Monday, April 19, 2010

Deliberation and Social Reconstruction: Alternatives to the Tyler Rationale

In 1949, W. Ralph Tyler published a course outline for an education course on curriculum and instruction that he taught at the University of Chicago. This document, which has become recognized as the Tyler Rationale, has become the dominant model for curriculum design. The syllabus itself contains a disclaimer: “it is not a manual for curriculum construction since it does not describe and outline in detail the steps to be taken by a given school or college that seeks to build a curriculum” Footnote 1(Tyler, 1949). It has, however, been interpreted by many as “revealed doctrine” and as the defining method for constructing a curriculum Footnote 2 (Kliebard, 1975, p. 70). This paper considers two curriculum theories—deliberation and social reconstruction—which challenge the Tyler Rationale and offer alternative methods and definitions for curriculum design, implementation, and evaluation. After discussing the background and the general principles that guide these curriculum theories, I will then concentrate the discussion of these theories by identifying them with specific theorists: Decker Walker as a representative for deliberation and Michael Apple as a representative of social reconstruction. I will then discuss the similarities and differences of each theorist in regards to their curriculum and research priorities, their views of knowledge and their opinions about what should be taught in school, their views about the Tyler Rationale and the importance of objectives in curriculum theory, and their views on curriculum reform.
Walker’s Theory of Deliberation
Deliberation is a theory of curriculum built upon the ideal of the “practical” as defined by Joseph Schwab. Schwab Footnote 3 (1969) criticizes the curriculum scholars of his time for being too focused on theory and neglecting the need to attend to curriculum problems. He contends that theory is insufficient as a means for constructing a curriculum and addressing problems during the implementation of a curriculum. According to Schwab, the purpose of theory is to answer questions related to subject matter that is universal and demonstrates relatively unchangeable regularities Footnote 4 (Schwab, 1964). All theories, no matter how well developed, leave out the particulars of the events or facts of the subject they consider. Theory plays an important role in the building of a curriculum, but a curriculum cannot be built from the foundation of a single theory. Curriculum must rise from the abstract representations of many theories. Schwab identifies the “arts of the practical” as the supplement to theory which connects the abstract representations of theory to the real and concrete entities affected by the curriculum. The arts of the practical are the ingredient needed to “bring a theory to its application” Footnote 5 (Schwab, 1969, p.12).
Decker Walker is a professor of education at Stanford University. Walker’s curriculum research is focused on answering practical questions related to curriculum. Practical questions, as described by Walker, “are questions whose object is deciding what to do” Footnote 6 (Walker, 2003, p. xvi). Walker does not attempt to find the “truth” in curriculum matters, but studies all aspects of curriculum in light of their implications to practical questions. Walker’s ideas about the curriculum stem from his experiences in working on curriculum projects. Walker stresses the importance of studying actual curriculum work as a means for determining what is working and what needs to be improved Footnote 7 (Reid & Walker, 1975, p. ix). Rather than proposing a new model or theory to describe how a curriculum should be organized, built, and evaluated, Walker suggests that critically studying the ways which we now build, organize, and evaluate a curriculum will more effectively lead to answers of practical questions.
As an alternative to Tyler’s model for curriculum development—“the classical model”—Walker proposes a model that is based upon observations of actual curriculum projects. He refers to this model as a “naturalistic model” Footnote 8 (Walker, 1971, p.51). Walker’s model of the process for curriculum development consists of three elements: the curriculum’s platform, the curriculum’s design, and the process of deliberation which leads the process from the platform to its design Footnote 9 (Walker, p. 52).
The platform is not merely a statement of objectives or an outline of a theory. The platform consists of a mixture of ideologies related to education and its purposes. These beliefs are rooted on judgments concerning the existing curriculum, as well as visions of the way the curriculum ought to be. Walker compares the deliberative platform to a political platform. Both platforms guide their respective groups in making decisions and determining actions, without restricting their deliberative power by defining their purposes in terms of prescriptive objectives Footnote 10 (Walker, 2003, p.237). The platform is the guiding force for the deliberative process, and all decisions made during the process will be judged in terms of consistency to the platform Footnote 11 (Walker, 1971, p. 57). Therefore, the platform should also include explicit models of the issues and the curriculum problems that the group will be faced with Footnote 12 (Walker, 2003, p. 237).
