Curriculum Research Paper

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The word ‘curriculum’ appears to be quite straight-forward in meaning. Most people would identify with the definitions in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary: ‘The whole body of courses offered by an educational institution; all planned school activities including besides courses of study organized play, athletics, dramatics, clubs, and home-room program.’ Laymen might well assume that specialists making of curriculum a field of study would devote their attention primarily or exclusively to describing, analyzing, and evaluating the nature and effectiveness of such institutional programs.

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A cursory review of the vast body of literature produced by these specialists reveals considerable attention to institutional programs in place but as much or more to a larger domain implied by definitions such as ‘all the activity and experience that life unaided would not provide’ (see Tanner and Tanner 1995, Chap. 5 for a comprehensive array of definitions). Specialists point out that there are distinctively different genres of curriculum: the courses of study man-dated by nations, states, and school districts; the course offerings listed in the schedules and catalogs of educational institutions; the activities actually arranged and conducted by teachers; and what students experience. The scope of the field becomes virtually that of education itself: anthropological, economic, existential, historical, linguistic, philosophical, political, psychological, sociological (see Vandenburg 1990). The present paper seeks to sort out from this wide domain what appear to be three dominant sectors of curriculum inquiry, two of which acquired their legitimacy in the second half of the twentieth century.

1. From Clear To Unclear Borders

Curriculum praxis—that is, the development and conduct of schedules of study, work, and other human activity—appears to be an old endeavor. It has ranged from tribal rites of passage to programs for a nation’s schools. Curriculum praxeology—the study of practice—is a relatively new endeavor. The book identified as probably the first in the West addressed to curriculum as a field of study was published in 1695 (Schubert 1980). Chapters in contemporary books that address ‘early beginnings’ rarely include references prior to the nineteenth century. Presumably there were, centuries ago, narratives of debate over what to teach the young, for example, that today would be considered part of the epistemology of curriculum as a field of study. Surely the twelfth-century Chinese philosopher Chu Hsi would be seen currently as a curriculum theorist for his neo-Confucian views on education as a moral imperative and the school curriculum as a vehicle for its implementation (see deBary and Chaffee 1989).

From the beginnings of formal schooling in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the dominant curricular issue has been whether the needs and interests of children or the ‘essentials’ of subject matter should be of first priority. Few contemporary treatises addressing the tension between so-called child-centered and subject-centered curricula omit the contribution to twentieth-century thought of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century reformers and thinkers such as Jean Jacques Rousseau (on children following their own interests as depicted in the volume Emile), Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (on teaching directed to the natural powers of the individual), and Herbert Spencer (on the nature of knowledge, with particular attention to his essay, ‘What knowledge is of most worth?’).

It is reasonable to conclude that the roots of curriculum as a field of study, with all the usual accompaniments of inquiry, professional organizations, conferences, and publications, are to be found in the subject vs. child debate. At first embraced primarily in psychological and philosophical discourse, the issue broke out of the boundaries of these disciplines to constitute the very core of a field now virtually incapable of defining its own borders. The program of the 1999 conference of the American Educational Research Association (AERA, enjoying a large international membership) lists more than 60 sessions, each with four or five papers presented, for Division B entitled ‘Curriculum Studies.’ The following selection of session titles suggests the incredible scope of what those in the field consider to be legitimately within it: social, political, and cultural contexts of curriculum renewal in Europe; interpretive research paradigms: ethnography, community and transformation; un-packing in public: exploring social racial identities in an urban university; gender, education, and citizen-ship: an international feminist dialogue; masculinities at school: gender relations and representatives of boys, men, and masculinity; pedagogy and remembrances of historical trauma; issues in mathematics and science curriculum; ideology and curriculum revisited: alienation, privilege, and dispossession in the college classroom; the future of the research university and the professoriate; education reform in historical perspective. There are some titles here that might have appeared decades ago, when members of the AERA were primarily white males. The newer themes appear to require long, double titles, separated by colons, to establish their legitimacy.

2. A Focus On Practice

Had there been a comparable gathering in 1900, most of the above titles would have been missing. The gathering would have focused primarily on the school subjects, with accompanying argument regarding priorities with respect to topics within them. There probably would have been presentations and discussions regarding the general education of all children in elementary schools and of the priority subjects for the few going on to secondary schools. The most controversial paper would have been on the issues of whether the subject oriented curriculum of the past had any relevance for the increasing numbers of children coming to school and staying there longer, and whether the mismatch was having a negative psychological impact on the young.

