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Biographical note
Lydia Pungur is a Ph.D. student of Theoretical, Cultural and International Education at the
University of Alberta, Department of Education Policy Studies. Lydia’s scholarly interests are in the fields of comparative education, social studies education, curriculum studies and
George H. Buck, Ph.D., is a professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Alberta.
His research interests include curriculum studies, the development of ideas, learning theories
and their application, and non-human forms of instruction.
A pragmatic approach to curriculum
This article describes and examines the evolution of three dimensions in the curriculum field
that parallels shifts in the focus of educational research from positivism to constructivism.
Parallels are drawn between the traditionalist orientation in curriculum studies and the
positivist/postpositivist focus in educational research and how the conceptual-empiricist
movement was, in turn, influenced by postpositivism. Further, similarities between
reconceptualist ideas and the constructivist humanistic paradigm will be highlighted. From the
synthesis, a pragmatic approach to curriculum studies is suggested which embraces multiple
perspectives while considering economic and political realities. A compromise is proposed that
links conflicting stands of curriculum thought in order to design practical curricula while at the
same time maintaining humanistic ideologies. To fill the theory/praxis and curricula as enacted
in practice gap, and to surpass the impasse in curriculum studies, collaborative research is
proposed between education academia and teacher-researchers.
A pragmatic approach to curriculum
L. Pungur & G. H. Buck
We begin by examining how three dimensions of the curriculum field parallel shifts in
methodological focus within the realm of educational research. Pinar (2004b) indicates that
combining and synthesizing information from a variety of disciplines and popular culture into
curriculum theory will create conceptual montages while at the same time rejecting colonization
by dominant disciplines such as psychology. In a similar vein, rather than conforming to the
hegemony of a particular traditional or dominant research approach or methodology, Denzin
and Lincoln (2005) believe that researchers should draw upon the bricoleur of methodologies
and theories as a way of strengthening the field of educational research. Curricular trends appear
to parallel changes in educational research that has gradually shifted from a postpositivist focus
towards constructivist thought throughout the later years of the twentieth century.
Philosophical similarities exist between curriculum studies and aspects of the broader
social sciences. For example, constructivist and pragmatist paradigms employed to frame
research studies in social sciences bear close resemblance to the Deweyan pragmatic curricular
studies approach. Examples of philosophical parallelism are the traditionalist and
reconceptualist movements in curriculum studies and the postpositivistic and constructivist
movements in education and social sciences. In light of such parallelism, five terms
representing paradigms will be compared to highlight the shared philosophies. Three paradigms
in the curricular field are: 1) traditionalists; 2) conceptual-empiricists; 3) reconceptualists; while
the two paradigms represented in educational research and the social sciences in general are: 1)
postpositivist; and 2) constructivist. In spite of the different paradigms, it appears that many
educators subscribe to a single paradigm for practical reasons, or the ends-means curriculum of
Tyler with set objectives to be met with the purposes of preparing students for standardized
testing and to meet stringent syllabi. This situation, combined with the ideologically bent
criticism of the history of curriculum has created tension within the curriculum field
(Hlebowitsh, 1999).
Reconceptualist theories are embraced by many scholars for their humanistic view,
however the realities of capitalist economies place practical restrictions upon the
implementation of such idealistic goals. Financial restrictions are a reality in education systems
in globalized economies. Thus, the current political and economic climates that restrict school
practice require compromise between idealistic reconceptualist goals, the political goals of the
post-reconceptualization movement and the reality of designing curriculum that is useful and
practical for teachers. In essence a compromise must be struck between economic realities and
ideologies as espoused by the traditionalists, the conceptual-empiricists and the postreconceptualists for curriculum designed by those ascribing to a singular philosophical view to
be usable and acceptable by teachers. With the current political and economic climate, a
pragmatic approach that considers theories and practices of the past and the present, while being
mindful of the stakeholders who are currently in charge of the economy placed upon education
appears to be a viable approach. One of the problems with many past and current curriculum
activities is that they are often driven by specific ideological beliefs, and thus alienate those who
do not subscribe to those particular beliefs. We argue for the concept of embracing multiple
perspectives within the field of curriculum studies while being mindful of economic and
political realities. To have an effect on curriculum, designers must include humanistic
ideologies as espoused by reconceptualists. This can be done by curriculum theorists through
including interdisciplinary fields within curriculum theorizing, such as pioneered by the
reconceptualists, but also to include classroom implementation practice with collaboration with
teacher-researchers to bridge the theoretical praxis- curriculum as enacted classroom practice
divide. In such a manner the decade-long impasse may be overcome.
Introduction to the Curriculum Field
To provide context for our position, we provide a synopsis and analysis of the history of
curriculum studies. There are two reasons why such an overview is fundamental to an
appreciation of the state of the curriculum field today. First, identifying key curricular trends
helps to set the foundation for further analysis of the curriculum field, which has become
increasingly dissonant. Second, it is crucial to examine curriculum history so as to avoid
educational myths that support ideological causes and which interfere with generational
dialogue between curriculum specialists (Kliebard, 1970/2000a).
It is claimed that curriculum studies as a professional field has existed since 1828 (Pinar,
Reynolds, Slattery & Taubman, 1995). However, according to Kliebard (2000a), Bobbitt and
Kingsley started the field of curriculum as a specialization in 1918. Regardless of when
curricular can be identified as a discrete specialization, this paper focuses upon three broad
groups identified by characteristics specific to them (Pinar, Reynolds, Slattery, & Taubman,
1995): the traditionalists; the conceptual-empiricists; and the reconceptualists. These three
categories will be analyzed to highlight their influences upon curriculum studies.
