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Curriculum Foundations

Curriculum Foundations
A Research Paper
Written by
Khaled Sellami, Ph.D.
In their seminal work, Ornstein and Hunkins (2009) present an elaborate overview of the field of
curriculum. They refer to a myriad of curricular approaches: behaviorist, managerial, systems,
academic, humanistic, and reconceptualist. They also point out the challenges of defining the
concept (hardly any agreement on a unified definition of the field), domains (development,
design, implementation, and evaluation), planned and hidden curricula (i.e., formal and
informal), theory and practice (conceptual framework of thinking that guides the application and
implementation of procedures, methods, and skills), and the roles and responsibilities of the
curriculum worker (supervisor, leader, coordinator, specialist, teacher, superintendent; anyone
involved in the afore mentioned curriculum domains, to include the student/learner).
Perhaps the most intricate debate in the field of curriculum is the one covered in depth by
Ornstein and Hunkins (2009) in four separate chapters. The open-ended debate is about the
foundations, sources, influences, and determinants of the knowledge of curriculum. The most
commonly accepted foundations are philosophical, historical, psychological, and social (while
cultural, political, and economic foundations are often regarded as part of the social origins). I
will try below to summarize each of the four major foundation areas shaping curriculum. I will
also elaborate more on the psychological perspective and compare it to the other three sources as
it has a direct bearing on what I personally do in my career and what I subscribe to as a matter of
conviction about the role of education in people's lives and in contemporary society. I
acknowledge that the field of curriculum is in constant flux and, as an aspiring curricularist, I
hereby pledge to be flexible enough to change my position, based on empirical evidence that
current and future research will enrich the field with.
The goals and functions of schools have been greatly influenced by the inherited or
contemporary world of knowledge, by sociopolitical forces, and by the subject-matter specialists.
Education has been interpreted as the process of changing people’s patterns of behavior, with
little consideration of learners as individuals. New experiential-progressivist orientations view
students as autonomous thinkers and socially responsible individuals who are able to control
their destiny. In this respect, the individual learner is now seen as a whole, and this new outlook
requires from educators and curriculum developers to have a broader vision of education as to
address not only the cognitive goals, but also affective-biosocial developmental processes, and
other moral principles. The ultimate goal of school, education, and curriculum is to bring about
the necessary social transformation and to ensure that the widest public interest is served.
The Issue:
There has been a sharp division among educators and thinkers as to the dominant source
and influence for curriculum development since—and even before—the first attempt at
establishing curriculum as a distinct area of study (1918), that is, throughout most of the 20 th
century and until today. Should the determinant influence be the world of knowledge, society, or
the learner? Which of those three determinants is most relevant and most significant? Making
one source more dominant than the others has resulted in the fragmentation and imbalance of the
curriculum field. However, interaction and interdependence of all three influences will produce
unity, coherence, and balance when a paradigm or a model is agreed upon by the leading
contemporary curricularists, reaching consensus among all, rather than compromise (what the
eclectic approach is about) that never resolves fundamental differences. Substantive problem-
solving and long lasting reform and progress are what curriculum development needs, not
cosmetic changes, reactionary movements, short-sighted arrangements, and/or special interests.
Philosophical Foundations:
Philosophical foundations of curriculum abound; each distinct orientation influenced
education, and notably the field of curriculum, for a considerable period of time. No doubt that
the philosophy of a school and its officials has a direct bearing on the goals, content, and
organization of its curriculum. A philosophy of education has always had an impact on schools
and society; it tends to determine educational or curriculum decisions. According to John
Dewey (1916), the leading advocate of this perspective, philosophy is the all-encompassing
aspect of the educational process.
A myriad of philosophical viewpoints have emerged within the field of curriculum:
idealism, realism, pragmatism, and existentialism. They have inspired educational theories:
perennialism and essentialism (with traditional and conservative outlooks), progressivism and
reconstructionism (holding contemporary and liberal views). The curriculum focus in all of
these theories ranges from classical subjects, literary analysis, essential skills and disciplines, old
and tested moral and ethical values (the conservative stance) to students' interests, human affairs,
social sciences, present and future trends, national and international issues, and interdisciplinary
subject matters, activities, and projects (the contemporary stance).
