Problematic Approaches to School Curriculum – Part 2: Curriculum as ‘product’.

After last week’s instalment discussing the problems with the syllabus model, this week I’ll look at curriculum as product. This is another popular way of viewing curriculum: to see it as a way of helping achieve certain qualities in students. Objectives are set, plans are drawn up, outcomes measured and the cycle then begins again. Throughout this approach, there is a heavy emphasis on bringing about certain qualities in young people that will help them gain later employment and be fit for the world. Two American scholars dominate the theoretical understanding of this approach: Franklin Bobbitt and Ralph Tyler. In ‘The Curriculum’, Bobbitt writes:

“The central theory [of curriculum] is simple.  Human life, however varied, consists in the performance of specific activities.  Education that prepares for life is one that prepares definitely and adequately for these specific activities.  However numerous and diverse they may be for any social class they can be discovered.  This requires only that one go out into the world of affairs and discover the particulars of which their affairs consist.  These will show the abilities, attitudes, habits, appreciations and forms of knowledge that men need.  These will be the objectives of the curriculum.  They will be numerous, definite and particularized.  The curriculum will then be that series of experiences which children and youth must have by way of obtaining those objectives.”

It was very stereotypical for curriculum approaches that adopted this sort of model to have endless lists of objectives and highly vocational focussed outlooks. Ralph Tyler, a few decades later, refined this curriculum as product approach by saying that when designing any curricula, there are four questions at the project’s heart. These were:

  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?  (Tyler 1949: 1)

Why this model is a problem

 Curriculum is not pedagogy

There are a few issues with this approach to curriculum. First, this approach assumes that the written down curriculum has huge importance and significance when it is transferred to pedagogy (classroom practice). Some have gone as far as to say that the curriculum (written down) isthe pedagogy of the classroom. Therefore, when curriculum is well planned and defined, it should solve all ills in the classroom. As teachers, we simply know that this is just not true. That brilliant plan that we spent hours putting together didn’t quite work out because those four children had forgotten the prior learning they should have remembered from Year 4 and we actually ended up asking that question differently than when we planned it. We go back to our plan, make notes and amend it for next time. The starter for our lesson was actually pitched slightly too high and made the introduction difficult to follow on from. We go back to our plan, make notes and amend it for next time. This is also why buying into a scheme or downloading resources and expecting it to solve all our curricular ills will not solve the problem. I could go on and on with more examples of this.

This doesn’t mean that the ‘written down curriculum’ isn’t important, it just means that it isn’t the pedagogy that goes on in the classroom. The curriculum will have an enormous influence on the pedagogy and these two aspects of schooling overlap but they are not synonymous terms. To assume this is to go down the rabbit hole of de-professionalizing teachers due to their lack of value and worth (think: well, if we put down curriculum in a really clear way, then surely ANYONE can teach it?). This is wrong, very wrong.

Objectives are not everything

Next, objectives need to be held in balance with the fact that we can’t measure learning perfectly accurately. There is always a level of uncertainty about what has been learned that we ought to be constantly aware of. Johnny might remember the difference between a subordinate clause and a main clause today but tomorrow he might have forgotten. Because of this, we can plan our objectives ‘perfectly’ in ‘small steps’ and expect to progressively sequence our lessons building on the previous learning but there is always something that will have to change due to the learning of pupils. To just ‘plough on with what we’ve planned’ is not good teaching – we must always begin our planning processes with a clear understanding of what our children know. This sort of approach might look like great curriculum but it doesn’t make learning better. Of course, I’m not saying we don’t have objectives on our curriculum plans but we must hold them lightly; we might even want to get rid of them altogether and consider other alternatives. What about enquiry questions instead? This is another plausible alternative, amongst several others.

Where is the curriculum choice and creativity?

Finally, I think it is good that pupils have curriculum choice by being overly prescriptive, we might hinder their engagement and enthusiasm for subjects, particularly our more able pupils. Once the core knowledge has been learned, it is wonderful for pupils to be able to develop their particular interests within the parameters of a topic being learned. Personally, I love to prepare some extension reading or research tasks for my more able pupils who fly through work. They can do these tasks and then can develop a deeper knowledge of something they find particularly fascinating. This buys me more time too, to focus on pupils who have found the core of what is being learned tricky so I can go over it with them in more detail. Far from being ‘busy work’, this sort of extension can develop creativity and deeper interest. This sort of ‘extension’ isn’t always appreciated or planned for within a curriculum.

More than this, within subjects like history or geography in the primary school, it is nice to be able to give children the core of what needs to be learned and then allow them to go away and research a special area of interest and then feedback to the class about what they’ve learned. For example, in a topic on the USA, it might be that an introductory lesson, where core knowledge about the country is communicated and understood by pupils is done first and then a research lesson on comparing two states of their choice is done next. Not all subjects have this flexibility. However, where it is possible, this is a wonderful opportunity to develop curiosity within a subject.

1 thought on “Problematic Approaches to School Curriculum – Part 2: Curriculum as ‘product’.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s