The Traditionalists
The early years of curriculum studies.
Pinar et al. (1995) state that the curriculum specialization was influenced by theorists
such as Bobbitt, Harap, Charters, Dewey, and Thorndike who believed that education should be
a science. According to Tanner and Tanner (1995), the quantitative and scientific method
applied to curriculum construction is rooted in the positivistic paradigm. Bobbitt, Harap and
Charters’ traditionalist ideology, as well as Peters’ and Snedden’s was based on Taylor’s scientific management as applied to schools and curricula, with the aim of maximum efficiency
and utilitarianism (Eisner, 1985; Tanner & Tanner 1995; Kliebard 2000a). Bobbitt’s (1913/1923) main point was:
At a time when so much discussion is being given to the possibilities of ‘scientific management’ in the world of material production, it seems desirable that the principles of this more effective form of management be examined in order to ascertain the
possibility of applying them to the problems of educational management and
supervision. (p. 7)
Moreover, Bobbitt believed that the relatively new field of education was backward as
compared to business and industry, and since these enterprises were flourishing in North
America as never before, the sound management principles formulated by them would be ideal
for education. Under this framework, the learning process was a unit of production, an assembly
line analogy (Eisner, 1985). The educational process would be further atomized by identifying
the goals and content, and the curriculum analyzed scientifically into mechanistic skills or
behaviours based on the definitions of actions (Eisner 1985; Tanner & Tanner, 1995). Education
or curriculum construction, therefore, became a series of specific activities, moving from larger
to smaller units.
Harap also used the scientific-technological view which focused upon objectives,
activities and social need analysis (Eisner, 1985). Besides the scientific method of curriculum,
Thorndike applied behaviouristic (instrumental) psychology in sync with activity analysis
(Thorndike, 1913; Tanner & Tanner 1995). Dewey also applied the scientific method to inquiry
for informing educational practice, was usually ends means, linear and rational although he
pointed out the limits of science in prescriptions for practice, and later he acknowledged the arts
and human intelligence in human endeavour (Eisner, 1985). In other words, Dewey was both
child-centred and progressive.
The Tyler Rationale.
Tyler shared in this scientific mode of thinking with Dewey, Bobbitt and Charters, and
he is considered to be a pre-eminent traditionalist. The Tyler Rationale, based on Basic
Principles of Curriculum and Instruction became the most influential work in the field. Pinar et
al. (1995) contend that Tyler was unopposed for 20 years, while Marsh and Willis (1995) state
that his book was viewed as displaying common sense and clear thinking, and continues to be
influential worldwide in curriculum planning. Jackson (1992) described Tyler’s book as, “the Bible of curriculum making” (p. 24). Tyler (1975, p. 18) set out four questions, which he intended as a guide for curriculum
planning, with the note that this was not meant to be theory, for it was “a practical enterprise”. According to Tyler (1949, p. 1), these steps are:
1. What educational purposes should the school seek to attain?
2. What educational experiences can be provided that are likely to attain these purposes?
3. How can these educational experiences be effectively organized?
4. How can we determine whether these purposes are being attained?
The main source of objectives would be gained from studies of students, schools, modern life,
and from subject specialists. Tyler (1949) appeared to imply that conflict or class issues did not
come into play, for the solution was for students to acquire a set of “knowledge, skills, attitudes, and the like” as outlined in objectives based on sociologists’ findings of contemporary 7
problems. School was viewed as “the agency” for empowerment to deal with those problems (p. 5).
Tyler (1949) did not function independently. He referred to psychologists Prescott,
Murray and Thorndike. Throughout the Rationale, references were made to altering students’ behaviour based on the pre-set objectives, with the behaviour indicating success at meeting
those objectives being determined in the process of evaluation. Tyler set out screens for
deriving objectives, which were educational ends so as to prioritize and standardize them. They
were the schools’ “educational and social philosophy” (Tyler, pp. 35-36) and psychology of
learning. Hence his thinking became known as having an ends-means focus.
Tyler’s viewpoint was shaped by the postpositivist movement that emerged from his predecessors, but he was a pragmatist. In the late 1940s Tyler was embedded in the thinking of
the postpositivist paradigm. Tyler was a postpositivist method-wise for having guiding
questions to conduct his studies. As opposed to the earlier traditionalists who broke down jobs
and tasks to write curricula, Tyler (1975) sought for multiple areas of input, and called for
constructive participation in curriculum development, or a group procedure. Tyler also
described teaching as an art, as opposed to a science, arguing against so-called teacher-proof
and rigid curricula, and called for teacher participation in the curriculum building plan.
Although a postpositivist in practice, he moved away from the postpositivist conception of
teachers as workers, and Tyler was influenced by progressive-experimentalist thought that
included problem-solving and societal values (Hlebowitsh, 1992). Tyler called his approach
pragmatic, for he acknowledged limited resources for curriculum development and
implementation. He sought to use the available information at each of the four step process, as
opposed to a totalizing comprehensive curriculum.
Tyler’s concepts are still influential with the focus on objectives or purposes, the
designing of effective curricula and evaluation. However, there is movement to standardization
across communities as opposed to localized curricula as espoused by Tyler, with a national
curriculum in the UK, the US No Child Left Behind Act, and government-produced
achievement exams in Canadian provinces.
The Conceptual-Empiricists
The structure of the discipline movement, with focus on the structure of content, came to
the fore in 1959 after the Woods Hole Conference, influenced by cognitive psychologist Jerome
Bruner. Eventually, the conceptual-empiricist camp replaced traditionalists in curriculum
(Giroux, Penna & Pinar 1981; Pinar et al . 1995), and continued to have some influence in
education into the 1960s, using the scientific and mathematical paradigm.
