Conceptions of Curriculum

Almost any basic economics class begins by introducing the problem that we exist in a world where there are unlimited wants, but there are finite resources to fulfill these desires. This is the concept of economic scarcity. An investigation of the problem inevitably leads to questioning what should be produced, how much, and for whom? Education faces a similar challenge, in that there are limited resources that must be brought to bear in the effort to achieve a seemingly unlimited list of ambitious targets. As in Economics, this basic problem leads questions such as what should be taught, how should this content be taught, and to whom should it be taught (Al Mousa, 2013)? The answers to these questions are answered varied, dynamic, and complex, and taken together they result in observable differences between approaches to education. Each approach represents a different curricular approach, where curriculum is considered to be the essence of a subject (Al Mousa, 2013).

The answers provided to these basic questions are not random, but instead are the result of deep-seated value and belief systems amongst societies and the individuals within them. These inherent differences ultimately lead to differing assumptions about what education is meant to achieve and what it should look like (Schiro, 2008).  Undoubtedly, that is why Pratt argued that curriculum planning is philosophical as opposed to technical in nature (1994). Naturally, there are innumerable different assumptions regarding the approaches to education. In order to better understand these approaches, scholars have devised classification systems for curriculum.  One such classification system devised by Eisner and Valance is outlined in the figure below. While there are several different conceptions of curriculum, they tend to organize curriculum approaches into ideological groupings into which educators tend to fall (Eisner & Valance, 1974). This is important, because future curriculum development is ultimately based on understandings of the assumptions and ideologies which formed the basis of a certain type of curriculum (Al Mousa, 2013).

Some conceptions of curriculum are often considered to be mainstream approaches, while others are not. Academic Rationalism as outlined in the table below, for example, continues to be inform ways in which our secondary schools are organized into distinct subject-disciplines (Eisner & Valance, 1974). In contrast Self-Actualization, which emphasises the individual’s need for personal liberation and development, cannot be so easily recognized in mainstream education and it is arguably played a smaller role.  While there are assuredly numerous explanations for these differences, I argue that they are owing to the roots of formal education itself. Academic Rationalism is steeped in tradition, and it emphasises the acquisition of tools to participate in the Western cultural tradition-everyday life (Eisner & Valance, 1974).  In this way, Academic Rationalism may continue to play a disproportionate role in current curriculum thinking through ‘inertia’. That is to say, that the foundations of modern formal education are based on this particular conception of curriculum, which has ultimately resulted in its continued dominance. With that said, the conceptions of curriculum necessarily simplify the true complexity of curriculum thinking, and in practice there is more overlap and fluidity. In fact, Pratt argues that educators should be adopting concepts from different conceptions of curriculum in order to develop curriculum that best facilitates high-quality student learning (1994). In conclusion, different conceptions of curriculum are rooted in values, beliefs, and assumptions about society, education, and learning itself. Understanding these conceptions of curriculum is necessary in order to analyse and development curriculum in a given context of practice.

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Eisner, E., & Vallance, E. (Eds.). (1974). Five conceptions of the curriculum: Their roots and implications for curriculum planning. In E. Eisner & E. Vallance (Eds.), Conflicting conceptions of curriculum (pp. 1-18). Berkeley, CA: McCutchan Publishing.

Pratt, D. (1994). Curriculum perspectives. In D. Pratt, Curriculum planning: A handbook for professionals (pp. 8-22). Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College Publisher.

Shiro, M. S. (2008). Introduction to the curriculum ideologies. In M. S. Shiro, Curriculum theory: Conflicting visions and enduring concerns (pp. 1-12). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Al Mousa, N. (2013). An examination of cad use in two interior design programs from the perspectives of curriculum and instructors, pp. 21-37 (Master’s Thesis).


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