18 November 2010

What's the purpose of education?

So … there are two main theories of curriculum design – product and process – that can be used to help us understand course design, development, and delivery. While both models deal with common elements (objectives, content, method, and assessment / evaluation), in the product model, knowledge (and learning) is bounded and packaged. Once a course has been designed and the parameters of the course established, students are guided through the pre-defined learning experiences and finally tested to see how well they have achieved desired learning outcomes. The process model, on the other hand, is more fluid and provides for collaborative exploration of the field by both teacher and student. The teacher is expert, the student novice, but they occupy and investigate the subject matter together. The former guides the student, while leaving room for the student to construct his or her own learning experiences and pathways. In practice, these models probably lie at opposite ends of a continuum, rather than each in their own box.

For instance, if the conversation is focused on the ways in which research is or could be used in undergraduate teaching, the product model aligns with Healey and Jenkins’ notion of research-led teaching, whereas the process model of curriculum design might be employed in a situation where the teacher is employing research-based or even research-tutored teaching (Healey & Jenkins, 2009). Healey and Jenkins differentiate in their model between student as audience and student as participant, and these, for me, are the key differences between the product and process models of curriculum design. It should be noted that it is possible for a teacher, in a single course / subject, to provide learning experiences that address all four aspects of the Healey & Jenkins model.

The nature of undergraduate research and inquiry (Healey & Jenkins, 2009, p 7)

In my work with teaching academics in a research-intensive Australian university, I don’t hear academics talking about the theory that underpins their teaching practice. Let’s face it, I don’t hear them talking about their teaching very often at all. Discussions about curriculum usually centre around topics and core knowledge, even among the accountants who have recently been involved in a conversation about the graduate attributes of their cohort.

Is this something that universities should be concerned about? I think so, given the information we are getting about how TEQSA will approach issues of quality and standards.

I’m not sure that teaching academics even have a common understanding of curriculum or the design of learning environments and experiences. This is supported by a study conducted in Australia by Fraser and Bosanquet. They write that four different categories of meaning emerged when academic staff were asked about their understanding of the term curriculum: Category A: The structure and content of a unit / subject; Category B: The structure and content of a progam of study; Category C: The students’ experience of learning; and Category D: A dynamic and interactive process of teaching and learning (Fraser and Bosanquet, 2006).

Those using Categories A & B, according to Fraser and Bosanquet, “conceptualize the curriculum as a product that can be defined and … recorded”. Those using Category C conceptualize the curriculum as a process that facilitates student learning, and those using Category D view the curriculum as a dynamic, emergent and collaborative process of learning for both student and teacher. (Fraser and Bosanquet , 2006, p 272) Clearly, Categories A and B align with the teacher-centred, content-oriented product models of curriculum design, and Categories C and D with the learner-centred, learning activity-oriented process models. They conclude that academics associate many different meanings to the term curriculum, and that these variations extend to “the epistemological assumptions that underpin [their] understandings”. Fraser notes that the “impact of such a variation in understanding on the teaching and learning processes and practice of the institution is not well known”. It is her view that an exploration of the meanings of the term curriculum and the language of teaching and learning could in itself become a useful focus of the partnership between higher education developers, discipline experts, and university leaders (Fraser, 2006).

None of the Fraser-Bosanquet categories address perhaps the most important factor shaping curriculum design decisions: beliefs about the purpose of education. An Irish academic developer, new to the work, wrote in 2010 of her struggle to find an appropriate starting point for her work. She turned to the literature and discovered that “one aspect that appears to be quite diverse in its presentation is the start of the process”. Some of the authorities she consulted pointed out that curriculum design models often overlook “personal attitudes, feelings and values involved in curriculum making”, while being strongly influenced by the discipline. She quotes Stark, who recommends early exploration of staff considerations and beliefs (O’Neill, 2010). Advocates of the process model frequently recommend something along these lines. Hawes, for example, includes in his model a range of guiding principles, including theories of child behavior, teaching and learning, and epistemology (Brady, 1995). Walker writes of the platform upon which a curriculum designer bases decisions, and lists beliefs, theories, conceptions, points of view and aims / objectives (Print, 1993).

Many writers have addressed this issue of the foundation upon which decisions about curriculum are made. So, what should education foster and facilitate? In the literature, we find a range of conceptions or ideologies about the purpose of education.