The curriculum field faced prospects of re-invention in the late 1960s as the traditional
curriculum influence waned. As Schwab (1978) stated, “The field of curriculum is moribund” (p. 288). This condition was due to its inability to advance education any further. The field had
over-depended on theory, which became increasingly disconnected with social changes and
practice in schools, and Schwab proposed a solution for curriculum specialists to operate in the
modes of “the practical, the quasi-practical, and the eclectic”. Such pronouncements and the sidestepping by the US government towards curriculum research meant the decline of the
traditionalists. Schwab (1962) argued for curriculum building based, in particular, on the
structure of the sciences and their theories. Schwab called this deep knowledge, as such
curricula were built on truth.
Pinar et al. (1995) categorized the conceptualist-empiricist movement. This group
consisted of postpositivist scientific thinkers who were professional educators in their field, and
the movement was pro-discipline. Professional educators and students were not consulted in
curriculum shaping, imposing a structure on students and teachers. It was the disciplines
themselves – the subject matter and their underlying structures and methods of inquiry,
mediated through the subject experts – that would determine the shape of curricula (Hampson,
1975). Prevalent views and practice had swung away from progressive education, to social
efficiency in the form of life adjustment education as characterized by the Tyler Rationale, to a
subject-centred education, and then to Reconceptualization (Pinar et al., 1995).
The Reconceptualists
The reconceptualists and new methodologies.
Pinar et al. (1995) called the group emerging from the traditionalists, reconceptualists,
as they challenged traditional views and were influenced by postmodernism. As Pinar (1999a)
explained, after the 1960s national (US) curriculum movement, curriculum professors were
asked to be bureaucrats, to relay to teachers how to fulfil politician, businessperson and arts and
science professors’ objectives, to keep the curriculum intact except to transmit curricula more efficiently in the name of accountability. The reconceptualists sought to understand curriculum
from a theoretical, research-based, and historically oriented basis, as opposed to the practical
development and management of educational processes. Discontent with the Tyler Rationale,
the use of other traditions such as psychoanalytic theory, phenomenology, existentialism,
hermeneutics, literary criticism, as well as predominantly leftist Marxist and neo-Marxist
thought, with focus on inequalities, among others, characterized reconceptualists (Jackson,
1992). In summary, Pinar (1999a) called “the project of understanding” a form of praxis, leading to “history, politics, race, gender, phenomenology, postmodernism, autobiography, aesthetics, theology, the institution of schooling, the world” (p. 366). For practitioners, the
Tylerian influence is still evident (Jackson, 1992) as curriculum development is no longer the
purview of curriculum specialists, but of subject specialists. With reconceptualized curriculum,
understanding is of interest. The end of the traditional paradigm occurred with
reconceptualization and with it the questioning of the place of theory in the field (Pinar et al .,
1995). As Pinar (1999b) stated,
The term Reconceptualists described individuals whose scholarship challenged this
tradition-that is, suggested that the function of curriculum studies was not the
development and management but the scholarly and disciplined understanding of
educational experience, particularly in its political, cultural, gender, and historical
dimensions. During the past two decades the field of curriculum has been
reconceptualized from an exclusively practice-oriented field to a more theoretical,
historical, research-oriented field. (p. 484)
Greene (1971), influenced by existentialism and phenomenology, analysed curriculum
through literary criticism, espousing a view that centred on the necessity of consciousness in
learning as opposed to the mere habitual. Humanities, especially literature, could help students
overcome meaninglessness brought on by the primacy of science. She argued that curriculum
should develop a propensity of thought below the surface and raise self-consciousness,
internalization of knowledge, and encourage questioning and the linking of themes and
disciplines (Greene, 1971). Furthermore, students need to understand their roots, underlying
self-concepts and make a connection between what was previously known and new learning
through reflection to add meaning. To Greene, this required a conscious process based on
rationality and developing networks of relationships in order to prepare students for an everchanging world in order to problem solve.
Huebner, an intellectual founder of reconceptualization in the 1970s, wrote of moving
beyond scientific and empirical language (Pinar et al., 1995). Huebner (2000) argued that
curriculum is often incoherent and lacks precision. So-called scientific curriculum theories had
not advanced the field and had created an artificial breach between theory and practice. For
Huebner, curriculum involved the interaction of three elements: research, practice, and
language. However, language must be seen as contextualized within time, place, and culture,
and open to interpretation. Curriculum research is often language oriented giving sense and
structure to the collected information. Huebner (1966) maintained that because language is not
fixed, approaches to curriculum that impose a set language of means and outcomes (e.g. the
Tyler Rationale) are flawed in their perspectives (Pinar et al ., 1995).
Macdonald (1971/2000) conceived of the curriculum as operating within the framework
of two levels of decision making, both of which reflect fundamental values. First is the
structural level, which Macdonald saw as incorporating the basic tenets of faith that underlie
educational norms and beliefs and which provide direction for education. The second level,
termed rational values, details these fundamental values at the plane of curriculum design, thus
demonstrating the application of the essential structural principles. Within this framework
operate three perspectives as outlined by Macdonald: the technical, interpretive, and
emancipatory, each reflecting a set of beliefs underpinning education and the world and each
belief calling for its own curriculum design. Thus, the technical reflects the scientific, empirical,
expert, designed curriculum approach of the structural empiricists. The interpretative
perspective seeks consensus and follows the ends-means methodology of Tyler, while the
emancipatory breaks with previous curriculum theory in seeing curriculum as a means of raising
self-consciousness amongst individuals and as a liberating force through individually centred,
reflective practice and dialogue.
