Curriculum theory is the network of assumptions that undergirds curriculum proposals, policies, or practices, and is the critique of the same. Curriculum, and curriculum theory as a subset, is an offshoot of philosophy and social foundations of education that started in the early twentieth century.
Origins Of Curriculum Theory
Curriculum theory and foundations of education, together, grew to prominence, and then starting in the 1930s began to become more differentiated at key universities such as Teachers College, Columbia University; Ohio State University; and the University of Illinois. These universities had strong early to mid-twentieth-century social and cultural foundations faculty, many of whom became well known in curriculum theory and in foundations. Examples of some of the major contributors to the field from the first half the twentieth century include John Dewey, William Bagley, George Counts, Harold Rugg, William H. Kilpatrick, and John Childs. Among more recent figures are, to name just a few, Jonas Soltis, Dwayne Huebner, Maxine Greene, David Hansen, Janet Miller, Ralph W. Tyler, Joseph J. Schwab, William Pinar, and Sarah Lawrence Lightfoot.
Forms Of Curriculum Theory
Forms of curriculum theory (often derived from philosophical and other foundations of education) include the following: descriptive theory, prescriptive theory, critical theory, hermeneutic theory, postmodern theory, and personal theory.
Descriptive curriculum theory builds upon analytic and empirical philosophical traditions. Analytic theory strives to clarify concepts and builds theory upon both philosophical conceptualization and empirical studies that are assumed to provide small pieces of large puzzles of inquiry. It draws upon realism in philosophy of education and is patterned after investigation in the natural sciences that has led to theories of the biological cell or to atomic theory, for example. Work in this tradition often draws upon psychological origins of theory and research, exemplified by early work of E. L. Thorndike, G. Stanley Hall, Charles Judd, and B. F. Skinner, and the curriculum work of Franklin Bobbitt, Ralph W. Tyler, George Beauchamp, Mauritz Johnson, Howard Gardner, and George Posner.
Prescriptive curriculum theory is often referred to as normative, in that it posits values that guide decisions about that which is worth teaching and learning, and then proceeds to justify such values through philosophical argument. Such argument may be made through appeal to authoritative sources of the past and usually involves the cogent construction of reasoning through deductive, syllogistic, prepositional, symbolic, inductive, or dialectical logic. Associated primarily with philosophical schools of idealism, naturalism, scholasticism, and to a lesser extent with pragmatism and existentialism, prescriptive curriculum theorists attempt to present compelling defenses of proposed or practiced responses to curriculum positions on what is worth knowing, needing, experiencing, doing, becoming, being, overcoming, sharing, and contributing. Contemporary prescriptive curriculum theorists might draw upon philosophical roots in the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Peter Abelard, Martin Luther, Ignatius Loyola, Rene Descartes, G. W. F. Hegel, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, Alfred North Whitehead, William James, John Dewey, and others.
Today’s versions of such theorists range from conservative proponents of the Western canon (e.g., Mortimer Adler, E. D. Hirsch), to liberals (e.g., Decker Walker, R. F. Dearden, David Hansen, Philip Jackson, Joseph Schwab, William A. Reid, and Nel Noddings), to radicals (e.g., William Ayers, James Beane, Paulo Freire), and many others whose writing is often of the essay form.
Critical curriculum theory began as an accepted curriculum discourse in the 1970s, though it has roots in radical racial and cultural scholarship and critique (e.g., Sarah Winnemucca, W. E. B. Du Bois, Horace Mann Bond, Carter G. Woodson, Jose Marti, Elizabeth Blackwell, Emily Blackwell, Franz Fanon, George L. Sanchez, Ivan Illich, Malcolm X, Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King, Jr.). Like the work of these too often neglected theorists, the focus of critical curriculum theory is on exposing and overcoming injustice. Grounded in the work of Karl Marx and his dialectical class analysis, post-Marxists have pushed the boundaries to include inequities based on race, ethnicity, gender, language, culture, nationality, place, sexual orientation, age, ability/disability, health/illness, religion/belief, membership, and more. The legacy of neo-Marxists such as Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, Antonio Gramsci, Erich Fromm, and Jürgen Habermas is drawn upon by contemporary curriculum theorists, such as Paulo Freire, Michael Apple, Henry Giroux, Cleo Cherryholmes, Jean Anyon, Peter McLaren, Patti Lather, William Watkins, Donaldo Macedo, and others
Hermeneutic curriculum theory stems from continental European phenomenological and existentialist origins, having roots in the work of Edmund Husserl, Søren Kierkegaard, Martin Heidegger, Jean Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, M. J. Langeveld, and others. A diverse array of curriculum scholars have built upon these scholars. Some, such as Max van Manen, Ted Aoki, Ton Beekman, George Willis, Maureen Connolly, Francine Hultgren, Valerie Polakow, Terry Carson, David Smith, Stephen Smith, and Donald Vandenberg, strive to depict the meanings of lived experience They transform the literal notion of hermeneutics as interpretation of texts in the Judaic tradition to metaphorically refer to an ever-vigilant understanding of texts as the perspectives or outlooks of human beings as they encounter existence.