World War I stimulated attention to the world beyond national borders. To the old question of how much the curriculum should be child or subject oriented was added that of the extent to which it should be society oriented. This broadening of interest in sources of curriculum development focused much more on technical matters of construction than on bringing into the classroom social issues such as the then budding feminist movement (Rugg 1926).

The central stream of curriculum inquiry through-out the first half of the twentieth century was on what Joseph Schwab (1970) referred to as commonplaces: aims, purposes, and objectives; subjects and the balance of attention to them; scope and sequence of subjects and the curriculum as a whole; and measurement of student progress. The ‘pure’ study of curriculum was of these. But two domains of inquiry in their own right increasingly come into curriculum discourse.

One of these pertained to the impact of the public context on institutional curricula, attracting the scholarly attention of economists, historians, philosophers, and political scientists, many of whom eschewed identification with the curriculum field but influenced it, nonetheless. The other spilled over quite naturally out of psychological inquiry into learning and the scientific ordering of what was to be learned. Major contributors identified with their disciplines, but their names are embedded in the scientific tradition of the curriculum field: Pavlov, Thorndike, Watson, Piaget, Skinner, Bruner, and more.

The name most commonly identified as contributing significantly to all three streams of inquiry is John Dewey. Arguably, a wider impact on curriculum making was made by Edward L. Thorndike, whose focus on the hierarchical ordering and measuring of subject matter profoundly influenced the structure of school textbooks. During the concluding decades of the twentieth century, one would as likely find—in curriculum conferences and journals at least—as many papers on the social context and the scientific processes of curriculum making and measurement as on the description and analysis of curricular commonplaces in practice.

3. Theory

A peculiar aspect of the focus on the ends and means of curricular practice was the general absence of studies from which principles to guide and predict action and its consequences might be deduced—in other words, the absence of theory building. The conference held at the University of Chicago in 1950, designed to explore what the foundations of such theory building might be, appears to be the first of its kind and one of few to date (see Herrick and Tyler 1950). It received little attention then and has been little cited since.

Arguments for curricular relevance, on the one hand, and for efficiency, on the other, stimulated advocacy rather than inquiry. Proposals for curriculum practice, even when argued from principles such as of child development, rarely were accompanied by studies of implementation and effects. Marketing rhetoric triumphed over empirical evidence. A kind of meta-theorizing about alternative advocacies came to characterize inquiry labeled curriculum theory from the 1950s to the 1970s.

The field of study that centered on practice during the first half of the twentieth century shifted in the second half to discourse about proposals for practice. It became increasingly divisive, noncumulative, and unclear in the criteria for claiming scholarly membership. Two consequences followed: the interest and attention of the constituency in curriculum practice declined; and streams of thought not previously identified with the traditional mainstream declared themselves curricular. What occurred was more a takeover than a joining. Much of what had been the curriculum field was pushed aside and declared by some to be moribund.

4. Three Streams In Search Of A River

A better fate for an unprecedented study conducted in the 1930s might have altered somewhat the post-World War II development described above. The great depression that engulfed much of the world from 1929 into the war years accelerated decline in the value of children to the workplace, particularly in the most industrialized countries, increasing both the growth of secondary schools and their custodial function. The issue of the suitability of a narrow academic curriculum for all became critical. The seeds for innovation were planted, inviting both advocacy and the study of advocacy in institutional settings. But the state of scientific inquiry in curriculum was primitive.

The study generated during the 1930s in the USA, responding to a provocative question, was ground-breaking. Should not the ends and means of the secondary school reflect the democratic ideals of the nation? Arguably the first of its kind, the Eight-Year Study was born: a comparison during their college years of graduates from 30 schools left free to reconstruct in their own ways, and graduates of control schools not similarly engaged. Uniquely, the inquiry required documentation of ongoing changes in the experimental schools and the development of measures for assessing a wide range of student behaviors in both groups.

By the time five books reporting the work were published in 1942 and 1943, the country was deeply into war. The small number of volumes published, purchased primarily by libraries, virtually ensured that lessons learned were lodged in the minds of few other than the participants (see Thomas 1990, Aiken 1942). There were in the study the makings of a disciplined field of inquiry focused on the common-places of practice that, in turn, it is reasonable to assume, constitute the source of a legitimate main-stream of curriculum inquiry.