Most schools in the U.S. and elsewhere adopt an eclectic philosophical approach; very few opt
for a single philosophy. That is possibly due to the interrelatedness of issues and the fact that the
needs of individual students and those of society at large must be served in order for a
curriculum to be accepted and implemented.
Historical Foundations:
If we examine the historical foundations of curriculum in the U.S., particularly in the last
100 years, we will find that European educational ideas and 19 th-century European pioneers of
pedagogy have significantly influenced the U.S. school system. During the colonial period,
Puritan thought was prevalent. The primary purpose of school was to teach children to read (also
write and spell) the Scriptures and notices of civil affairs. There were Town Schools, Provincial
and Private Schools, Latin Grammar Schools, Academies, and Colleges. During the early
national period (Independence until 1850), free public schooling emerged. Free education
emphasized science, progress, democracy, and moral principles, among other notions. The
theme of reform characterized the era and that brought about such pedagogical ideas as Johann
Pestalozzi's (in Barnard, 1862) general and specialized methods to educate children who use
their senses to learn, thus emulating home experiences. Other initiatives came into play and
reflected the evolving history of curriculum. Most notable of those initiatives were Friedrich
Froebel's (1889) Kindergarten Movement (when a children-centered curriculum became the
norm), Joseph Lancaster's (1803) Monitorial Schools (following the industrial model where
efficiency, structure, rote learning, and mass education were emphasized), and Horace Mann's
(1957) Common Schools (local schools and universal education to promote common culture,
equal opportunity, and national identity).
From 1800 to 1900, elementary schools, secondary schools, academies, and later on, high
schools, became U.S. educational institutions. They grew in number and did offer a variety of
courses. From 1893 to 1918, education and curriculum saw a transitional period dominated by
the findings of three committees whose mission was to reaffirm the traditional curriculum: (1)
the Committee of fifteen that rejected the ideas of newer and interdisciplinary subjects and called
for the compartmentalization of subject matter; (2) the Committee of Ten that promoted
academics and ignored most students who were not college-bound; and (3) the Committee on
College Entrance Requirements that reaffirmed the dominance of the college preparatory
curriculum and classical subjects.
From 1918 onwards, immigration, industrial development, and the scientific movement
in psychology led several educators to question the mental discipline approach and reject classic
curriculum. Thinkers like Francis Parker (1894) and John Dewey (1938) introduced modern
learning theories that produced behaviorist and progressive orientations in schools and society.
There was a pressure for the implementation of a modern curriculum based on pragmatic and
scientific principles of education. Behaviorism and the scientific movement, the rise of
progressive and universal education, specialization and professional training, and the
developmental ideas of child- and learner-centered approaches—all immensely impacted the
field of curriculum. Also curriculum as a field of study, with its own methods, theories, and
approaches to solving problems, has made concrete advances since leading figures in the field
published their influential works (e.g., Bobbitt 1918, 1924), Charters (1923), Kilpatrick (1918,
1926), Rugg (1930), and, in particular, Tyler (1949), and Goodlad (1984, 1994)).
Psychological Foundations:
Just like good teaching (which effectiveness is known only when genuine learning takes
place), a curriculum has worth only when students gain long-term knowledge. Both teaching and
learning are essential processes to curricularists. To enhance those two processes, curriculum
needs to be organized in a certain way, based on a psychological theory of learning. Three major
schools of thought in psychology embody the psychological foundations of education and
curriculum. They are: (1) behaviorist or association theories which deal with various aspects of
stimulus-response and reinforcers, i.e., conditioning, modifying, or shaping behavior via
reinforcement and rewards; (2) cognitive information processing theories which account for the
significant role of the environment and the way the learner applies information. This implies that
the focus is on student’s developmental stages and multiple forms of intelligence, as well as on
creativity, critical thinking, and problem solving; and (3) the phenomenological, humanistic
theories which consider the whole child as a social, cognitive, and psychological being. This
entails countless alternatives in learning since the emphasis is on the ever-changing learner’s
needs, feelings, and attitudes.
