Education improvement efforts are impeded today by debates over how best to break down the curriculum. Arguments abound about how to deconstruct curriculum elements, how to clarify relationships among those elements, and especially how those elements should be labeled.
These arguments stem largely from recognition that deeper learning requires students to master numerous subskills that need to be analyzed and prioritized. Such analyses help clarify the contextual intricacies and cultural relevance of the curriculum, which, in turn, is essential in developing effective learning experiences for students.
In these efforts to break down the curriculum and make sense of its parts, however, we’ve lost sight of the bigger picture. We have become so involved with the details that we’ve forgotten why we have a curriculum in the first place and what it actually means. To make significant improvement in education requires a clear understanding of the true meaning of curriculum and why it’s important. Such understanding would also help resolve many of the current debates.
Tyler’s Curriculum Basics
Most modern conceptions of curriculum can be traced to the seminal work of Ralph Tyler and his book Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction. Published in 1949, the book is a compilation of Tyler’s notes from the course he taught by the same name at the University of Chicago. In the opening pages, Tyler described the essential nature of curriculum:
“To plan an educational program and to make continued improvements, we must have some idea of the learning goals we want to achieve. These become the criteria for selecting materials, outlining content, developing instructional procedures, and preparing assessments. All aspects of an educational program are really means to accomplish these specific learning goals.” (Paraphrased, p. 3).
Tyler further emphasized that the learning goals that make up the curriculum are a matter of choice and must be considered value judgments by those responsible for the educational program:
“Another way of stating this question is, ‘Should schools develop young people to fit into the present society as it is, or do they have a revolutionary mission to develop young people who will seek to improve society?’ … If we believe the primary function of school is to teach young people to adjust to society, we will emphasize obedience to the present authorities, loyalty to the present forms and traditions, skills in carrying on the present techniques of life. But if schools are to emphasize the revolutionary function of improving society, they will be more concerned with critical thinking, the ability to meet new problems, independence and self-direction, freedom, and self-discipline.” (Paraphrased, pp. 35-36).
Benjamin Bloom, a student of Tyler’s, extended Tyler’s ideas on curriculum to what they meant for teaching and learning. In his 1976 book, Human Characteristics and School Learning, Bloom stressed that there is no limit to what one can learn in any subject area or academic discipline. But a curriculum, according to Bloom, is finite. When educators define a curriculum, they identify within that subject area what content and skills they believe are most important for students to learn. Once the curriculum is defined and the learning goals made clear, the responsibility of educators is then to ensure that all students achieve those learning goals.
Some criticized Bloom’s view as overly optimistic and naïve to the idea that students come to school with widely varied experiences, backgrounds, talents, and dispositions. Bloom countered, however, that curriculum developers do not identify learning goals that only some students should achieve. They do not include content and skills that only the most advantaged and most talented students would be expected to master. Instead, they specify what is most important for all students to learn excellently.
We can only speculate today about how Tyler and Bloom would approach the current debates on how best to break down or deconstruct curriculum. But I believe reading their work carefully offers a pretty clear idea of what they might say.
In particular, I believe they would urge us to focus on the big picture, on the basic purpose of curriculum, and on our primary goals as educators. I believe they would encourage us to be transparent about curriculum, admit that what we include is a matter of choice, but then be prepared to defend why the learning goals we chose are important for all students to learn. I believe they would tell us not to get sidetracked in debates about trivial details but to be ever mindful of the vital role educators play in preparing young people for the world they will inherit.
With regard to the big picture, for example, do we want students to understand that even in a highly politicized society, what they do and how they respond to societal problems make a difference? Yes! Should we help students to develop the skills they need to become thoughtful, independent, and well-informed citizens who can think critically, approach problems rationally, analyze new information, distinguish facts from unsubstantiated opinions, and respond in self-disciplined ways? Yes! Do we expect students to develop these essential skills in the same way or at the same time? Probably not!
With regard to the details, do we need a curriculum that clearly identifies the learning goals we want all to students achieve? Yes! Should those learning goals specify the content we want all students to learn and the skills we want all students to develop in relation to that content? Yes! Does it matter if we label those learning goals as objectives, standards, competencies, targets, proficiencies, outcomes, or expectations? Probably not!
Do we need to make clear that not all learning goals within a curriculum are equally important? Yes! Should we then prioritize learning goals so school leaders, teachers, students, parents, and families recognize which particular goals are most crucial to students’ understanding and development? Yes! Does it matter if we label those most crucial goals as essential standards, critical standards, priority standards, or power standards? Probably not!
Improving education amid the political strife that exists today is difficult and challenging. To make progress, we must focus on the issues that will be most meaningful and most vital to our success. We also must avoid the distraction of trivial issues that divert attention and thwart progress. Returning to the basic principles of curriculum described by Tyler and Bloom will help us maintain that focus and get us closer to realizing our primary purpose of having all students learn well.
The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.