In his role in the Eight-Year Study, Ralph Tyler had brought into educational measurement the concept of evaluation: determining the values embedded in the educational ends sought, developing techniques for determining the presence of these values in the conditions established and in the outcomes obtained, and then constructing hypotheses and explanations regarding cause and effect. Tyler’s conception forced attention not just to outcomes but to the whole of curricular ends and means. During the second half of the 1940s, at the University of Chicago, Tyler developed a graduate course on curriculum making entitled Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction (Tyler 1949). Never intended to be more than a syllabus free of scholarly references, never revised, and reprinted over and over into the present, this little monograph earned him a firm place in curriculum as a field of study.

Given Tyler’s role in the research methodology of the Eight-Year Study, it is puzzling that he turned the research questions of the soon-forgotten study into a procedural tool for curriculum development: what educational purposes should the school seek to attain? What educational experiences can be provided that are likely to attain these purposes? How can these educational experiences be effectively organized?

How can we determine whether these purposes are being attained? A slight rewording changes each of these into a research question, as with the first: what educational purposes is the school seeking to attain? Had Tyler constructed the syllabus around his four questions phrased to guide research on practice, using the Study as illustrative, those who took his course, the many more who read his monograph, and curriculum as a field of curriculum inquiry, might have proceeded differently in the postwar years. Instead, the Tyler Rationale (as it came to be known) took on a life of its own in the meta-theorizing that accompanied advocacy. The study of practice languished.

From the 1960s to the 1970s, the dominant stream of curricular thought, part historical and part philosophical, focused on whose interests were being served by the schools, challenging the conventional wisdom that established practices nourished democratic principles. Meanwhile, evaluation (influenced by Tyler, sometimes referred to in the literature as the father of evaluation) was establishing itself as a stream of curriculum thought and practice in its own right. Some scholars engaged in critical inquiry into the values embedded in curriculum policy viewed those in evaluation as mere technicians; some evaluators perceived the reconceptualists, as they came to be called, as inventing the truth divested of evidence. The two groups invigorated and frequently dominated dialogue at curriculum conferences, but there were those in the traditional domain of studying the common-places of practice who viewed both as house guests overstaying their welcome.

5. The River Curriculum

What Tyler accomplished in a short space was the identification and alignment of the essential components of curriculum construction—the commonplaces. For many critics, the synthesis was too tidy, too linear, or too little attentive to their specialties. Indeed, the Tyler Rationale lent itself to conversion into a sloppy algebraic formula: P (purposes) + L (learning experiences) + O (organization) + E (evaluation) = C (curriculum). Nonetheless, for decades many specialists found it necessary to take a stand with respect to Tyler’s work in advancing their own positions. What Tyler contributed was a systematic arrangement of a language of curriculum—a lexicon.

This became clear at the International Seminar for Advanced Training in Curriculum Development and Innovation, supported by UNESCO and the Inter-national Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IAEEA) and directed by Benjamin Bloom, in Granna, Sweden, during the summer of 1971 (Bloom 1971). Teams of four to six persons from 23 countries of South America, Africa, Asia, and Europe attended lectures by Tyler most mornings and read his monograph. There were fears in the subgroups, each comprised of one member from each of the teams, that cultural differences would deny conversation around common issues. They soon dis-covered, however, that the lexicon of ordered curriculum commonplaces of the Tyler Rationale provided common ground.

Schooling, especially at the elementary and secondary levels, is a highly political endeavor that connects only loosely and sporadically with scholarly inquiry. The support and use of studies of existing curricula are rare. The seminal studies of Torsten Husen and his colleagues decades ago that influenced practice in Sweden appear to have suffered the fate of the Eight-Year Study; there is no mention of them in the massive Handbook of Research on Curriculum (Jackson 1992). The several rather comprehensive inquiries into practice in the USA conducted in the 1980s were supported by private philanthropy and their recommendations obliterated by publicly sup- ported nonresearch reports of state and federal com- missions. Had Benjamin Bloom and his associates been successful in securing financial support for creating the International Curriculum Organization of national centers such as those represented at the Granna conference, an organization conceived as a companion of the IAEEA, the international perspective and exchange thus gained might have served to offset the bureaucratic monitoring role most specialists and centers have been required to perform.

With the macro-issues of curriculum practice dominated by political machinations, today’s students of curriculum are limited largely to fine-grained micro-matters. Given the current state of scientific inquiry in curriculum, this is society’s loss. A robust future for curriculum as a field of study devoted to educational renewal depends on it being recognized and supported for its potential benefit to humankind.


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