Behaviorism is perhaps the most recognized and widely used learning theory in the field
of curriculum; it has been certainly the most influential for much of the 20th century. What was
once known as traditional psychology, rooted in philosophical speculation, emphasizing classical
conditioning behavior of stimulus and response and habit formation, and epitomized by Edward
Thorndike (1911, 1932), known as the father of behavioral psychology in the U.S., who believes
that learning is a matter of relating new learning with previous learning—behaviorism is being
transformed into several current-teaching-learning models such as mastery learning, hierarchical
learning, modeling, direct instruction, and individualized instruction; each model is well-argued
and has significantly contributed to the curriculum field.
Cognitive psychology has transpired as a criticism of behaviorism, which was described
as too simple and mechanical. Advocates of this new orientation in psychology believe that
learning in school is mainly cognitive and that the behaviorists have failed to recognize that
human learning often relies on complex thinking processes that are beyond respondent or operant
An important and unresolved debate within the cognitive camp is about heredity versus
environment in determining cognitive outcomes (i.e., IQ and achievement scores). Central
questions for cognitive psychologists revolve around ways of organizing knowledge, storing
information, retrieving data, generating conclusions, and using the new information and
understandings. Thus, the focus of cognitive psychology is on how individuals process
information and how they monitor and manage their thinking. In other words, the study of the
mind—to include short-term and long-term memory—is of great value.
Several learning methods and theories emerged thanks to this new orientation. Maria
Montessori (1912), a pedagogist of the early 20th century, used a rational and scientific approach
that considered children's developmental stages. She maintained that children develop at
different rates and that certain cognitive and social abilities develop before others. She
concluded that in order for learning to take place, children's school environment needs
enrichment, their self-confidence in performing tasks requires enhancement, and structural play
to teach basic skills ought to be provided. To this extent, Montessori was a psychological pioneer
in cognition.
More influential than Montessori was Jean Piaget (1948), the Swiss psychologist who
presented cognitive development in terms of stages, from birth to maturity. These stages are
hierarchical and the mental operations increasingly sophisticated. Level of attainment in
individuals varies, he concluded, due to heredity and environment. Like Piaget, John Dewey
(1938) used environmental and experiential theories to claim that there are three basic cognitive
processes. What Piaget termed assimilation (incorporating new experiences into existing ones)
Dewey referred to as situation. Piaget's second process, accommodation (developing new
cognitive structures to adapt to a new environment) is similar to Dewey's interaction. The final
process is dubbed equilibration by Piaget and continuity by Dewey (denoting the process of
balancing what is already understood and what has yet to be understood, that is, situations and
interactions that follow).
A number of cognitive psychologists followed in the footsteps of Piaget and Dewey and
used different, yet similar terms to refer to the various cognitive processes of learning. They
were Hilda Taba, Ralph Tyler, Jerome Bruner, and Lawrence Kohlberg. Taba (1962), in her
discussion of curriculum organization, noted Piaget's processes of assimilation, accommodation,
and equilibration as she formed her curriculum strategies for productive learning. Tyler (1949)
employed the concepts of continuity, sequence, and integration, very much in line with Dewey.
For Bruner (1959), learning follows three related processes: (1) acquisition, (2) transformation,
and (3) evaluation. As for Kohlberg (1963), he shares with Piaget the cognitive developmental
view of morality. Kohlberg outlined three moral levels or processes: Preconventional,
Conventional, and Post-conventional. (It is beyond the scope of this paper to elaborate on the
above concepts)
Other than Piaget, the most influential figure in cognitive psychology is perhaps Lev
Vygotsky. According to Jerome Bruner (cited in Moll, 1990, p. 2), Vygotsky "not only
developed an educational theory, but a general theory of sociocultural transmission." For
Vygotsky (1978), child development is a sociogenic process shaped by the individual's
interactions with the culture. Both culture and human action evolve over time, maintains
Vygotsky. The mind changes, so does cognitive processing, which in turn impacts thinking.