After a platform has been established, the process of deliberation begins as the group attempts to make specific decisions in regards to the curriculum. Deliberation may take on many forms, but the most common forms are argumentation and debate Footnote 13 (Walker, 1971, p. 55). During deliberation, proposed decisions are formulated and alternatives to those proposed decisions are suggested. Arguments for and against the proposed decisions and their alternatives are then considered by the group in an attempt to choose the most defensible alternative Footnote 14 (Walker, p.54). It is important to understand that a course of action that is decided upon by a deliberative group is not to be construed as the “correct” course of action. Instead, it is interpreted as the best available course of action known to the group Footnote 15 (Walker, 2003, p. 223).
The result of deliberation is the curriculum design. Walker suggests that the design is best represented as the series of decisions that were made during the creation of the design. These decisions make up two parts of the design: the explicit design and the implicit design. The explicit design is composed of the decisions that were made during deliberation—after a consideration of alternatives. The implicit design consists of those decisions that were made automatically—without considering alternatives. The curriculum design, by Walker’s own admission, is difficult to specify precisely, but he offers this explanation:
Just as an experienced architect could construct a model of a building from a complete record of the decisions made by the buildings designer as well as from a set of blueprints, so a curriculum developer could substantially reconstruct a project’s curriculum plan and materials from a record of the choices they made. Footnote 16 (Walker, p. 53)
In Walker’s naturalistic model, the important output that is generated by curriculum development is a set of decisions. As a result, evaluation is used only as a means of justifying or discrediting the decisions that were made, rather than as a self-corrective process that directs practice to the attainment of objectives.
When developing a curriculum, a group (or individual teacher) must identify what will be taught and how it will be taught. Walker suggests that in order to effectively make this determination, a group must work from an appropriate “conceptualization” of knowledge. In the same way that scientists who are trying to answer practical questions related to heat and temperature have benefited from the conceptualization of heat as the motion of molecules, teachers and curriculum groups can benefit from an appropriate conceptualization of knowledge when trying to answer questions about what to teach and how to teach it Footnote 17 (Walker & Soltis, 1992, p. 39). Walker identifies Gilbert Ryle’s analysis of knowledge, as an important conceptualization of knowledge. Ryle suggests that there are important differences in knowing how to do something, and “knowing that such and such is so” Footnote 18 (Walker & Soltis, p. 40). There is no designation by Ryle or Walker that one form of knowledge is more important than the other, but they suggest it is important to distinguish between the two forms, and careful thought should be taken to determine how much of a certain form is appropriate for a given situation. A familiarity with different conceptualizations of knowledge allows teachers to contemplate possible practices and actions that would not have been considered otherwise.
Walker praises the Tyler Rationale for its commitment to identify a “highly rationalized, comprehensive method for arriving at logical and justifiable curricula of many different kinds”. However, Walker questions the effectiveness and practicality of Tyler’s emphasis on objectives in matters of the curriculum. Quite often with matters of the curriculum, it is not possible or desirable to know how things will transpire as a lesson, project, or proposal progresses toward its completion. To require that a curriculum be developed from a predetermined list of objectives that prescribe a measurable end result, is to limit the possibilities of an educational endeavor, and in many instances represents an unobtainable ideal. Walker suggests that most objectives that are tied to a curriculum are stated after the fact—usually as a means of communicating purposes to teachers rather than as initiation points for development Footnote 19 (Walker & Soltis, 1992, p. 60). Instead of using objectives as the primary building blocks for the curriculum, Walker suggests the concept of a curriculum platform as the launching pad for curriculum development. As described earlier, the platform consists of a group of shared ideas, beliefs, and values that guide the deliberative process in curriculum decisions. The platform serves a similar purpose in the deliberation process as that of objectives in the Tyler Rationale. The platform, however, is purposefully less explicit, and the ideas that define a platform are not prescriptions for an obligatory end result. Walker emphasizes that the platform should be written down at the beginning of a curriculum design, but can also be continually updated throughout the process.
Apple’s Social Reconstruction Theory
Social Reconstruction is a theory that recognizes the curriculum as a force for cultural reform. The theory has held prominence in two distinct time periods of the 20th century. Spurred by the great depression, Social Reconstructionism first emerged as a popular alternative to the traditional and social efficiency models in the early 1930s. The champion of the movement in this time period was George S. Counts Footnote 20 (Kliebard, 2004). Counts believed that the curriculum models of the time advocated the promotion of the individual within a capitalist economy at the expense of democratic ideals related to the common good. In a voice that is echoed by contemporary reconstructionists such as Apple, Counts criticized the prevailing curriculum reforms and characterized them as social constructions created to perpetuate the defects in American society.
