Curriculum Theory Research Paper Starter

Curriculum Theory

The field of curriculum studies emerged in the nineteenth century, after the initial wave of administrative concerns of the open free schools of the eighteenth century had passed. Throughout the nineteenth century, the theory of mental discipline dominated curriculum thought. Because, at this time, the mind was thought of as a repository for facts, teaching methods were based on repetition and memorization. The beginning of the twentieth century saw the mental discipline theory replaced by two threads of thought that would dominate pedagogical debates for the next one hundred years. One thread, that of progressivism or child centeredness, was largely supported by Francis Parker and John Dewey; the other, the social efficiency model, was proposed by behaviorists interested in the mechanics of learning. In the twenty-first century, two new trends have emerged. One is an outgrowth of progressive ideas that displays sensitivity to environmental factors, and students' individual differences and learning styles; the other is founded in technological conceptions of curriculum and shifts many educational services, communications, and course offerings to the web and other new technologies.

Keywords Common School; Mental Discipline; Progressivism; Project Method; Social Efficiency; Vocational Education


Curriculum in Colonial America (17th Century)

The history of curriculum theory in America goes back to the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony who passed the country's first compulsory education laws during the 17th century. The Puritans, following the lead of John Calvin, believed that curriculum ought to prompt "the intensive, rigorous, even empirical process" of self-examination aimed at "identify[ing] a purpose and meaning in life" (McKnight, 2006, p. 175). Children were taught to read and write in English, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew so that they would be able to study religious texts and classical literature as well as fully participate in civic life as adults (Wegenast, 2006).

Though at the time the Puritan model was somewhat progressive, by today's standards it appears limited. Education was directed toward religious ends with the primary school texts consisting of the Bible and Days of Doom, Or, A Poetical Description of the Great and Last Judgment (Wigglesworth, 1867; originally published in 1662). Furthermore, the critical theories associated with the social sciences had not yet been developed (Cremin, 1970).

John Locke

John Locke (1632-1704), a British philosopher of the empiricist school, helped support a shift away from Puritan educational practices with his influential book Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1902; first published 1693). In contrast to the Puritan's conception of education as a means of strengthening religious beliefs, he introduced the idea of knowledge as pleasure, as an end unto itself. He also proposed that empirical experiences are central to learning (Cremin, 1970). For example, Locke wrote that the best teachers are people who have had many experiences, for if a person has not had an experience, he or she cannot convey its true meaning to others.

The driving force of Locke's philosophy was rooted in his belief that a child is born as a tabula rasa, or blank slate, and therefore free from any preconditions that may influence his or her behavior or nature. Locke thought a child's character, belief structures, and relationships were all developed through repetition. These ideas resurfaced in nineteenth century theories of mental discipline and in early twentieth century behaviorist approaches to learning. Yet Locke also influenced schools of thought opposing mental discipline and behaviorism through his emphasis on experience and student enjoyment of learning.

Horace Mann

Horace Man (1875-1955) coined the term “common school” to reflect the new movement toward taxpayer funded, free school networks for white boys from any means. The movement began around the turn of the nineteenth century and waned around the turn of the twentieth century. Mann, considered the founder of American education, was primarily a policymaker who believed that free education for all would help dissolve strict class boundaries and eliminate poverty (Cremin, 1951). A secretary of education, congressman, and university president, Mann built upon Locke's ideas about holistic, empirically grounded education and critical thought to reconceptualize the field of pedagogy. For example, he proposed the whole-word method of teaching reading as an alternative to the a-b-c, phonetic approaches of the times.

