After the introductory module my sixth PME course (810 Integrated Planning, Instruction, and Assessment), I was asked to read a few hundred pages about the development, interpretation, categorization, and implementation of various conceptions of curriculum. It is fascinating to look at the various ways in which people view the purpose of schooling and how curricular frameworks are developed to achieve those views. I also think it is important to reflect on my own experiences with these competing conceptions in mind.

What, exactly, is curriculum? As noted in Al Mousa’s thesis (p.21) curriculum is derived from currere – Latin for racecourse. A racecourse can be a lot of things, the site of intense competition, a pathway to victory, a location for entertainment and amusement… but it is nothing without those who race. Just as a curriculum is nothing without its students.

Curriculum is both the plan and the execution of a learner’s experiences. Curricula are developed for a number of reasons – to help individual students, to help society, to satisfy the “big questions” we have about our own identity and purpose, to satisfy entrance requirements for the next stage of the learner’s academic career, to establish a baseline set of subject-specific competencies, and on and on…

There are a number of stakeholders when curricula are developed: student needs, government policies and ideology, community needs, the ability of the teachers, administrators, and school boards, and obviously – what is taught.

I’d love to begin to summarize the content of those two hundred odd pages – but I’m not short on words, and you’re not long on time… so I’ll spare you the gritty details. That said – if anyone does want to discuss political-economic ideologies and associated influences on curricular development – find me at @SPGiesbrecht on twitter or spgiesbrecht at gmail .com.

What I will do is identify a few of the curricular conceptions that stand out to me. The first is what Pratt identifies as Cultural Transmission – where the role of school, therefore the function of curriculum, is to transmit knowledge from teacher to student through verbal or written words. There are standards against which every student should be measured by how many morsels of information were successfully transmitted.

I get it – I grew up in a system of cultural transmission. I learned the same basic facts that everyone else did – I can participate in society… I am well versed in culturally appropriate behaviour – I can criticize literature, I can engage in discussion and debate, I am conversant in all manner of scientific grand ideas and achievements… Eisner and Vallance called this Academic Rationalism. Whatever it’s called – or whomever identified it first – this is the style of curriculum I think of when “traditional”, “old school”, or “how I learned” is mentioned. But I must be careful of falling for either the appeal to tradition or the appeal to novelty (both logic fallacies which present themselves all too often in our line of work). No – this conception deserves as much consideration as the others, even though it is unlikely to move from its traditionally dominant position.

A conception which aligns more closely to my own thoughts on schooling is that of Self-Actualization. This approach has been mentioned by Eisner & Vallance, Sowell, and others. What this conception concerns itself with is the needs and interests of students. How can students both understand and meet their potential? Students are not invited to learn what is being transmitted, no – they are pursuing their own discoveries and inquiries – where teachers facilitate more than lecture. One problem is that our system is not developed to smoothly meet the individual needs of our students. No – there are pockets of student interest and freedom of learning – but they are neither deep nor many.

Finally, I’m intrigued by the Social Relevance-Reconstruction concept. Also identified by Sowell, McNeil, Pratt, and Eisner & Vallance, this focuses on the needs of the culture, society as a whole. Some iterations focus on the greatest good, others on the reformation of society, and others still to prepare for the unexpected changes which meet our society. This collective approach recognizes that individuals are part of a whole which must continue to thrive – but gives very little thought to the individual’s needs.

Personal Reflection

In my context, I see examples and occurrences where my teaching philosophy does not play nice with the curriculum. One of the more recent dilemmas I’m facing is that of final exams in Grade 7. Exams are used in measuring the efficiency of the learner to memorize transmitted facts – not necessarily to demonstrate personally meaningful growth and awareness of potential. Cultural Transmission/Academic vs Self-Actualization.

The exams are justified as preparation for future schooling. I don’t agree with that, completely. I do believe in preparing students for their futures. Perhaps I can do this by using an alternative exam… but any alternative exam structure is likely to run counter to the intention of my administrator. That intention is using the exam to teach students what a traditional English exam looks like – reading and responding to text, producing a succinct and well-defended argument, etc…

If I stray to include open discussions, freedom from time constraints, providing exam takers the opportunity to demonstrate understanding in any way they choose, and allowing students to respond to text in partner groups – I’m not doing my job of preparing students for the Grade 12 provincial ELA standards exam. If I follow the standards exam structure, I’m betraying my professional judgment. If I ignore the exam requirement, I’m betraying my administrator’s wishes.

That said, understanding where a particular decision/curriculum component comes from is helpful in my decision-making process. I can decide if I want to be a hard-liner when it comes to presenting a consistent and singular curricular approach for my students. I can decide if a compromise is, or concessions are, able to be made. I can look at the defenders of these conceptions and read their argumentation for the procedure – and apply it against my own justification for my program.

If I am to either agree to the final exam structure or to defend my own structure, I need to be well-equipped with a strong argument either way. Understanding the various conceptions of curriculum help point me in the right direction to developing that argument.

Works Consulted

  • Al Mousa, N. (2013). An examination of cad use in two interior design programs from the perspectives of curriculum and instructors, pp. 21-37 (Master’s Thesis).
  • Eisner, E., & Vallance, E. (Eds.). (1974). Five conceptions of the curriculum: Their roots and implications for curriculum planning. In E. Eisner & E. Vallance (Eds.), Conflicting conceptions of curriculum(pp. 1-18). Berkeley, CA: McCutchan Publishing
  • McNeil, J. D. (2006). Contemporary curriculum in thought and action (6th ed., pp. 1-13, 24-34, 44-51, 60-73). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Ornstein, A. C., & Hunkins, F. P. (2013). Curriculum: Foundations, principles, and issues (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson. Read part of Chapter 1, pp. 1-8.
  • Pratt, D. (1994). Curriculum perspectives. In D. Pratt, Curriculum planning: A handbook for professionals (pp. 8-22). Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College Publisher.
  • Shiro, M. S. (2008). Introduction to the curriculum ideologies. In M. S. Shiro, Curriculum theory: Conflicting visions and enduring concerns (pp. 1-12). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Sowell, E. J. (2005). Curriculum: An integrative introduction (3rd ed., pp. 37-51). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.