Introducing Curriculum

Curriculum theory is a slightly puzzling phenomenon. It appears to be somewhat all encompassing. The working definition seems to be what you teach and how you teach it. It draws in more than syllabus and goes deeper than modes of delivery. This breadth of definition almost feels like it renders the term meaningless.

Looking to various theories and models of curriculum, provides a structured way of thinking. Traditionally models fall into four categories: transmission of knowledge; product; process; and praxis. I have read a few different introductions to curriculum studies to get my head around the key thinking, including A. V. Kelly’s book The Curriculum. Kelly provides a clear overview of the various approaches but treats each to a values based evaluation. For Kelly, it goes back to how you define education, as opposed to training or instruction. What marks education as distinct, according to Kelly, is that it is developmental and continuing, and not sought out of some sort of necessity.

Kelly’s approach is refreshing but I can’t help feeling it does little to advance the work of Lawrence Stenhouse in the 1970s. In fact, my whole introductory reading around curriculum studies felt somewhat like something out of the 1970s. The idea of conflicting models existing in boxes, with neat definitions. No complexity or fluidity, no dynamism. No trace of the postmodern turn. It just feels a little bit staid, stagnant and ossified. I couldn’t help feeling I’d missed something. So I browsed the curriculum studies section of our main library at work that caters for Education Studies. I noticed two things: it is a very small section compared to other sections like educational leadership, and the books are very old compared to our regular book stock. Kelly’s work refers frequently to the introduction of the National Curriculum and the culture of prescription endemic in education ever since. I wonder if this has rendered curriculum studies somewhat irrelevant and suffocated its ability to develop and grow.

The Four Models.

Transmission of knowledge runs along the lines of banking concepts of education where students are cast as empty vessels needing to be filled with knowledge by experts. This model places the teacher front and centre, and tends towards didactic methods and teacher talk. In an age where everything seems to have sped up and change is obviously happening all around us, the significance of static knowledge is becoming a less and less persuasive sell.

Kelly identifies two distinct approaches to defining what is taught: one approach emanates from a reified form of knowledge, the other from utilitarian reasons such as servicing the needs of the economy. The problem with these is the denial that they are values based.

The product model came to prominence in the early twentieth century and focuses on learning outcomes. This type of model views education as essentially a checklist where outcomes are defined at the start and then measured at the end. It is a rather procedural approach that reduces teaching to something that can be enacted rather like following a manual. It is the type of “getting students through” approach and overly technocratic. Kelly argues its roots can be traced through the behaviourism movement in psychology.

For process models, teaching is seen as about the way in which students are taught and what they learn in the process. There is less of a focus on content and knowledge transmission. Content serves the curriculum, rather than the other way round. Students are encouraged to take greater control of their own learning and active learning techniques are encouraged.

From this approach, grows the praxis model. Essentially concerned with realising the potential of education for nurturing social justice. Kelly doesn’t distinguish between the process and praxis models but advocates for a process based starting point for curriculum with stated social democratic values. On this basis principles that should be clearly outlined are formed but these are very different from the narrow objectives found in the product approach. Through this, content is used in service of the process.

My Curriculum. 

Most curricula include elements of each of these, particularly the first three. For my area, knowledge transmission has played a relatively small role. We tend to focus on skills. Our students are usually experts or at least more expert than us, in their subject areas. When I first encountered curriculum theory, I got caught out by both the spin of my new job and the use of the word ‘process’ to describe a model. Working for a Russell Group university at the behest of academics and a customer service ethos, the critical approach to information literacy a praxis approach demands would be unusual to say the least! But I was properly convinced we did employ a process model to teach. After all, we teach processes!

Through reading a little more and what I had been reading bedding down a bit in my mind (and a little time in the job!), I came to realise that what we do is far from based on a process approach to curriculum. It is very much rooted in a product approach. This is perhaps understandable based on Kelly’s observation that product approaches dovetail neatly with training and instruction. Information can be presented for consumption in bite size chunks, ideal for the short slots of time we get to teach in. Indeed, some academic libraries and books still refer to the type of teaching we do as ‘Library Instruction’ rather than teaching.

We use words like ‘deliver’ and ‘session’ and ‘trainer’ and ‘facilitator’ – anything that will distinguish us from teachers and the act of teaching. We base everything on being able to check off a list at the end that the students can now do certain things, like use a particular database. We don’t really go any deeper, we certainly don’t encourage our students to think. We spend a huge amount of time and energy training them to use systems they will never encounter outside of university and which will change and evolve. The learning objectives we do build in around actually thinking about information and how to find it, are the first to go when time is short.

Moving Curriculum in Information Literacy Forward.

There are moves afoot in the library world though to rectify a lot of this. Product based curriculum models are largely seen as both reinforcing and emanating from the neo-liberal takeover of education. There are more important and far more interesting fault lines for our students to explore with us in the information world, than how to do use another database. We need a new approach, a fresh approach. There are librarians out there doing this as a number of new publications come to print discussing critical information literacy and how we make it praxis (see further Higgins and Gregory 2013).

By the same token curriculum studies probably needs a new generation of radical educators to repopulate those dusty and diminishing shelves of untouched books. Casting off the slightly outmoded approach to models may be a start to find a way of viewing the messy, complexity of education and curriculum that makes sense for where our thinking is going next.


Higgins, S. and Gregory, L. (2013). Information Literacy and Social Justice. Sacramento: Library Juice Press.

Kelly, A. V. (2004). The Curriculum (5th edition). London: Paul Chapman.

Stenhouse, L. (1980). An Introduction to Curriculum Research and Development. London: Heinemann.




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