Essentially, Macdonald (1971/2000) doubted the possibility of a neutral curriculum,
instead arguing for the pervasiveness of fundamental values in all aspects of curriculum at the
theoretical and applied stages. This emphasis on values and beliefs as the foundation of
curriculum became a major force within the reconceptualist movement and would prove
influential in elucidating a view of curriculum that sought the purpose of curriculum in the
transformation of society through critical awareness, empowerment, and self-knowledge.
The reconceptualists later viewed curriculum and school affairs as being in a state of
conflict as opposed to earlier proponents of structural functionalism, which entailed the view of
consensus in society, with the different parts contributing to society in equilibrium, in
interdependence, and harmony, with orderly evolutionary processes (Gingrich, 1999). Conflict
theories were a reaction to this consensual view of society.
Critical pedagogy and neo-Marxism.
Amongst the reconceptualists, one important frame of thought has been a critical
pedagogic, neo-Marxian, analysis of the undergirding structures of the curriculum process,
involving political curriculum analysis. Apple (1971), a critical theorist and Marxist (Pinar,
1999b), was influenced by the Frankfurt school, which viewed society as being asymmetrical
and under the hegemony of power groups based on wealth, race, and gender (Grace, in press),
and used culture generally, not only material productions and the economy, to analyse society
(Pinar et al ., 1995). One can implicitly read in this Marxian analysis a critique of the empirical
conceptualists, who placed curriculum in the hands of specialists (Schwab, 1962) and of Tyler,
(1949) whose objectives could be viewed as replicating the goals of society’s controlling interests.
Apple indicated the importance of understanding the societal norms that lie behind
educational activities and denounced the underlying cultural transmission of the hegemonic
groups in society. Apple (1990) regarded textbooks as being an instrument to increase the
legitimated knowledge within society, the beliefs and values of the dominant cultural group, as
opposed to neutral sources of knowledge. The New Right, by attempting to enforce a
centralized, regimented curriculum, has sought to perpetuate the cultural domination of a procapitalist, pro-Western, neo-liberal tradition that has allowed the exploitation of the curriculum
by multinational corporations with a globalization agenda. In opposition, Apple responded with
a call for a new framework for curriculum that promoted a non-Western, non-capitalist, and
non-gender biased democratized education that sought a diversity of curricula and opened the
way for multiple readings that break the knowledge monopoly of entrenched interests and
empowers and respects all individuals. Smith (2003) in describing the effects of globalization
on schooling and the influence of the neo-liberal economic system on society and youth, where
youth becomes an inconvenience for adults, called for humanistic solutions that promote social
and cultural harmony.
Freire, (1970/1989) an emancipatory theorist, wrote of the goal of social justice through
egalitarian praxis. Like Apple, Freire wrote about overcoming domination by the elite at the
core. In dialectical fashion, Freire drew out the opposing forces in society such as domination
that have to be reigned in, partly through real education involving reflection, praxis leading to
cognitive awareness. In his banking concept of education, which is the teacher centred approach
to learning, the teacher pours information into the empty vessel student, who recounts it in
robotic fashion. The transmission of knowledge is static, and often not relevant to the students’ lives.
To Friere (1970/1989), such education meets the needs of the oppressor and he called
for the individual to be provided with the freedom to create their own understanding. Freire
advocated empowerment through knowledge building, critical dialogue, education and action
that was based on a true, reciprocal partnership between student and teacher. By focussing on
formal education, educators deprived their students of a true learning experience, promoted
passive thinking, denied students their individual humanity and contribution to the world, and
upheld the status quo.
For Friere, education’s goal (1970/1989) is seen as ending this stagnation by developing
learners with the ability and appetite for critical inquiry and original and diverse thought
through a mutuality of learning between educators and students. The hub of such pedagogy is
dialogical problem posing, whereby dialoguers actively participate in critical thinking. This type
of thinking views reality as a transformative and liberating process through action and reflection
(praxis). Authentic education is founded upon both parties in the educative act mediating with
each other and with the world around them, constructing fresh viewpoints. Such educative
processes emphasize the true humanness of each student (1970/1989).
As Wardekker (2004) wrote, curriculum planning involves cultural politics centred on
the issue of whose knowledge is being taught, and is therefore divisive. In this view, schooling
seeks to express and perpetuate the values and norms of a middle class, capitalistic, society and
continuing societal stratification (McLaren, 1989). McLaren wrote of culture as a field of
discourse (Pinar et al ., 1995) and noted that curriculum “assumes that the social, cultural,
political and economic dimensions are the primary categories for understanding contemporary
schooling” (McLaren 1989, p. 185) and propagates, in the form of a concealed curriculum, the
patterns of dominance and subordination since “knowledge is socially constructed” (p. 169). In consequence, education should be regarded as a force of domination; however, education also
contains the seeds of opposition and liberation.
Since the reconceptualization, Pinar (2004a) labelled the field as the postreconceptualization era whereby the progressive curriculum research project consists of
authoring the synoptic textbooks for teachers which consist of reconstructed school and
interdisciplinary subjects in nature to create views such as montages otherwise unseen in subject
curriculum that centre around standardized exams. The task of this post-reconceptualized
project is to mitigate the subjective in society and academic knowledge with autobiographical
and cultural research, that includes speaking to “students’ subjectivity and to their lived understanding and experiences of society” for social reconstruction (p. 17). In this process, the intellectual work provides subjective meaning and the autobiographical and cultural studies give
social significance. The research methods are “worklike” and “documentary,” synoptic, “critical and transformative” that leads teachers and students to original texts and moves to the
subjective social self-formation (p. 18). The aim is to educate the public and to elevate teachers
to intellectuals from “colleagues not clients, working in educational institutions, not academic businesses” (p. 18). Hence, the progressive curriculum project has moved from bureaucratic
efficiency and oversight over schools and curricula implementation to research school subjects,
the disciplines, with a focus on the interdisciplinary, using cultural reading to produce the
synoptic text that moves those involved with this intellectual endeavour from original content
into subjective reading of it and articulation of society.