Social Reconstructionism surfaced again in the 1960s in two different but related genres. One genre first appeared during the 1960s as teachers and educators reported the inequities that existed within the public schools. Educators and writers reported the conditions that they witnessed in the schools as well as the implications that such schooling had on the lives of these children, their families, and the their communities. The discourse from this brand of social reconstruction is focused on the overt neglect by the existing social powers to provide equal educational opportunities to all children.
The other genre of social reconstruction surfaced in the 1970s and is led by curriculum experts in universities and colleges of education. This form of social reconstruction is more closely associated with matters of the curriculum and the dynamic relationship between the curriculum and society. In harmony with other reconceptualists, social reconstructionists see curriculum as a social construction that acts as a reinforcing agent to perpetuate social problems such as racism, sexism, and social class. Through criticism, social reconstructionists strive to break down a prevailing curriculum and find the hidden aspects within the curriculum which they believe to be oppressive, discriminatory, and isolating.
Michael Apple, the John Bascom Professor of Curriculum and Instruction and Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is an important curriculum theorist and researcher identified with this contemporary form of social reconstruction. His research and writings are focused on showing what is explicitly and implicitly taught in schools and what the ideological implications might be. His theory of the curriculum is centered on the belief that the curriculum is a highly political entity that serves a culture of power by transferring the cultural beliefs and prioritized knowledge that reinforce the dominance of the culture. The curriculum reproduces the inequities that exist between race, gender, and socioeconomic status. Along with the transference of explicit knowledge, the curriculum also demonstrates its hegemony on society by covertly legitimizing important working class traits such as neatness, respect for authority, punctuality, docility, and willingness to perform repetitive procedure. The curriculum can also legitimize existing societal inequities by its omissions—what is left out of the curriculum. Apple refers to these implicit implications of the curriculum as the hidden curriculum. An important part of the social reconstruction theory of Apple is the uncovering of the components of the hidden curriculum.
Like all aspects of the curriculum, Apple sees knowledge as a non-neutral creation of society. Why do schools continue to emphasize the need for mathematics and science over the arts and the humanities, and more importantly, why are certain attributes and abilities completely ignored by the schools? As an answer to these questions, Apple suggests that in order for our economic system to maintain high profit levels, it must have workers that have a high degree of “technical knowledge”. Apple hypothesizes that schools satisfy this economic need by distributing technical knowledge and discretely marketing it as “high status knowledge”. The designation of technical knowledge as high status knowledge serves the corporate culture in two ways. First, it guarantees a continuation of technical skills in the labor force. This is necessary for the economic system to run efficiently and to provide opportunities for economic expansion. Second, it guarantees poor achievement and the stratification of abilities related to this form of knowledge. This ensures the reproduction of workers that are efficiently distributed in an unequal social order.
Apple classifies the Tyler Rationale as “little more than an administrative document that does not adequately deal with the concrete reality of schools”. The use of objectives as the starting points for curriculum development is viewed by Apple as an attempt to methodize educational planning and evaluation. He criticizes any attempt to, “create the most efficient method of curriculum work”. Such an attempt is characterized by Apple as an attempt to “neutralize” and “depoliticize” the highly economic and political context of curriculum work. Apple recognizes that such curriculum efforts often help individual children and are not always misguided—but “macroeconomically” such efforts assist in the reproduction of inequality.
Comparing and Contrasting Walker’s and Apple’s Curriculum Ideas
When considering similarities and differences in the curriculum theories of Apple and Walker, there is an obvious theme that exists as an explanation of the differences in the two theories—one theorist is neutral, the other is not. Walker takes a neutral stance on most curriculum issues, whereas Apple takes a highly political and non-neutral stance related to the curriculum. These differences are a result of their stated interests as curriculum researchers. Walker is interested in solving existing curriculum problems by finding applications in existing curriculum theory. In order to accomplish this, he must be neutral and search for the beneficial aspects of any theory. Apple is committed to exposing and undermining the features of the curriculum that act to perpetuate the unequal distribution of power in our society. Apple sees the curriculum as a social construction that is created to serve political interests. Therefore, one cannot effectively deal with the curriculum neutrally. Apple criticizes curriculum work such as Walker’s that focuses on the organization and development of curriculum. He feels this type of curriculum emphasis has promoted the perception that our educational institutions are neutral and has served to legitimize current policy and practice. Walker contends that “partisan scholarship” such as Apple’s is important so that those responsible for curriculum decisions can critically evaluate current practices and decisions. He also warns that, “criticism that ignores a curriculum’s virtues creates a bill of indictment, not the full assessment that decision makers need”.