Language, being human culture's primary tool, enables and elicits thought. Thus, the idea of
"enculturation" came about to indicate that formal education is the way to improve human
conditions. Vygotsky called for a school with an environment conducive to conscious learning,
under the guidance of an educator, for a child/learner to reach the next developmental stage. In
other words, unlike Piaget and others, Vygotsky believes that the learning process precedes the
developmental process. Effective teaching and peer instruction, argues Vygotsky, can take a
child from a particular developmental level to a higher level. This last idea brought about the
concept of meaningful instruction and another closely related field; Dynamic or Diagnostic
Assessment (a specialty in which I was a practitioner and faculty trainer at the Defense Language
Institute Foreign Language Center, in Monterey, CA). Vygotsky's ideas gave a tremendous
boost to the role of effective teaching—and continual assessment—at a time when those two
areas were coming under serious criticism by radical educators as to their worth and practical
Cognitive psychology is concerned with both learning and thinking processes; what
happens inside a person's brain. This led to the emergence of a myriad of research studies and
even new disciplines. There was research about the brain and its connection to learning, a study
on the relationship between IQ and birth order, and another one on the structure of the intellect
(being made up of numerous distinct mental abilities). Novel concepts such as learning styles,
multiple intelligences, emotional intelligence, and constructivism came to the fore. Other ideas
surfaced such problem-solving learning, discovery learning, creative thinking, reflective
thinking, critical thinking, and intuitive thinking. Again, it is beyond the scope of this paper to
define and explain each of these concepts. Yet, overall, cognition and curriculum are intertwined
as most curricularists are cognitive-oriented and believe the cognitive approach to be a logical
method for organizing and interpreting learning.
The third most common type of psychology is the humanistic or phenomenological one.
It is a contemporary school of psychology that emphasizes the whole person, the uniqueness of
the human personality, and the preeminence of the affective aspects (such as feelings, attitudes,
motivation, and sense of freedom). Based on the existentialist philosophy, phenomenology
points out that self-perception and self-concept determine what we do and how much we learn.
Many influential ideas were behind the establishment of this new learning theory. The Gestalt
theory, for instance, considers learning as complex and abstract, explained in terms of the whole
problem and in relation to others. Abraham Maslow’s (1968, 1970, 1971) hierarchy of human
needs, ranging from survival and safety to self-actualization and developing one’s fullest
potential became prominent for some time. And then came Carl Rogers (1951, 1981, 1983),
perhaps the best known humanist, who argues that reality is based on what the individual learner
perceives; children tend to differ in their kind and level of response to a particular experience.
Rogers also believes that positive human relationships enable people to grow and thus
interpersonal relationships are as important as cognitive scores. The teacher, in this respect, is
considered as a facilitator who guides students’ growth.
The humanistic perspective is thus about process, not product; personal needs, not subject
matter; changing environments, not predetermined environments; and freedom to learn at one’s
pace, not prescribed content and preplanned activities. In addition, phenomenological
psychologists’ ultimate goal is self-realization, self-fulfillment, and self-actualization. Similarly,
self-concept and self-esteem should be recognized as essential factors of learning. Hence, for
humanists, learning would not take place if students’ needs, desires, and feelings were not
satisfied. They would argue that a child and an adult learner is supposed to demonstrate
curiosity and motivation to be able to continue emotional, cognitive, and behavioral
To summarize my stance regarding the psychological foundations of curriculum, I
believe that each theory of learning has shed important light on a specific aspect of human
learning, but not its entirety. Each theory of learning is incomplete by itself, but the three
together have a lot to contribute to the field, namely, a balanced view of education and learner
Social Foundations:
The last of the four sources of curriculum is social in nature. Just like the philosophical,
historical, and psychological foundations, the social foundations play a major role in outlining an
educational theory and discussing the most suitable learning theory to adopt for a comprehensive
curriculum. Schools and society must have a strong relationship for a curriculum to be accepted
and trusted. The transmission of cultural heritage from generation to generation is the primary
mission of a society’s educational system.