The Curriculum Field and Corresponding Movements in the Research Arena
The three camps of the curriculum field have parallel movements in the research arena.
Philosophically, parallels exist in the social sciences and curricular studies which have
foundations in similar paradigms. For example, philosophical similarities exist in the
traditionalist movement in curriculum studies and the positivistic/postpositivistic movement in
the social sciences. The conceptual-empiricist movement was, in turn, influenced by the
postpositivist movement. Furthermore, the reconceptualist movements are related to the
constructivist and critical movements in the behavioural sciences. Usually, the postpositivist
research methods are commensurable with quantitative, constructivist method with qualitative,
and pragmatism with mixed methods (Creswell, 2009). These social science paradigms will be
described briefly, and then compared to the curriculum movements to demonstrate that these
two fields have shared philosophical foundations.
Positivism and Postpositivism
The positivistic movement in the social sciences sought to apply the scientific method to
the study of society while postpositivists made estimations of reality. Modernists (the
Enlightenment scientific method, conventionalists, and positivists) researchers believed there is
reality out there (objective, concrete reality), separated from the human view of it
(phenomenological reality) (Guba & Lincoln, 2005). Reality could be approached and
apprehended when human contamination was prevented, and phenomena tested. Positivists
believed that “reality is out there to be studied, captured, and understood, whereas the
postpositivists argue that reality can never be fully apprehended, only approximated” (Guba, 1990, p. 22, cited in Guba & Lincoln, 2005). To positivists, truth and knowledge were seen as
the end product of rational processes, as the result of methods such as of experimental sensing
and of empirical observation (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005). Postpositivism used multiple methods
to capture reality, focusing on the discovery and verification of theories. In opposition and in
conflict to the positivist and postpositivist paradigms were the postmodern paradigms, namely
postmodernist critical theory and constructivism (Guba & Lincoln, 2005). Positivism and
postpositivism were commensurable (blending of elements), while interpretivist/ postmodern
critical theory called for action, unlike positivists (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005). In consequence,
constructivist and participative inquiry, such as action research fit together.
The Constructivist and Critical Movements in the Social Sciences
According to Guba and Lincoln (2005), social constructivists/constructionists sought
meaning formation, community consensus regarding what was “real”, useful and with meaning effecting action. Therefore, social phenomena involved meaning making which was central to
social constructionists/constructivists since meaning making effects action. Falling within the
constructivist or constructionist paradigm were critical theories. Both constructionists and
critical theories critiqued socio-economic structures and interrogated power relations within
society, thereby with the goals of transforming and constructing new social relations and
structures. Education, and by implication curricula became tools for the betterment of society,
whether to ameliorate inequality, classism, sexism, homophobia, racism, or cultural hegemony.
The Qualitative Research Movement
The traditional period.
Denzin and Lincoln (2005) identify two periods in qualitative research. The first was the
traditional period, which began at the beginning of the twentieth century, and which lasted until
World War II. Qualitative researchers wrote “objective” descriptions of field experiences of the “Other,” in line with the positivist scientist paradigm such as ethnographic field work in anthropology. This traditional qualitative research was concerned with a “valid, reliable and objective interpretation in their writings” (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005, p. 15). However, objectivism was questioned since ethnographies did not produce timeless truths, as was
believed with other, more scientific approaches.
Modernist phase (post World War II to present).
The modernist phase, the second movement according to Denzin and Lincoln (2005)
built on the causes of the traditional period, formalizing qualitative methods. Postpositivism
became a powerful, epistemological paradigm. Social realism, naturalism and slice-of-life
ethnographic studies became valued. The modernist ethnographer and sociological participant
observer engaged in rigorous qualitative studies of social processes. New interpretive theories
emerged: ethnomethodology, phenomenology, critical theory and feminism. These researchers
wanted to give voice to what was perceived as the underclass.
Research and writing in anthropology became reflexive, questioned issues of gender,
class, and race. The decline of classical anthropology meant the diminishment of objectivism,
participation, colonialism, social life with rituals and customs, ethnographies as cultural
monuments. However, some would argue that traditional or "classical" approaches still exist.
They are simply in decline or marginalized. Denzin and Lincoln (2005) observed that critical
theory, feminism and epistemologies of colour emerged. Patterns of interpretive theories took
hold as opposed to causal, linear theories. The crisis coded in many ways was associated with
critical, interpretive, linguistic, feminist, and rhetorical.
Comparison of Curriculum Studies and Qualitative Research
Philosophical similarities exist in the traditionalist movement in curriculum studies and
the positivistic/postpositivistic movement in the social science research fields. The early
traditionalists were heavily influenced by the scientific empirically driven movement of the time
akin to positivists. They used the technological scientific framework, namely scientific
management and behavioural psychology. Early traditionalists sought to apply the scientific
process into the learning process and curriculum making consisted of analyzing tasks and
atomizing in the same fashion as the factory assembly line process. The needs of the child or the
level of the child was not considered in making curricula, since learners were viewed as
products to be manipulated. The scientific method was applied: observe and describe (tasks or
jobs), hypothesize (assumptions on the best curricula), observe (activity and social needs), and
test (evaluate the curricula or hypothesis). The cycle was repeated until efficiency was reached
through tests that showed high standards. Behavioural psychologists viewed human behaviour
as explained through animal or human experiments, with observable behaviour as evidence of
achieved outcomes. The positivistic movement in the social sciences also aimed to utilize the
scientific method to society while postpositivists applied the quasi-scientific method (Guba &
Lincoln, 2005). Reality could be understood with objectivity, the rational process, the
experimental process, observation, and testing.
