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Responsive Curriculum Theory: Cultural Perspective

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Theory is defined as a set of propositions derived from data and creative thinking, from which constructs are formed to describe interactions among variables and to generate hypotheses. Theory describes, explains, goes beyond the data, predicts, and leads to new knowledge. Characteristics of theory are stated by several writers, and these aids in clarifying the definition. Interrelatedness of a set of statements or events is a characteristic commonly noted. Fred Kerlinger brought together several dimensions when he wrote, “a theory is a set of interrelated constructs, definitions, and propositions that presents a systematic view of phenomena by specifying relations among variables with the purpose of explaining and predicting the phenomena.” (Kerlinger, 1965)

Responsive Curriculum Theory: Cultural Perspective

What are the primary principles of this theory?

The definition of curriculum as a plan for achieving intended learning outcomes is a departure from the definition of curriculum as “all the experiences a learner has under the guidance of the school,” which prevailed in the literature from the 1930s until about 1960, according to Arthur Foshay (1969). Another common definition of curriculum is programmatic — “the curriculum is the program of school subjects” — emphasizing coverage of textbook material and subject matter. Foshay concludes that such definitions do not invite inquiry and may well block it. Mauritz Johnson (1967) defines the curriculum as a structured series of intended learning outcomes, and John Goodlad (1967) says that a curriculum is all the learning intended for a student or group of students, which implies that there must be a plan specifying and justifying what they are to do and learn. Some assumptions about curriculum follow.

Selection is an essential element of curriculum. Traditionally, adults selected curriculum content, which was drawn from the disciplines and organized in keeping with adults’ views of the most functional division of information. Newer curricula are organized according to areas of investigation selected by adults and students together. This in no way implies an incidental curriculum. Selection is made from many sources of curriculum in the world around us, including people, materials, travel, and ideas. Selection recognizes the interrelatedness of knowledge, attitudes, and skills; it recognizes that concepts and generalizations do not occur singly or in isolation, but rather form clusters, and that the motivation for learning is derived from the significance of the content selected.

Selection recognizes that modern communication media make cultural content available in many new dimensions. It also recognizes the distinction between skill training and education as a process of equipping and individual to cope successfully with the unpredictable needs of a changing world. Emphasis is on the quality of the learning environment in which experiences develop. Structure identifies order or sequence or notes that order is immaterial. Structure for an individual may develop from his or her interests and motivations, when a range of alternatives is available.

What are the weaknesses of the theory as a guide to curriculum design, development, implementation and evaluation?

Early leaders in the effort to call the attention of educators to the significance of theory in education were amazed and disappointed to find unexpected ignorance, indifference, and even the hostility to learning more about the meaning of theory. The “breakthrough” in the development of theory in education came in educational administration in the 1950s, and, after a slow start, the development gained ground and spread to other areas of education, such as instruction and curriculum.

The adequacy of our concepts for curriculum choice and planning will be tested by the adequacy of the value system from which we are developing theory. If curriculum development is to be responsive to the needs of individuals and society in a dynamic changing world, based on present knowledge and predictable alternative futures, an adequate theory must be based on humanistic values and American democratic ideals, while using materialism as the support system for human service.

It is obvious that curriculum development must be a responsive process, constantly extending, expanding, and revising the curriculum. This requires continuous planning of learning outcomes that will help individuals draw effectively on growing realms of knowledge, develop new skills in a rapidly changing world, and develop insights into and constructive approaches to unresolved problems. The process of curriculum development must continue to be responsive to needs and problems and to generate alternative means for reaching desirable ends. Single principle or linear approaches, which have prevailed at times in curriculum history, lack the scope and breadth of vision for curriculum development that is responsive to humanistic and democratic ideals, moral values, changing knowledge, new skills, and the findings of futures research.

Even the definitions related to curriculum vary from one source to another. George Beauchamp (1972) comments that people who use different meanings of curriculum fall into three groups: one group thinks of a curriculum as a plan for subsequent action; another views curriculum and instruction as synonums or a unified concept; and a third group sees curriculum as a very broad term, encompassing the learner’s psychological process as she or he acquires educational experiences. Since there is a lack of agreement on the definitions of curriculum, instruction and curriculum development among people in the field, it is important to set forth the definitions on which this discussion is based.

Curriculum development is far from being a simple, rational process. Hilda Taba’s (1962) insights into curriculum development more than a decade ago have relevance today. She describes the development process as a coherent stream within which flow the demands and needs of the culture, the growth and development of children, the principles of learning, the fundamental ideas in various content areas, and the unique modes of thought represented in these areas. This stream must yield a development of ideas, forms of thought, feelings, habits, and skills to be integrated by the learner. Curriculum development is further complicated by the philosophies and value orientations of the participants, which make some plans, seem of greater worth than others.

Jerome Bruner’s widely publicized statement in ‚ÄúThe Process of Education‚ÄĚ (Bruner, 1960) that anything worth teaching can be taught in some intellectually honest way at any level has conveyed the impression to a wide audience that there is some definite pattern of
construction or organization of the subject matter of the separate disciplines that should be known by curriculum-makers and used in sequencing information to impart it to children in an efficient and effective way. This point of view influenced the curriculum “reforms” of the 1960s, which did not in actuality reform curriculum.