In the educational process, school is a vital institution, and so is society at large. A
curriculum content, activities, and environment indirectly help shaping and socializing students.
A society’s values and norms govern interpersonal relations and produce a model personality
reflecting the attitudes, feelings, and behaviors shared by most members of that society. As for
developmental theories, they maintain that maturation and appropriate societal experiences are
necessary to move the individual from stage to stage. Researchers and educators realized that
basic needs in learners (personal, social, and economic) must be satisfied for actual learning to
take place. In the case of curriculum, developing a social-issues curriculum, along with a core
curriculum, may also help focus on resolving issues of importance to individuals and society.
Analyzing the social foundations of education and schooling, several unanswered
questions remain; do schools make a difference in knowledge and procedures learned? Do
schools and their curriculum affect society by contributing social, moral, and economic
behaviors? Does education equate with social and economic mobility? How does curriculum
reflect social reality by relating to the diverse, multi-form, postmodern family? How does
curriculum account for new mores and new customs? Is there a place in curriculum for moral
education, moral conduct, and character building? How do American students nowadays
compare nationally and internationally? Is there a correlation between learning and earning? All
of the above are unresolved topics of inquiry.
I have tried to shed light on the major foundations of curriculum, being an integral part of
the field of education. I have explained how multifaceted those sources and determinants are. The
historical, philosophical, and social perspectives—though extremely important in shaping the
discipline of curriculum—are moderately disproportionate when compared with the psychological
foundations, particularly the impact of cognitive psychology.
Reaching a unified and universally accepted definition of curriculum is "highly unlikely,"
remarked Tanner and Tanner (2007). Similar to any subjective human endeavor (being dynamic,
fluid, and unpredictable), it is safe to conclude that education (and curriculum as the means to
carry out its objectives) should have no end beyond itself. A school’s mission is to reconstruct
knowledge and create a curriculum that reflects an open learning process, integrally addressing
and relating to individual, social, and, heretofore, global needs and issues.
Synthesizing past achievements with current practices and constructive interplay between
competing theoretical orientations will result in higher-order thinking. That is the type of
thinking required in a free, democratic, and pluralistic society, like the U.S., to resolve personal
and social problems in a technological age and in the context of social responsibility. To achieve
such a state, an integrated, well-balanced curriculum structure is a must, which would bring
about total education, social transformation, and, eventually, enlightened citizens.
I believe that any curriculum, whether generic or specialized (covering a specific
discipline or subject matter), must take into account balanced considerations and interactions of
society, the world of knowledge, and the nature of the learner. Measuring the effectiveness of a
curriculum is manifested when genuine learning and application of knowledge are taking place
and when school graduates pass life’s intricate test, continue to learn, grow, and reinvent
themselves in order to adjust to a constantly changing reality.
To sum up, I can safely assert that schools, education, and the field of curriculum need
revamping. A close look at their actual state of affairs reveals a discrepancy at all levels. There
is little balance in the core approach to reform since many narrow interests will always fight it,
very much similar to what happened recently with the healthcare reform in the United States. An
evidence-based debate must take place, sooner rather than later, to reach a consensus on how to
proceed and arrive at a permanent resolution of this most vital of issues in all human societies;
proper education for all.
Tanner and Tanner (2007, pp. 99-100) wrote that “education must be a dynamic process
of individual and social growth. Curriculum is the means and ends through which education is
made instrumental… [The definition of curriculum] encompasses not only formal subject matter,
but also the process through which the learner becomes increasingly knowledgeable.”
Curriculum reform in the United States correlates with educational reform. Both have
failed to recognize the interdependence of three major factors in the educative process: (1) the
nature and needs of the learner, (2) the actual social environment, and (3) the selection and
organization of subject matters in curriculum development and implementation. Thus there has
been a variety of independent and competing curricula, ranging from learner-centered to
community-based, from individualized to society-relevant, and from humanistic to Back to
Basics. Fueled by reactions and counter-reactions and led by special interest groups, there were
few attempts, if any, to seek a balanced view of curriculum as a means to account for the whole
learner being four dimensional: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.
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