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Curriculum Theory

William Allan Kritsonis, PhD


1. You have been assigned to a low-performing middle school campus.

Your superintendent has requested that you make changes in the

school curriculum to increase student achievement. Describe your

plan of action to increase student achievement levels at this middle


2. Describe and discuss how the informal and hidden curriculum impact

and change the formal curriculum? Provide specific examples.

Include parental expectations and prohibitions as part of the informal


3. What constructs about curriculum are present in the minds of

educators in a school with which you are familiar?

Historically, education has played a major role in shaping the lives of

all individuals. Curriculum theory has continually evolved and, there has

always been a battle to improve and expand the curriculum. Several

questions that plague educators today are “Which curriculum should we

follow?” and “What knowledge is of most worth?”. There are a multitude of

curriculum theories that help educators understand the concept of student

learning and achievement. This chapter is an attempt to expose educators to

the diverse curriculum theories that influence today’s educational system.

What is curriculum?

From a historical perspective, curriculum is any document or plan that

exists in a school or school system that defines the work of teachers. This

plan guides educators in identifying the content of the material to be taught.

Many work plans may consist of textbooks, resource materials, or scope and

sequence charts. “The purpose of a curriculum is not to abandon

organizational boundaries but to enable the organization to function within

those boundaries more effectively and, over time more efficiently” (English

and Larson, 1996). “A curriculum can accomplish these goals by: (1)

clarifying organizational boundaries; (2) defining the nature of the work to

be done; (3) relating the major tasks to be accomplished to one another

within the total work process or work flow (coordination); (4) defining

standards by which work is to be measured or assessed; (5) defining

evaluation procedures by which work results can be compared to work

performed; (6) making changes in the work performed through feedback;

and (7) repeating the above steps in order to achieve a higher level of work

performance on a consistent basis” (English and Larson, p.24).

There are at least three different types of curriculum in schools:

formal curriculum, informal curriculum, and hidden curriculum

The formal curriculum usually appears in state regulations, curriculum

guides, or officially sanctioned scope and sequence charts. The formal

curriculum is what will be found in teacher’s lesson plans. The informal

curriculum represents the unofficial aspects of designing or delivering the

curriculum. This type of curriculum involves the subtle but important

personality traits that a teacher interacts with the child – positively or

negatively. Informal curriculum contains those things that we teach that are

unplanned and spontaneous. The hidden curriculum is not recognized at

schools. It deals with expectations and assumptions. These are teachings,

which are presented to students but are not consciously received by them.

Hidden curriculum can be destructive, negative and subversive, or it can be

constructive, desirable and positive. Tanner describes this as the collateral

curriculum. Tanner stresses that collateral learning is in the way of

formation of enduring attitudes, of likes and dislikes, may be and often more

important that the spelling lesson in geography or history that is learned

Curriculum Alignment Theory

Curriculum alignment is an important strategy necessary to enhance

academic achievement levels of all students. Because of high stakes testing,

students need to be prepared to pass state exams. Fenwick English, a

leading proponent of curriculum alignment, maintains that there is an

interrelationship between the tested curriculum, taught curriculum and

written curriculum. When all three are working together, the relationship is

called “tight”. In order to produce optimum educational results, steps must

be taken to align the written curriculum (found in textbooks, curriculum

guides and supports resources), the taught curriculum (teachers’ lesson

plans) and the tested curriculum (TAAS, ITBS, SAT, etc.) Fenwick English

describes curriculum as a document of some sort, and its purpose is to focus

and connect the work of classroom teachers in schools (1992). School

districts tend to purchase textbooks that are usually not aligned to the

curriculum or state tests. This presents a problem. Focus and connectivity

are lost. Curriculum articulation (Vertical Teaming) refers to the focus and

vertical connectivity in a school or school system. Several design and

delivery issues arise relating to curriculum articulation. In design, teachers

must define in the work plan the required levels of focus/connectivity

desired to optimize student performance vertically. In delivery, program

monitoring is essential to ensure design integrity vertically (English, 1992).

Lastly, if what is tested is not being taught nor addressed in materials used

by students, test scores and related educational outcomes will not reach the

expectations of the students, teachers, administrators, parents, and the

public. In an era of accountability, curriculum alignment offers students an

opportunity to become successful.

In Allan Glatthorn’s book The Principal as Curriculum Leader, he

presents a six- step curriculum process that aids in alignment: (1) Plan the

project. A committee should be appointed to oversee the project. The

committee members must be trained in the alignment process. (2) Focus the

curriculum. The curriculum should focus on the district’s objectives. (3)

Analyze the tests. Grade level teams should analyze test data. This strategy

would allow teachers to indicate which of the mastery objectives are more

likely to be tested. (4) Analyze the text. Teachers should analyze where the

mastery objectives are explained in the text. (5) Evaluate the results. The

committee should review and discuss all the results, noting areas needed to

be improved. (6) Use the results. Complete alignment charts. Teachers

should use the mastery objectives to develop yearly and unit plans that

ensure adequate treatment of all objectives. Objectives tested should have

priority and objectives not tested should have second priority (Glatthorn,


Quality Control in Curriculum

Quality control refers to a continuous process or organizational self-

direction and evolution that increase organizational effectiveness. Three key

ingredients that must be present are 1) a work standard, 2) work assessment,

and 3) activity. As all these elements become congruent, work performance

in an organization in improved.