Tyler, a later traditionalist was probably influenced by the philosophical shift of
postpositivism, much like social science postpositivists with acknowledgement of societal
influences. His four step curriculum plan was linear, rational and ends-means. Data, including
polls and statistics, psychology of learning and from specialists, teachers and society were all
used for the creation of curricula. Reality to these postpositivists was viewed as observable and
manageable through interventions. The curricula could be evaluated, likened to a scientific test,
and the process repeated to derive at desirable ends.
The conceptual-empiricist movement was influenced by the postpositivist movement.
Both movements were based upon philosophical underpinnings that emerged from the scientific
movement that was prevalent in society in the 1960s. The science and mathematic disciplines
would be the core subjects to gain supremacy during the Cold War. Likewise in the educational
research arena, postpositivist research methods prevailed. The scientific research method would
reveal the answers to educational problems.
The reconceptualist movements are parallel to the constructivist/constructionist and
critical movements in the social sciences. The reconceptualists sought to move away from the
positivistic paradigm, technical and linear ends-means curriculum development. They
incorporated strands from the humanities and the social sciences to humanize the curriculum, to
reform and to transform society through curricula. Reconceptualist theorists, namely critical
and emancipatory theorists, wanted to reengineer how curricula were written and practiced with
the underlying belief that curricula and pedagogy are vehicles for societal change.
Reconstructionists/constructivists in the social sciences also moved away from the positivistic
paradigm to the humanistic paradigm. Meaning making and action was vital to social and
reconstructionists/constructivists (Guba & Lincoln, 2005). Similarly, reconceptualists focused
on understanding curricula by making meaning using social science and humanities discipline
methods, as opposed to the scientific method. Reconceptualists used knowledge ranging from
literature to culture and politics, much like reconstructionists/constructivists. Lastly, both
movements aimed towards praxis or action with the transformative aim of reforming society.
In conclusion, the curriculum field and the field of social science research had
overlapping paradigms and periods. Both curriculum and research saw the pre-eminence of
positivism and empiricism during the first half of the 20th century. The two models emulated
the scientific method as applied to the study of humans with the aim of objectivity and the belief
of truth and reality. Later, the two fields moved into the postpositivist paradigm, with the
adoption of the quasi-scientific method. Multiple methods were used to capture reality,
focusing on the discovery and verification of theories (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005).
The reconceptualist movements are parallel to the constructivist/constructionist and
critical movements in the social sciences. During the 1970s to the 1990s, the curriculum and
research pendulum had swung into the reconceptualist and constructivist/constructionist
paradigms. These schools of thought sought to humanize the curricula and research using
multidisciplines such as political science, cultural studies, literature and sociology as well as
theories like critical theory and psychoanalytic theory and research methods such as
ethnography, phenomenology, narrative inquiry, hermeneutics, and literary criticism.
The Incommensurability Debate
For much of the 1990s, a debate, headed by Lincoln and Guba (1985) ensued about the
incommensurability between the qualitative and quantitative research methods due to
diametrically opposed paradigms with different belief systems that were incompatible.
However, several leading research experts such as Tashakkorri and Teddlie (1998), and
Creswell (2009) debunked the incommensurability debate using pragmatism as the paradigm to
justify it and thus opening the door for the acceptance of mixed methods, pushing it into the
mainstream. Therefore, curriculum studies can follow this example of moving away from the
tensions in the field between the scientific, technical model, which focuses on efficiency and
rationality, with the Tylerian objective for assessment and the humanistic artistic model that
stresses critical thinking and education also using the pragmatic model by utilizing the different
disciplines and by melting theory with classroom curricula and practice.
Discussion and Summary
In curriculum studies, it is pertinent to go beyond curriculum planning for schools in
order to analyze and discover what knowledge is considered important. This questions the tacit
assumption that knowledge is neutral, or that there is one “truth” as rationalists and positivists claim. Kelly (2004) outlined the problematic ideas in Western philosophy: absolutist theories,
empiricist views, and existentialism with postmodernism. Rationalists including Plato,
Descartes, Kant, and Hegel viewed true knowledge as emanating from the mind, that knowledge
is reified, while the diametrically opposed empiricists, founded by Locke, viewed knowledge as
stemming from the mind via the senses. Existentialist thought also opposed rationalism, but
valued the individual over the collective. Postmodernism also opposed absolutism and the
”Incredulity towards meta-narratives” (Lyotard in Kelly 2004, p. 35). Considering this disjuncture of epistemologies, it is of no surprise that curriculum
theories have clashed and that postmodernism has left critiques of former theories. With this
heritage of multiple conflicting epistemologies, the right view becomes the one the curriculum
theorist subscribes to. This is not to say that absolute relativism is the solution, but critiques
gain currency if they can holistically replace existing theories and practice; otherwise, they
become part of the repertoire of human knowledge from which to consider informed decision.