A figure like Maxine Greene combines existential and phenomenological with critical theory and perspectives drawn from literature and the other arts. Her work as well as that of James B. Macdonald and Dwayne Huebner has influenced William Pinar, Madeleine Grumet, Janet Miller, and others who have referred to currere, the verb form of curriculum, a term used to highlight the active portrayal of seeking to understand how one’s interpretation of the past and anticipation of the future continuously reconstruct fleeting images of the present.
Postmodern curriculum theory is a rather new phenomenon that has grown from disenchantment with all organized systems of thought or metanarratives as captured in Jean-François Lyotard’s central theme that postmodernism is incredulous of and should interrupt metanarratives. Other postmodern theorists, such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, Ferdinand de Saussure, and Paul Ricoeur, have been major contributors to curriculum theory that counters metatheory by employing the ideas of William Pinar, William Doll, Noel Gough, Patrick Slattery, William Stanley, Bernardo Gallegos, Elizabeth Ellsworth, Bernadette Baker, and others. This is done by advocating multiple narratives, deconstructing those texts, complicating reflections and conversations on what they signify via differing interpretations of their possible meanings.
Personal theory emerges largely from pragmatism, which assumes that the values of ideas reside in action based on those ideas. Thus, for John Dewey (as influenced by fellow founders of pragmatism—Charles S. Peirce and William James), the study of effective social practice yields salient theory that is continuously reconstructed by subsequent experience. Practical inquiry, as developed by Joseph Schwab, also has origins in the pragmatism of Dewey. It seeks problems in states of affairs, not generalized states of mind; its method of inquiry is more immersion and interaction than induction and hypothetical deduction, while it unveils subject matter that is situationally specific, rather than law-like, and ends that consist of knowledge, not merely for its own sake, but for the sake of morally defensible action. Eclectically combined with autobiographical, biographical, and aesthetic narrative discourses, practical postures of inquiry facilitate personal theory—a kind of currere in which individuals and communities create perspectives that guide their lives. Revising such perspectives is deemed the process of education itself, a novel variation on the time-honored, but too seldom emphasized, goal of self-education.
Critics of contemporary education such as William Pinar argue that much of contemporary curriculum theory that attempts to guide practice today is too often a meager amalgam that masquerades as prescriptive and descriptive theory to justify the policies of elite groups, who design education as schooling that benefits their own social, political, and economic aims. Pinar argues that this state of affairs requires curriculum theorizing that is distanced from practice and policy, so it will not be co-opted by power, and thus be able to offer radically imaginative alternatives. Peter Hlebowitsh has argued that such distancing is an abdication of responsibility, since children come to school daily and must experience the best that curriculum theorists have to offer to the democratic process, even under oppressive and autocratic circumstances. J. Dan Marshall and his colleagues portray a kind of postmodern pastiche of how curriculum theorists have responded to the needs of curriculum work since 1950. William Schubert argues that curriculum theorizing must become instantiated in the minds, hearts, and practices not only of theorists, researchers, and consultants, but of educational leaders, teachers, parents, and learners at all levels, both in school and in the many other venues of teaching and learning in life.
- Connelly, F. M., He, M. F., & Phillion, J. (Ed.). (2008). Handbook of curriculum and instruction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Hlebowitsh, P. (1993). Radical curriculum theory reconsidered. New York: Teachers College Press.
- Marshall, J. D., Sears, J. T., Allen, L. A., Roberts, P. A., & Schubert, W. H. (2007). Turning points in curriculum: A contemporary American memoir. Columbus, OH: Pearson Merrill-Prentice Hall.
- Pinar, W. F. (2004). What is curriculum theory? Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Pinar, W. F., Reynolds, W. M., Slattery, P., & Taubman, P. M. (1995). Understanding curriculum. New York: Peter Lang.
- Schubert, W. H. (1986). Curriculum: Perspective, paradigm, and possibility. New York: Macmillan.
- Schubert, W. H. (2008). Curriculum inquiry. In F. M. Connelly, M. F. He, & J. Phillion (Eds.), Handbook of curriculum and instruction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- Schubert, W. H., Lopez Schubert, A. L., Thomas, T. P., & Carroll, W. M. (2002). Curriculum books: The first hundred years. New York: Peter Lang.
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