Curriculum is comprised of several elements: learning outcomes, selection, and structure. Criteria for the evaluation of a curriculum, like those for instruction and curriculum development, must be used cooperatively by the persons involved, particularly teachers and students, to assess educational quality and appropriateness. Learning outcomes include knowledge, attitudes, and skills. Knowledge includes facts, information, principles, and generalizations that help an individual understand his or her world better. Skills are techniques, processes, and abilities that enable the individual to be versatile in using knowledge and physical resources effectively to extend the horizons of his or her world. Attitudes include values, beliefs, interpersonal feelings, creative thinking, appreciations, self-esteem, and other aspects of affective growth.

John Dewey (1916) would probably not have advocated a rigid or set structure as an intellectually honest way to introduce children to life and experience. Knowledge, of course, must be integrated to be meaningful, and curriculum structure can be constructed not only within the separate disciples but also across disciplines or interdisciplinary areas of social, cultural, or personal interest. Criteria for evaluation of the curriculum are provided when in- tended learning outcomes are identified.

Evaluation examines the extent to which actual outcomes compare with intended outcomes and provides a means for constant revision and improvement of the curriculum. The curriculum can be thought of as encompassing three general areas. One includes subject matter content and information, which have historically absorbed most of the curriculum development efforts. Concepts and relationships, communication of ideas in many modes and media, individual discovery, examination of values, and the creation of new knowledge stem from experiences with substantive content.

Curriculum development may seem deceptively simple and acceptable at face value, but it becomes highly complicated when applied to theory building. Curriculum development may be directed toward a great variety of educational settings and populations — those of early childhood, elementary, middle school, secondary, college, postgraduate, vocational, and other specialized types of education. Curriculum development may be micro or macro; that is, it may refer to a very small unit, such as a teacher and ten students, or to a statewide or national group. It may refer to a specific subject field or to an interdisciplinary area of investigation. The clientele may have pluralistic backgrounds or a homogeneous culture; may be oriented toward rural or urban interests; may be handicapped or normal; and so on.


What is its value or worth for educators or trainers who are designing, implementing, or evaluating curriculum today?

Theory is based on a value position and interrelated concepts, a belief system that provides criteria to practitioner — in making rational choices among alternative courses of action and sources of knowledge, in making value decisions, and in predicting the consequences of various solutions to dilemmas. Theory provides a frame of reference against which the practitioner can raise questions and test hypotheses.

George Beauchamp (1968) has synthesized other commentators on theory, and he points out that the operational vistas opened up and explained by theories increase the possible choices of behaving for the practitioner; the theories, however, do not tell him how to act. A theory may clarify relationships among any given set of events. . . . Theory is not what is practiced. A person cannot practice a set of logically related statements; he performs an activity. Theories of instruction, for example, might account for classroom discipline, grouping practices, lesson planning, and instructional materials as components of instruction, but the theories cannot tell teachers how to behave with respect to those functions. . . . Nevertheless, it is the job of educational theory to guide educational practices. In turn, theory is modified by practice and research that emanate from it.

Clear though the need for theory may be, however, practitioners have persistent difficulties understanding what theory is and how it is developed, as the history of and problems associated with theory development in education reveal. Although some confusion exists about how theory-making applies to education and thus to curriculum development, a substantial degree of consensus is emerging.


¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† Beauchamp George A, “Basic Components of a Curriculum Theory.” Curriculum Theory Network, fall 1972, pp. 16-22.

¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† ¬†Beauchamp George A, ‚ÄúCurriculum Theory‚ÄĚ. 2d ed. Wilmette, Ill.: Kagg Press, 1968. pp. 33-34

¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† ¬†Bruner Jerome S. ‚ÄúThe Process of Education‚ÄĚ. Cambridge: Harvard University

D.C.: National Education Association, 1967.

¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† ¬†Dewey John. ‚ÄúDemocracy and Education‚ÄĚ. New York: Macmillan, 1916.

¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† ¬†Foshay Arthur W, “Curriculum.‚ÄĚ In Encyclopedia of Educational Research, pp. 275-80 4th ed. Toronto: Macmillan, 1969.

             Goodlad John I., “Planning and Organizing for Teaching, pp. 5-31. Washington,

¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† ¬†Johnson Mauritz Jr. “Definitions and Models in Curriculum Theory.” Educational Theory 17 (April 1967): 127-40.

¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† ¬†Kerlinger Fred N. ‚ÄúFoundations of Behavioral Research‚ÄĚ New York: Holt,

Press, 1960 Rinehart and Winston, 1965, pp. 11

Taba Hilda. ‚ÄúCurriculum Development‚ÄĚ: Theory and Practice. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1962.

¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬†¬† ¬†Toffler Alvin. ‚ÄúFuture Shock‚ÄĚ New York: Bantam Books, 1970

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