1. The polymath (Posner, 1995; Smith, 2000): The first, and the one least applicable in a modern university setting, is the notion that there is core body of knowledge which will be familiar to all educated people. Exponential growth in the sum of human understanding means that it is now almost impossible for most people to know something about everything, but this was not always the case.

2. Social efficiency (Posner, 1995; Smith, 2000; Schiro, 2008): Those who subscribe to this notion believe that the purpose of education is to meet the needs of society, by preparing citizens to function as mature contributing members of society.

3. Discipline-based, scholarly endeavour (Eisner & Vallance, 1974; Print, 1993; Posner, 1995; Schiro, 2008): This concept is based on the value of discipline-based knowledge. It values content knowledge, the skills of the discipline, and the ontology and epistemology of the discipline. Those designing curriculum with this concept in mind believe that the purpose of education is to help students acquire the accumulated knowledge of the academic discipline in question. Such curriculum addresses not the topics particular to the discipline and enables students to use and appreciate the ideas and works that constitute the discipline. Such designers sometimes refer to “core knowledge” for their discipline.

4. Cognitive development (Eisner & Vallance, 1974; Print, 1993; Posner, 1995; Smith, 2000): This concept aligns with the idea of generic skills. Those who build on this foundation believe that the purpose of education is to give students the skills they need to learn how to learn, and to employ and enhance their intellectual abilities. Discipline knowledge is important, but more importantly, it provides the content base that allows students to acquire and rehearse generic skills. Discipline-based knowledge is instrumental to the development of intellectual abilities that can be used in areas other than those in which the processes were originally refined.

5. Humanistic, learner-centred experiences (Eisner & Vallance, 1974; Print, 1993; Posner, 1995; Schiro, 2008): These designers believe that education ought to provide students with intrinsically rewarding experiences to enhance personal development and enable them to achieve self-actualization. Content is selected according to student interest. The focus of curriculum designed on this basis is the interests and concerns of students, and the goal of education is the personal growth of individuals.

6. Social reconstruction (Eisner & Vallance, 1974; Print, 1993; Smith, 2000; Schiro, 2008): Social constructionists base their practice on the works of writers like Giroux, Illich, Friere and Habermas. For them, the purpose of the curriculum is the reform of society. Education is designed to facilitate the construction of a new and more just society that offers maximum satisfaction to all, and school is an agent for change. These designers sit at the radical end of the political spectrum.

7. Educational technology (Eisner & Vallance, 1974; Print, 1993): It could be argued that educational technology is not a separate category, but rather an approach that supports the social efficiency conception of curriculum. The educational technologists are less concerned with process and more interested in the “technology” by which knowledge is communicated and learning facilitated. They rely on a very broad definition of technology that includes not only material objects (software and hardware), but also systems, methods of organization, and techniques. They draw on theories of behaviourism, cognitivism, constructivism, and connectivism (see Siemens and Downes). The instructional techniques and strategies employed by educational technologists include problem-based learning and inquiry-based learning in a student-centred environment. This approach has informed distance, flexible, and online education.

This leaves me with two questions:

• How do I find out about the philosophy of education that underpins decisions about curriculum design made by my academic colleagues?

• How do I encourage my academic colleagues to share with each their understanding of the term curriculum?



Brady, L. (1995). Curriculum development, 5th edn. Sydney, Prentice-Hall.

Eisner, E. W. and Vallance, E. (1974). Conflicting conceptions of curriculum. Berkely, McCutchan Publishing Corporation.

Fraser, S. (2006). Shaping the university curriculum through partnerships and critical conversations. International Journal for Academic Development, 11(1), 5-17.

Fraser, S., and Bosanquet, A.M. (2006). The curriculum? That’s just a unit outline, isn’t it? Studies in Higher Education, 31(3), June 2006, 269-284.

Healey, M. and Jenkins, A. (2009). Developing undergraduate research and inquiry. York, The Higher Education Academy.

O’Neill, G. (2010). Initiating curriculum revision: exploring the practices of educational developers. International Journal for Academic Development, 15(1), 61-71.

Posner, G. J. (1995). Analyzing the curriculum, 2nd edn. New York, McGraw-Hill.

Print, M. (1993). Curriculum development and design, 2nd edn. Sydney, Allen & Unwin.

Schiro, M. S. (2008). Curriculum theory: conflicting visions and enduring concerns. Los Angeles, Sage.

Smith M. K. (1996, 2000). Curriculum Theory and Practice. The enclyclopaedia of information education, www.infed.org/biblio/b-curric.htm.

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