Common schools, though meant for all, were in actuality only attended by "children of the poor" (Tanner & Tanner, 1990, p. 33). These precursors to modern public schools were crude by today's standards: Up to eighty students of all abilities and ages were gathered in small one-room schoolhouses, and teachers were generally untrained and quickly transitioned into other jobs (Tanner & Tanner, 1990). During the time of the common school movement, there were "no stud[ies] of pupil abilities, social needs, interests, capacities, or differential training" (Cubberly, quoted in Pinar et al., 2004, p. 75), in large part because curriculum was not conceived of as more than the repetition and memorization of facts. These teaching methods were only reinforced by the environmental conditions challenging the common school movement (Manzo, 1999).

The teaching methods suggested by the theories of mental discipline, or faculty psychology, which dominated schools throughout the eighteenth century, were based on repetition and memorization. During this time, the mind was conceived of as a large repository for facts that were seen as "furniture" of the mind (Pinar et al., 2004). The aim of teaching, it was believed, was to transmit facts to students, an approach that largely overlooked comprehension.

Throughout the 19th century various defenses of the mental discipline approach were made. In 1828, for example, the Yale Report on the Defense of the Classics staunchly defended the approach as most effective to pedagogy. Charles Eliot (1834-1926), the president of Harvard University, was also a major proponent and defender of mental discipline. The influence of these mechanical approaches to learning can be seen within later movements of the twentieth century, such as theories of scientific management and social efficiency and, in the twenty-first century, within the quantitative research movement (Cremin, 1976).

Progressivism vs. Social Efficiency (Early 20th Century through the 1970s)

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, increased regard for and study of the sciences led to the formation of the "field" of curriculum theory and development (Pinar et al., 2004). Two threads of thought came to dominate twentieth century pedagogical debates. One, that of progressivism, or "child centeredness," was largely propelled by Francis Parker (1837-1902); the other, social efficiency model, was put forth around the same time by behaviorists interested in the mechanics of learning.

Social Efficiency

In large part, Edward L. Thorndike (1874-1949) is credited with the turn toward social efficiency and with articulating the need for scientifically grounded theories of pedagogy. A behaviorist, Thorndike conceived education as a form of "human engineering" that can only "profit by measurements of human nature and achievement" (Thorndike, 1922, p. 1). Social efficiency models regarded schools as places for the production of useful, competent individuals who could effectively serve societal needs. Rooted in science, these models were inherently "technological," or systematized, linear processes. These models were much more amenable to scientific investigation than progressive models, and they were able to support an educational research movement based on behaviorist understandings and technological constructions (Pinar et al., 2004).

Franklin Bobbitt (1876-1952), an early exponent of scientifically grounded education, mobilized the field with his publication of The Curriculum: A Summary of the Development Concerning the Theory of Curriculum in 1918. Bobbitt believed that students should be trained in practical tasks that will prepare them for careers. The Curriculum proposed that task analysis be used to first determine what tasks workers commonly perform, and that the curriculum should be designed to efficiently teach students how to perform these tasks (1918). This theory led to an increase in vocational education programs, as these programs were designed to train students in the specific skills needed to perform specific jobs. Later in the century, as curriculum theory changed, this approach was criticized for perpetuating economic inequalities as well as racial and gender stereotypes (Pinar et al., 2004).

W. W. Charters (1875-1952) expanded upon Bobbitt's work and proposed a procedure for curriculum development published initially in 1923 as Curriculum Construction. Charters wrote that to develop curriculum, one must first observe daily "adult" tasks and derive educational objectives from these tasks. One must then create specific and appropriately sequenced activities and tasks to realize these objectives. Lastly, one must select the most important tasks that can realistically be taught in schools (1923).

Ralph Tyler (1902-1994) further solidified the systematization of curriculum development in his Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction, first published in 1949. Tyler proposed the now commonly used method of planning lessons according to quantifiable, observable goals, objectives, activities, and evaluation techniques (1949). Tyler's legacy is reflected in the modern educational emphasis on standardization, efficiency, and accountability.


Countering this movement toward social efficiency was progressivism, which is commonly associated with Francis Parker, John Dewey (1859-1952), and William Heard Kilpatrick (1871-1965).


(The entire section is 4446 words.)