Debates have ensued since the reconceptualization era. One camp, represented by Wraga
(1999; 2002) and Hlebowitsh (1997) critiqued the theory-practice split under reconceptualized
curriculum studies defending school practice and Deweyan democratic problem solving. The
other, represented by Pinar (1999c), staunchly defended the development of the field, that
curriculum theorists do not have jurisdiction over schools anymore, and that since the division
of labour means that most teachers are women, it was not the plane of predominantly male
curriculum professors to guide them as practice into “gracious submission … but as equal and respected colleagues engaged in the complicated conversation with our children that is the
curriculum” (p. 15).
Several arguments exist against the alienation of curriculum theory from schools. Here
is the crux of the matter: Wraga (1999) makes a point in saying that, much like in Gulliver’s satire where professors were narrowly academic, where research problems became theoretical
had negative effects on society they were to serve, that reconceptualists critique the wider
culture instead of solving practical problems, and Lobkowics, Pinar and Grumet (1988 cited in
Wraga, 1999) critiqued the traditionalists for being managerial with scientific-technical
knowledge intended to control problems.
Further, Wraga (1999) concluded that practical problem solving was left up to teachers
and that “reconceptualist theorists are absolved from such work and are instead responsible principally for offering teachers opportunities to explore theory” (p. 6). According to Wraga, Pinar had justified separating “curriculum theory from school practice” (p. 7). Drawing on Dewey, (1916/1966) about academic elitism in education, and Snow (1969) about the split
between pure and applied research, and the humanities and the sciences, Wraga (1999) viewed
reconceptualized curriculum theory as academically elitist as was Greek philosophy. He states
that Dewey advocated the use of science in practical school problem solving and the use of
systematic application of disciplines, unlike the reconceptualists. This pragmatic stance as
advocated by Dewey and Wraga is appropriate to serve the school constituency.
Wraga (1999) and Hlebowitsh (1997) have valid points about curriculum theory and
school divide, for curriculum theory has become intellectualized. Specifically in the 1990s with
its focus on pop culture, cultural studies has turned into more social commentary, with merit in
its own right as analysis, which undoubtedly adds to a body of knowledge about society, but
only remotely related to legally underage persons in schools or within the subjects that they
study. For example, Pinar (2006) argued for the integration of cultural studies into curriculum
studies in American progressive education to answer the question, “What knowledge is of most worth?” (p. 56)
Cultural analysis needs to be updated, not only within pop culture but in political
culture. Having elected a “Black” or African-American (technically half African as his father
was born in Kenya and “White” American mother, but regarded as African-American in the US
due to its slavery past) president and an African-American First Lady, both highly educated is a
momentous event. This presidential milestone of electing Barack Obama is pertinent to
American culture, history and society, and therefore school curricula, as well as for enshrining
the myth of meritocracy in American society symbolized in the story of the rise of Abraham
Lincoln from a one-room log cabin to president. Do such national narratives not play a part in
current events, history and social studies? In summary, cultural studies has relevance for school
curricula at some level as they are part of the broader umbrella of society.
There are tensions in the field that are based on the scientific versus artistic, humanistic
and social theory (Pinar, et al., 1995). The debates can be summarized as the scientific,
procedural social efficiency model of Tyler which was practice based and the reconceptualized
theory based critical view utilizing the humanities, arts and social sciences. Basically the
debates represent tensions in the field, the scientific approach versus the humanistic, artistic and
social science model, the Tyler’s objectives for assessment versus creative and critical thinking, schooling versus education. Furthermore, the tensions are about different discourses that have
varying aims: efficiently, rationality, the scientific paradigm, objective versus the artistic or
humanistic model.
The intention of questioning curricula is to uncover which sets of knowledge or theories
are held as true, and with what hierarchy, so as not to automatically accept the status quo.
Which epistemology is favoured? Which cultural group is privileged in being represented and
which cultural knowledge is being transmitted? In the social sciences and humanities, which
political and economic system is given a favourable opinion? Whose agenda (i.e. society’s, government’s, a group’s, or the student’s) is it serving? Once the above questions are critically analyzed, curriculum theorists and planners can either accept the current curricula or transform
it for ideological goals, be they for social justice, as Huebner illuminated, inspiring other
scholars (Pinar et al ., 1995), or for democratization (Habermas & Giroux in Kelly, 2004).
In conclusion, curriculum studies have a century of history as a discipline, and the field
has evolved from a traditional positivistic linear operation to a conceptual-empiricists view and
finally a critical reconceptualist stance. The technical-rational scientific perspective has
dominated over the last century. In the last three decades, new theories have arisen that have
broken away from this view. There seems to be a growing dichotomy between theory and
practice, as the reconceptualists have moved into theory. Yet critics remain.
For Walker and Soltis (2004), curriculum theory is of interest, with a deeply held
underlying identity, which, when voiced, is open to question. Their solution is action. Since the
17th century there has been a belief that theory’s function is to guide action (Nicholas in Giroux
et al., 1981). This belief is critiqued by the reconceptualists (Giroux et al., 1981). However, the
two balance each other, providing reciprocity, and continued separation of theory from practise
that could lead to irrelevance in regard to pedagogical application. Hlebowitsh (1997) raised
concerns about the reconceptualization movement as not being grounded in practice, and school
practice in the US being unaffected by it. Although there are differing perspectives and
definitions of curriculum it is important to distinguish that curriculum can be viewed in terms of
theory and its implications for classroom learning, effects on subject content, and teacher and
student interaction.
A Case for the Pragmatic Approach
The debate of the pragmatic vs. the theory is unproductive for a field that has been
bypassed by the government since the 1960s. Pinar wrote (1999c) that “here are the facts: Schools are no longer under the jurisdiction … of curriculum theorists. Multiple stakeholders
(not the least among them the textbook publishers) have created … more like curriculum gridlock” (p. 14). In the authors’ opinion, other stakeholders include: external globalization influences with integrated financial systems and neoliberal ideology, as well as the convergence
of Western curricula, though with local diversity; the community such as parents, religious
organizations; theory from university which is starting to affect syllabi in Canada, such as the
social studies curriculum in Alberta with postmodernist multiple perspectives of First Nations
and French as well as with the focus on the inquiry method over content; and teachers;
professors and political stakeholders such as governments and interest groups. Further, Pinar
explains that there is not likely to be reform headed by curriculum professors. In other words,
curriculum professors have lost their “credibility” with governments to write and to directly affect curricula, and as observed by some, have lost guiding teachers. Is their role only to be
aloof intellectuals, affecting practice only through praxis defined by Sartre (cited in Greene,
1963) as “knowing is a moment of praxis,” beyond educating the public and teachers and beyond the reconceptualist project of understanding (Pinar, 1999a)?
Political and economic pressures restrict the full realization of humanistic
reconceptualized curricula in school practice; therefore, curriculum planning requires a
pragmatic approach. Pragmatism is an American philosophy about doing focusing in “what works” that is ideal for the impasse in the curriculum field much like the incommensurability 27
debate in research. Neo-liberal discourse in Western countries since the 1980s has been
dominant, promoting quasi-market policies as applied to education: accountability; state,
province or national testing; competition between schools; focus on marketable subjects and
corporate style management. School boards and schools face financial accountability pressures
and corporate leadership with principals becoming akin to managers as opposed to pedagogical
leaders. The postpositivistic paradigm is superimposed through standardized testing with
results used as quantifiable measures without recognition of students’ previous knowledge, and of socio-economic and cultural differences. Exam scores become used as performance measures
to perpetuate perceived standards and to financially reward or punish schools and districts and
used to rank schools. As a result, mandated curricula become narrowed. Teachers are
encouraged to teach to the test as opposed to teaching from the level of the students.
Furthermore, standardization brings with it so-called teacher proof materials. Teachers become
technicians, as opposed to professionals who use their educated judgment and artistic skills,
who deliver the curricula to promote external measures. The pedagogic process becomes
subject centred and externally based; hence the pendulum has swung back in the direction of the
To impact curriculum, curriculum specialists must be aware of the current political
climate that promotes standardization and accountability and include and humanistic ideologies
as espoused by reconceptualists. Sciences, arts, humanities, the social sciences and their subfields all have a place in syllabi and in their implementation. Meanwhile, the teacher-curriculum
professor bridge can be filled by action research. As a field, we can move beyond the double
divide of sciences and the liberal arts, the university and the school field through
interdisciplinary inquiry the allows science back into the fold, rejecting its eschewing of
Habermas and other critical theorist in the name of impacting the field as is, not in the ivory
towers. This can be done whereby curriculum theorists include interdisciplinary fields within
curriculum theorizing, such as pioneered by the reconceptualists in a montage format, and to not
leave out science just for the sake of critique against the enlightenment and industrial revolution
project, but to also include classroom implementation practice with collaboration with teacherresearchers to bridge the theoretical praxis- curriculum as enacted classroom practice divide and
to get over the decade long impasse in which curriculum as syllabi are unaffected by curriculum
theory in the US. Action research is ideal for teacher-univeristy collaboration. It is “defined as any systematic inquiry conducted by teachers, administrators, counsellors, or others with a
vested interest in the teaching and learning process or environment for the purpose of gathering
information about how their particular schools operate, how they teach, and how their students
learn” (Milles, cited in Mertler, 2006).
In light of socio-economic and political realities that restrict the application of
reconceptutalized curricula, what is needed is a pragmatic approach. A pragmatic approach
addresses external pressures, incorporates multiple perspectives where appropriate, including
reconceptualized, humanized and constructivist thought to critique postpositivism except where
relevant to meet practical goals. As Denzin and Lincoln (2005) recommended, the bricoleur theorist “works between and within competing and overlapping perspectives and paradigms,” (p. 6) similarly, the pragmatic curriculum theorist uses the different traditions and conceptions
of curricula. Further, a pragmatic approach problematizes practice. Teachers and the public
need to be informed about the complexities of issues surrounding curricula instead of being
“sold” on simplistic “common-sense” solutions. The politics of blame and simplification of issues are neither beneficial for children’s learning environment, nor constructive for all 29
schools. School jurisdictions and teachers are held accountable for imposed measures that
consider superimposed standards without consideration of prior achievement, social class, and
culture despite research indicating a relationship between socio-economic level of students and
achievement as well as between students’ cultural and language backgrounds and that of the
exams. Instead of receding back into the factory scientific model of education, curriculum
planning requires a broad view from available humanistic paradigms and traditions but one that
is workable within the constraints of political and economic pressures.
Curriculum planning requires the incorporation of diverse paradigms to solve the
complexities of educational issues. Ideologies and paradigms underlying curriculum formation
need to be exposed, issues debated and theory merged with practice. In order to reclaim the
curriculum field with practice, we must become pragmatists and have a practical plan of action
that goes beyond theory. Theory is there to inform but the curriculum field must actively claim
back its territory by working collaboratively with teachers.
Tensions in the Field
Scientific procedural/technical model ←–––––––––––––––→ Humanistic artistic model e.g. Tyler’s objectives for assessment ←––––––––––––––→ critical and creative thinking
Schooling←––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––––→ Education
Tensions because of different discourses that have varying aims
1) efficiency, rationality, scientific paradigm, objectives, ends-means, evaluation
2) Artistic/humanistic model
e.g. parents
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