Curriculum Theory & Theorising17 April 2020
Education in Wales is currently undergoing a remarkable period of reform, with one key element being the creation of a national curriculum framework. Educators from across Wales, many fatigued by the instability caused by decades of poor educational policy development and implementation, laboured together in undertaking this work.
There is much to celebrate regarding these efforts and the progress made in coordinating the aims of curriculum work with the other dimensions of our educational reform. Equally, there is much to be concerned about, particularly as curriculum work expands from a centralised focus on a national framework to efforts by teachers (and hopefully pupils, parents and other community-members) in developing school-level curricula.
Some of my concerns relate to the preparation provided to teachers both working on the national framework and those now tasked with curriculum development in their schools. Although the foundations of the national framework was constructed through engagements with theories of curriculum design and development, this was done outside of the pioneer school model. In effect, the backbone of the curriculum framework was provided to pioneer-teachers and they worked diligently to flesh-out its details. As such, I’m not convinced pioneer teachers (and perhaps more important, non-pioneer school teachers) have been given ample opportunity to understand the role of theory and theorising in curriculum design and development. Often I wonder if we’ve rushed from announcing the new curriculum, to developing a framework, to now asking teachers to undertake school-based curriculum work, without giving them ample time to consider the role (and value) of curriculum theory as well as the benefits of theorising curriculum.
What follows is a modest introduction to curriculum theory and theorising, incorporating some of the work from Marsh & Willis (2007) and my own experiences with curriculum theory.
Theory, like curriculum, is a complicated topic. There are competing discourses regarding what a theory is, how it is derived, and what its purpose is. This is a very short (and somewhat unsatisfactory) discussion on theory as it relates to curriculum. One approach may set out to establish curriculum theory as a coherent series of claims or arguments used to explain a particular phenomenon. Another approach might present curriculum theory as a set of principles that establish and/or define curricula. Another still might propose curriculum theory as the consistent and coherent reasoning and questioning that results in “informed conjecture” or at least further questions that open new opportunities for investigation.
Some approaches to curriculum theory are more scientifically oriented, relying on empirical observations to provide answers or to attempt predictions. Others are less concerned-with empirical measures and instead focus on conceptual arguments (e.g. what is meant by ‘experience?’), normative arguments (e.g. “we should teach young people the essential knowledge of our society”), or in engaging in more abstract work that attempts to engage in the ongoing ‘reconceptualisation’ of the field. This work might be described as resisting the domination of the field by a particular, discourse or approach, and in extending its intellectual and theoretical boundaries.
While some approaches may set out to create universal or generalisable theories, others apply their efforts in creating or identifying models of curricula, detailing how different approaches coalesce into curricular discourses focused on particular aims. Both of these approaches are product-oriented, meaning they are concerned with the generation or production of an outcome (e.g. a theory or model) or with the object of their investigation (e.g. a model, its aims and outcomes).
Whereas some curriculum theorists focus on an end product (e.g. the theory or model), others privilege the process – the act of theorising in and of itself. While those theorising are engaged in activities that may ultimately produce an outcome (the theory), there is also the recognition that the person theorising benefits from the process as much as, if not more so, than they would by the product it may produce. It may be that one never arrives to a satisfactory “theory,” but the journey itself was of benefit because the individuals engaged in process were intellectually aware of phenomena comprising the subject of their theorising. Their analytical acuity increases due to attempts to engage in systematic, critical and reflective thinking, resulting in the identification of emerging patterns of systems that they may otherwise have ignored or might not have understood. Additionally, through praxis, a form of theorisation imbued by the regular interchange between action and reflection – they can derive an enhanced understanding of their practice, with the potential to not only improve the practical aspects of their teaching, but to also enhance the meaning they derive from their practice and, by extension, further extend the boundaries of their theoretical engagement.
At the same time, we must be diligent and honest with our intellectual undertaking. Criticism of curriculum theorising often frames the practice as an exercise in ‘navel gazing,’ and there is a danger that without a systematic and consistent approach to our work, we may indulge ourselves in activities that flatter our intuition rather than strengthen our ability to engage in coherent and useful engagements with curriculum theorising.
Normally, I end a post with some reflective questions. However, this time I’m providing a link to The Journal of Curriculum Theorizing. This journal is an open-access publication that has been publishing articles relating to curriculum theorising since the 1970s. It is published by the Foundation for Curriculum Theorizing and is associated with the Bergamo Conference on Curriculum Theory and Classroom Practice, an annual conference held in Dayton, Ohio, USA. The work published in this journal is largely associated with the ‘reconceptualist’ movement, which originated in the late 60s/early 70s. The story and aims of the ‘reconceptualist movement’ is long and complex, so I’ll simply say the movement emerged as a reaction to what curriculum scholars believed about the field of curriculum studies at the time – that it was moribund and saturated by an overly narrow focus on curriculum and curriculum work.
Marsh, C. J. & Willis, G. 2007. Curriculum: Alternative approaches, ongoing issues. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson