but argued that it was impossible for the school to remain impartial. Counts’ recommendations were to form the basis for the movement later referred to as social reconstructionism. A movement later to resurface as social adjustment.

Pratt (1994) cited Freire who viewed social transformation as a means of liberating the oppressed from a dominant sociocultural influence stating, “[e]ducation as the exercise of domination stimulates the credulity of students, with the ideological intent (often not perceived by educators) of indoctrinating them to adapt to the world of oppression” (p. 248). Freire asserted that a “banking concept” of education, which he described as “(at best) [a] misguided system” (p. 243), perpetuates ignorance and maintains the status quo of the dominant influence. Freire’s education by problem-solving, rejecting the didactic process—the banking concept of education—supported by cultural transmission, was an emancipatory process at the societal level.

Talking Point: Is there a possibility that there could be a danger in the social transformation approach if taken too literally by educators? Could this become detrimental to students in any way?

personal_fulfillmentIndividual Fulfillment
Third, Pratt (1994) highlighted individual fulfillment as a curriculum perspective that has sought individual satisfaction for students. Referring to previous scholars such as Maslow and his theories of the Hierarchy of Needs as romantic, for viewing people as “essentially good and motivated by their own need for growth” (p. 14). Pratt offers the argument:

Education is not a process of filling a vacuum or remediating a deficit, but of providing the conditions in which people can develop their full potential… The primary vehicle for growth is human relations, and the preferred learning mode is direct personal experience (p.14)

This criticism of Maslow’s model seems to me a little unfounded. Figure 1 provides a common visual interpretation of Maslow’s hierarchy, beginning with physiological needs and culminating in self-actualization. Maslow’s 1943 article does not view people as essentially good, but does discuss a sated individual and their needs above and beyond the purely physiological. As such, my interpretation of Maslow’s hierarchy is that it could provide an informative lens through which to view the development of personal potential through human relations and experience.

Figure 1. Illustrating Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, adapted from Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–396. Doi:

Figure 1. Illustrating Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, adapted from Maslow, A. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–396. Doi:

Pratt (1994) discussed spiritual meaning as part of the individual fulfillment category, citing previous work to describe the absence of spiritual meaning as spiritual estrangement—distinct from religiosity—a feeling of separation from “one’s own deeper spiritual self and from any greater spiritual entity” (p14).

With no empirical evidence for any form of spiritual entity available, and proceeding on the basis that there is nothing beyond the natural, physical universe. And that if there is something spiritual which as yet stands outside of modern scientific understanding, then the objective of education would be to eventually understand it and bring it within the realms of the natural. It is understandable—and entirely justifiable—that “such meanings are rarely addressed in school curricula” (p14). Pratt stated that: “Learning for mastery is valuable for public meanings. For personal meanings, we need learning for mystery” (p. 15). Yet immediately prior to this statement, he had described current thinking on the beginning of the Universe. As a science educator, I fail to understand how mystery and wonder cannot be found and engendered in such topics, without invoking a spiritualistic impetus.

I believe that an examination of Pratt’s (1994) assertions, far from distancing their rationale from work such as that of Maslow, they follow the elevation of development from love, friendship and belonging, through esteem to self-actualization, in a clear and logical progression. Indeed, Pratt echoes Maslow at some length, in reiterating the need for confidence and friendship as part of individual fulfillment (pp. 16­17).

Talking Point: Is the individual fulfillment perspective valid, or does it lack in academic substance? Or even in preparing students to become productive citizens? If not, why not? Take a side and comment.

Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell

Professor Dame (Susan) Jocelyn Bell Burnell, discovered the first radio pulsars while studying and advised by her thesis supervisor Antony Hewish, for which he shared the 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics with Martin Ryle, while Bell Burnell was excluded, despite having been the first to observe and precisely analyse the pulsars.

Feminist Pedagogy
Pratt’s final orientation of pedagogical thought opens with the statement: “The contributions of feminist thought to curriculum theory and practice are diverse, profound, and as yet neglected and underestimated by the wider educational community.” (Pratt, 1994, p. 17)

Pause for thought—is it really? Or given the plethora of greatly respected women authors in the field of education, does feminist thought—now in the first half of the 21st century—stand or fall by its merits? In modern western society, does feminism distinguish itself significantly from more generic human rights?

“[F]eminist thought is developing so rapidly that any description of the state of the art can be only temporary.” (Pratt, 1994, p. 17) Isn’t this just a little patronizing? As academic authors and members of an affluent western society, with access to all the resources that brings, feminist thinking is academic thinking and simply reflects the overall field. Feminist thinking in education will move as fast as its best and brightest will lead, and as its best and brightest are amongst the best and brightest of the field as a whole, there thoughts reflect the field.