Both Apple and Walker have been influential voices whose theories on curriculum have challenged the position of the Tyler Rationale as the paradigm for curriculum development and evaluation. Walker’s theory is comparable to the Tyler Rationale in that they serve a similar purpose: to characterize a process for developing and implementing a curriculum. Walker does not promote a particular theory related to knowledge or pedagogy, but argues for research related to turning existing theory into practice. Apple, on the other hand, sees the Tyler Rationale as an ineffective method that does nothing more than maintain the status quo and serves to legitimize the controlling aspects of the current curriculum. Walker’s research energies are directed toward finding answers to questions about how to establish a curriculum in the face of conflicting beliefs, desires, and economic restraints. Apple’s research agenda is directed toward an “advocacy and critical model” that guides the curriculum toward the empowerment of oppressed groups.
I believe Walker’s naturalistic model is—as Walker himself describes it—an appropriate descriptive model for curriculum development in most instances. I also believe that it is an efficient prescriptive model for curriculum development. It is not, however, a model that facilitates change. For deliberation to be considered effective, it requires the availability of alternative solutions to any proposed solution. Unless the curriculum group is well represented by divergent voices, any solution that is determined by the group is hardly viable as a best available solution. Such a solution appears to be a solution by default, desperation, or conspiracy. The model’s power to generate appropriate solutions to curriculum problems is diluted when the group is small in number or homogeneous in their views and understandings. The model also fails to get curriculum development going at all if the groups are too divergent in their curriculum visions and aims. It seems to me there would have to be a significant amount of cohesion within the group to establish a working platform, and this required cohesion would contribute to the perpetuation of the status quo.
I also recognize the importance of Michael Apple’s critical theory of the curriculum. Because of his writings, I see the concept of curriculum in a different light. I now see the curriculum through a political lens and recognize it as non-neutral. By promoting certain types of knowledge, the curriculum serves a political agenda that will benefit some while impairing others. This understanding has caused me to reflect on the content and pedagogy of my classes and to consider who will benefit from the determined content and practices and who will be put at a disadvantage.
It is Apple’s political passion, his convincing research, and his powerful writing that allows his work to influence many educators such as myself. I also believe, however, that his extreme political views are so radical that it is hard for many of those who influence the curriculum to identify with his beliefs. Therefore, Michael Apple’s theory of curriculum is powerful enough to cause educators to reflect on and critique existing curriculum, but lacks the power to substantially change the curriculum. This personal belief is not a criticism aimed at Apple or his theory. Instead, it stems from my belief that the curriculum is a reflection of our society. The strengths and weaknesses of our society exist as a product of our past, and changes for the better and for the worst can and do occur, but these changes come slowly and with much effort. The curriculum, like society, is also a product of the past and the strengths and weaknesses of the curriculum mirror those of society. Changes in the curriculum will occur, but unless they are accompanied by a cultural revolution, radical changes are unlikely.


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Kliebard, H. M. (2004). The struggle for the American curriculum 1893-1958 (3rd ed.). New York: RoutledgeFalmer.

Reid, W.A., & Walker, D.F. (Eds.). (1975). Case studies in curriculum change. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Schwab, J.J. (1964). Structure of the disciplines: Meanings and significances. In G.W. Ford & L. Pungo (Eds.), The structure of knowledge and the curriculum (pp. 6-30). Chicago: Rand McNally & Company.

Schwab, J.J. (1969). The practical. School Review, 178, 1-23.

Tyler, R. (1949). Basic principles of curriculum and instruction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Walker, D.F. (1971). A naturalistic model for curriculum development. The School Review, 80(1), 51-65.

Walker, D.F. (2003). Fundamentals of curriculum: Passions and professionalism (2nd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Walker, D.F., & Soltis, J.F. (1992). Curriculum and aims (2nd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.

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