Multiple Intelligence Theory

Howard Gardner has created the theory of Multiple Intelligences. He

maintains that most school systems often focus on a narrow range of

intelligence that involves primarily verbal/linguistic and

logical/mathematical skills. While knowledge and skills in these areas are

essential for surviving and thriving in the world, he suggests that there are at

least six other kinds of intelligence that are important to fuller human

development and that almost everyone has available to develop. They

include, visual/spatial, bodily/kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, naturalist

and intra-personal intelligence. Gardner believes that the eight intelligences

he has identified are independent, in that they develop at different times and

to different degrees in different individuals. They are, however, closely

related, and many teachers and parents are finding that when an individual

becomes more proficient in one area, the whole constellation of intelligence

may be enhanced.

The following philosophic theories examine curriculum from a broad

view that includes all of the learner’s experiences to the more restricted view

that sees it as academic subject matter. (1) Idealist Curriculum Theory –

This theory was prevalent during the days of Plato. Idealists viewed

curriculum as a body of intellectual subject matter and learned disciplines

that are ideational and conceptual. Mathematics, history and literature for

instance were ranked very high. The overriding goal of Idealist education

was to encourage students to be seekers of truth. (2) Realist Curriculum

Theory – Aristotle founded Realism. Realist curriculum maintains that the

most effective and efficient way to find out about reality is to study it

through systematically organized subject matter disciplines. Realist

curriculum involves instruction in the areas of reading, writing, and

computation. Gaining knowledge through research methods are stressed.

(3) Naturalist Curriculum Theory – The Naturalists view of curriculum

differed from the earlier theorists. Learning should actively involve children

in dealing with the environment, using their senses, and solving problems.
Naturalists maintained that genuine education is based on the readiness and

needs of the human being.

(4) Pragmatic (Experiential) Curriculum Theory- This curriculum theory

approaches learning through experiencing . The child’s interests, needs and

experiences are taken into consideration. (5) Existentialist Curriculum

Theory – The curriculum includes the skills and subjects that explain

physical and social reality. “The crucial learning phase is not in the

structure of knowledge, nor in curricular organization but rather in the

student’s construction of its meaning (Gutek, 120)”. (6) Conservatism

Curriculum Theory – The curriculum should transmit the general culture to

all and provide appropriate education to the various strata in society. This

curriculum included the basic skills found in most school programs –

reading, writing, and math.

Personal Practical Knowledge

In his work, Personal Knowledge, Michael Polanyi demonstrates that

the scientist’s personal participation in the production of knowledge is an

indispensable part of the science itself. “Even the exact sciences, “knowing

is an art, of which the skill of the knower, guided by his personal

commitment and his passionate sense of increasing contact with reality, is a

logically necessary part”. Polanyi describes, “knowing” in the art of riding a

bike. In this description he states that the principle by which the cyclist

keeps his balance is known, but the knowledge is in the “doing”.

Key Concepts

Accountability – This term refers to holding schools and teachers

responsible for what students learn.

Content- A word used to identify the curriculum and separate it from school


Criterion-Referenced Test – Measures of performance compared to

predetermined standards or objectives.

Core/Fused Curriculum – Integration of the two or more subjects; for

example, English and social studies. Problem and theme orientations often

serve as the integrating design.

Curriculum –Curriculum is any document or plan that exists in a school or

school system that defines the work of teachers.

Curriculum Alignment – A connectivity between what is tested, taught and


Curriculum Compacting – Content development and delivery models that

abbreviated the amount of time to cover a topic without compromising the

depth and breadth of material taught.

Curriculum Development – A process whereby choices in designing a

learning experience for students are made and activated through a set of

coordinated activities.

Curriculum Guide – A written statement of objectives, content, and

activities to be used with a particular subject at specified grade levels;

usually produced by state departments or local educational agencies.

Curriculum Management Planning – A systematic method of planning for


Formative Evaluation - Student achievement is monitored throughout the

school year. This will be done through student /teacher conferences,

departmental meetings, curriculum director monitoring and conferences.

Feedback and suggestions for improvement will be considered.

Knowing in Action – This concept refers to the sorts of know-how we

reveal in our intelligent action. By observing and reflecting in our actions,

we make knowing in action implicit. We reveal it in a spontaneous manner;

and we are unable to put it in words (Schon, p. 25, 1987).

Performance Objective – Targeted outcome measures for evaluating the

learning of particular process based skills and knowledge.

Sequence – The organization of an area of study. Frequently, the

organization is chronological, moving from simple to complex.

Staff Development – Body of activities designed to improve the

proficiencies of the educator practitioner.

Subject-Content – The type of curriculum that stresses the mastery of

subject matter, with all other outcomes considered subsidiary.

Summative Evaluation - Teachers and students will reflect on the

curriculum process. Met and unmet goals and objectives will be discussed

at length. Improvements and refinements will be based on the summative


Tacit Knowledge – Tacit knowledge is “ knowing in action”. To become

skillful in the use of this tool is to learn to appreciate, directly and without

immediate reasoning, the qualities of the material that we apprehend through

the tacit sensation of the tool in our hand (Schon, p. 25, 1987).
Curriculum Websites – The following sites provide information on

curriculum and the curriculum alignment process.