As William Pinar (1978b) once reflected on the reconceptualist movement, the minority had grown from “an opposition to the mainstream field and its tradition” in the 1970s, to become todays’ field, “complicated, with several centers of theoretical formation” (p. 167). Whilst I wouldn’t suggest that feminist pedagogical thought had become the field, I would suggest that academia in the early 21st century is not the lamentably prejudicial field that it once was.

The further argument that, “the prevailing abstract models used in the sciences and the social sciences are alien to women’s experience” (Pratt, 1994, p. 18), is not explained particularly well. Pratt’s citation of feminist authors does not provide any clarity by the use of such phrases as:

Curricula based on mainstream philosophical assumptions consequently “obliterate all that is personal in favor of whatever is general, all that is actual in deference to what is hypothetical, all that is moving in deference to all that is still (Grumet, 1988, p. 173).

It is a concern of feminist writers on these issues that the limitations of traditional epistemology are disproportionately damaging to women (Pratt, 1994, p. 18).

Talking Point: Whilst I can follow—if not agree with—the arguments of personal in favor of general, actual in deference to hypothetical, I fail to grasp what is meant by all that is moving in deference to all that is still. Does this refer to dynamic, ever-changing topics, as opposed to those where knowledge is static and unchanging? If so, I would beg to differ with all three parts of this statement. If this section is fully understood by my female colleagues, and I have proven to be lacking the intelligence to grasp the underlying concepts, I would still argue that the onus is upon the author to render the concepts understandable, such that I do not have to ask a member of the opposite gender for explanation.

Perhaps therein lies the rub, if—as a fat, white, comfortable, middle-aged, married male, with three children, two cars and access to higher education—I know little of this perspective, is it because it’s truly irrelevant in modern western society? Or is it because Pratt (1994) is right and the entire approach is “neglected and underestimated” (p. 17)?

Furthermore, I do not believe the idea that a feminine or masculine ethic can be defined by caring emotions versus reasoned justice (Pratt, 1994, pp. 19–20). Men and women are individuals, with personal and moral positions based on individual philosophies. Previous arguments of obliterating all that is personal in favor of whatever is general are utilized by proponents of feminist pedagogy, as personal opinions are turned into a generalization with no supporting evidence.

Pratt (1994) concludes this section by stating that to avoid the stereotyping and exploitation of women, an ethic of care should apply to everyone. I would take this argument one step further, to avoid stereotyping all members of any society—no matter the gender identity they claim—we should avoid applying sweeping generalizations when it comes to moral and ethical judgments. Later, he would state:

None of this is to suggest that interest in such qualities as caring is a monopoly either of feminists or of women, for to do so would be to stereotype both women and men.

What feminist pedagogy offers is not simply a curriculum that meets more justly the needs of women, but a curriculum that reflects more fully the nature of humanity. (p. 21)

The latter two lines of this quotation return to my previous question, in terms of social—or even academic—equity, is feminist pedagogy a valid contribution in its own right? Or would it play a more significant role as contribution to generic human rights?

Talking Point: Does the curriculum reflect both the needs of boys and girls equally? Could it be that boys are indeed the ones disadvantaged?

Talking Point: Are there any other traditionally neglected perspectives that could be made into a curriculum perspective apart from feminist pedagogy?

Pratt (1994) did not see any of these intellectual orientations as mutually exclusive and specifically warned against considering them to represent the entire range of curriculum perspectives. He felt rather, that they could contribute to the basis of curriculum planning, by considering them to be the foundations of what can be taught by the specifics of a give curriculum.

Lastly: A Personal Critique, which Didn’t Seem to Fit in Anywhere Else…
Pratt (1994), discussed spiritual contributions to personal fulfillment that “are rarely addressed in school curricula” (p. 14). Kimpston, Williams and Stockton (1992), addressed spiritual commitment in relation to curriculum, stating with some appearance of surety that they would distinguish “each of the four ways of knowing” (p. 154); as if four ways of knowing had been inarguably established. Their fourth way of knowing, they termed recognition theory:

The first characteristics of this way of knowing is the conviction that something is undeniably true or utterly obvious even when there is no immediate empirical or logical evidence that speaks to the point. The second criterion is that the knowing or insight comes from a relatively ego less state, thus bringing us closer to an identity or oneness with the known. Examples might be the existence of God, identity with the living planet… It is the perceptual transformation sought by mystics and sages.” (p.158)

I would argue that if individual fulfillment—spiritual or otherwise—depended on a curriculum where evidence was immaterial, then it is justifiably ignored by the curriculum planner and other stakeholders.

I am open to debate however…


Click here for printable handout of summary and talking points.


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