Curriculum theory

Curriculum theory

Curriculum theory is the theory of the development and enactment of curriculum. Within the broad field of curriculum studies, it is both a historical analysis of curriculum and a way of viewing current educational curriculum and policy decisions. There are many different views of curriculum theory including those of Herbert Kliebard and Michael Stephen Schiro, among others.

Kliebard takes a more historical approach to examining the forces at work that shape the American curriculum, as he describes those forces between 1893 and 1958. Schiro takes a more philosophical approach as he examines the curriculum ideologies (or philosophies) that have influenced American curriculum thought and practice between ca 1890-2007. Kliebard discusses four curriculum groups that he calls humanist (or mental disciplinarians), social efficiency, developmentalist (or child study), and social meliorists. Schiro labels the philosophies of these groups the scholar academic ideology, social efficiency ideology, learner-centered ideology, and social reconstruction ideology.

One of the common criticism of curriculum of broadfield curriculum is that it lays more emphasis on mental discipline and education. "Mental disciplinarians" and Humanists believe in all students' abilities to develop mental reasoning and that education was not intended for social reform in itself but for the systematic development of reasoning power. Good reasoning power would lead to the betterment of society. Harris described the subjects to be taught as the “five windows” into the soul of the student: “grammar, literature and art, mathematics, geography, and history” and prescribed it in that order to be taught (Kliebard,2004,p. 15). Some critics view this group as having too much emphasis on the "classics" as determined by the dominant groups in a society (and particularly in history by the Committee of Five and Committee of Ten in the late 19th century). In today's society this group is may be seen as having a cultural bias toward the upper class, as well as, the caucasian majority in the United States.


Social meliorism

Social Meliorists believe that education is a tool to reform society and create change of the better. This socialization goal was based on the power of the individual's intelligence, and the ability to improve on intelligence through education. An individual’s future was not predetermined by gender, race, socio-economic status, heredity or any other factors. “The corruption and vice in the cities, the inequalities of race and gender, and the abuse of privilege and power could all be addressed by a curriculum that focused directly on those very issues, thereby raising a new generation equipped to deal effectively with those abuses” (Kliebard,2004, p.24). Some critics view this group has goals that are difficult to measure and are a product that has slow results.

John Dewey's curriculum theory

John Dewey felt that the curriculum should ultimately produce students who would be able to deal effectively with the modern world. Therefore, curriculum should not be presented as finished abstractions, but should include the child’s preconceptions and should incorporate how the child views his or her own world. Dewey uses four instincts, or impulses, to describe how to characterize children’s behavior. The four instincts according to Dewey are social, constructive, expressive, and artistic. Curriculum should build an orderly sense of the world where the child lives. Dewey hoped to use occupations to connect miniature versions of fundamental activities of life classroom activities. The way Dewey hoped to accomplish this goal was to combine subject areas and materials. By doing this, Dewey made connections between subjects and the child’s life. Dewey is credited for the development of the progressive schools some of which are still in existence today.

Social efficiency educators

"Social efficiency educators" such as theorists Ross, Bobbitt, Gilbreth, Taylor, and Thorndike were aiming to design a curriculum that would optimize the “social utility” of each individual in a society. By using education as an efficiency tool, these theorists believed that society could be controlled. Students would be scientifically evaluated (such as IQ tests), and educated towards their predicted role in society. This involved the introduction of vocational and junior high schools to address the curriculum designed around specific life activities that correlate with each student’s societal future. The socially efficient curriculum would consist of minute parts or tasks that together formed a bigger concept. This educational view was somewhat derived with the efficiency of factories which could simultaneously produce able factory workers. Critics believe this model has too much emphasis on testing and separating students based on the results of that testing.


Developmentalists focus attention to the development of children's emotional and behavioral qualities. One part of this view is using the characteristics of children and youth as the source of the curriculum. Some critics claim this model is at the expense of other relevant factors. One example of an extreme Hall advocated differentiated instruction based on native endowment and even urged separate schools for “dullards” in the elementary grades.


  • H. Kliebard (2004) The Struggle for the American Curriculum,1893-1958,RoutledgeFalmer, New York
  • M. Schiro (2007) Curriculum Theory: Conflicting Visions and Enduring Concerns. Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, CA.

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