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Five Theoretical Perspectives on Curriculum

As educators, there are many approaches we take toward curricula. These approaches are based on sets of assumptions that we've made based on our education, experience, and other factors. So I thought I'd provide an analysis of five curriculum perspectives including the major proponents and tenets of each. I'll also discuss societal as well as political influences, major criticisms of each theory, and examples of ways these theories have been applied.

The Traditional Perspective

The traditional perspective was a response to a contemporary problem during the nineteenth century (Posner, 2004). As society was becoming more diverse, schooling was not. The perspective is bent on preserving cultural heritage. That is, it takes the position that educational curricula’s’ primary goal is to transmit the accumulated knowledge of society. One of its major proponents was a humanities professor at the University of Virginia E.D. Hirsch, Jr. who suggested that the main purpose of education is to acculturate children (Hirsch, 1987). Its main criticisms come from progressive educators and those that adhered to another perspective, the experiential, who posit that this perspective does not take into account “…theories of learning, of motivation, of knowledge, or of school and society” (Posner, 2004, p. 47). They also suggest that the perspective does promote democratic values as it adopts an authoritative position regarding what the general knowledge of a given society is.

The Experiential Perspective

Whereas the traditional perspective stemmed from the nineteenth century, the experiential perspective is characteristic of the twentieth century. The experiential perspective assumes that curricula should take a holistic approach to students by considering all their experiences. Its major proponent was the American philosopher and psychologist John Dewey. He believed that traditional perspectives were “…inadequate largely because they viewed reality as external to the individual” (Posner, 2004, p. 49). The birth of progressive education and the experiential perspective coincided with the social reform movement of the early twentieth century (Posner).

In 1918, the National Education Association issued its principles of education stating that schooling should aim to promote health, prepare students for vocations, promote citizenship, as well as a whole host of other tenets (Commission On The Reorganization Of Secondary Education, 1918). The experiential perspective is still in play here in America as a part of an educational movement known as Culturally Responsive and Relevant Education primarily in support of English learners. Its critics suggest that this perspective “…makes enormous demands on anyone who attempts to make practical curriculum decisions, for it assumes that the curriculum is more or less the same as the very process of living…” (Posner, p. 48).

Structure of the Disciplines

As a response to the Cold War criticisms in the middle of the twentieth century, the disciplines perspective gained popularity, particularly with university professors as well as math and science education leaders in the secondary setting. The primary tenet of this perspective is that if a student can understand the structure of a discipline, then the student can acquire the knowledge base of that discipline independently. This perspective promotes extrapolation as a primary skill set for the learner. One of the perspective’s major proponents was Arthur Bestor who was a prime critic of America’s failure to achieve a viable edge over the Russians during the 1950s. His position was that American education, as a result of the progressive education movement, had ceased to teach students how to think in a structured manner. So, the perspective garnered a deepened relationship between educators and subject matter practitioners in order to better understand and, in turn, teach how to think in given content areas.

The perspective is alive today in a number of educational innovations and is exemplified through the Cognitive Academic Language Learning Approach (Chamot & O’Malley, 2009) wherein students are taught how to approach their language learning as they acquire the English language instead of simply learning discrete language skills. The main criticism of this perspective came from the field of behavioral psychology. They posited that a wealth of knowledge regarding how people learn and behave was being ignored and that simply providing science and mathematics instructional materials that reflected the thought structures of the disciplines did not teach either subject effectively (Posner, 2004).

The Behavioral Perspective

The behavioral perspective posits that educators should not be as concerned with a focus on content as they should be on the behaviors students acquire while in school (Posner). Its major proponents were Edward Thorndike, widely thought of as the founder of behavioral psychology, and Franklin Bobbitt, a faculty member at the University of Chicago around the turn of the last century. Thorndike’s work on behavioral objectives paved the way for this perspective and Bobbitt’s life-activity analysis (Bobbitt, 1952) provided the technology for the theory to evolve. Bobbitt’s contention that curriculum should be based on actual life events instead of subjects of learning and was consistent with the resurgence of the progressive movement in America at the time (Posner).

It was educators themselves that became critics of the behavioral perspective primarily because they realized how rapidly social structures were growing and changing. By the time a curriculum was developed based on an analysis of life activities, the activities would mutate rendering the curriculum obsolete. Noam Chomsky is also a critic of the behavioral perspective. In 1968, he posited that behavioralists’ accounts of the complexities of language acquisition were insufficient (Posner).

The Constructivist Perspective

Finally, the constructivist perspective suggests that curriculum should be based on the tenet that educators should develop curriculum to provide opportunities for students to make sense of the newly acquired knowledge in their personal ways. Indirectly, its primary proponent was the eminent psychologist Jean Piaget who asserted that students assimilate information, as opposed to acquire it. They then accommodate new knowledge by reorganizing information so that it may fit into their existent thought structures. The constructivist perspective is currently under attack in American education as it promotes inquiry-based learning which can be time consuming (Mayer, 2004). In an increasingly accountable age, science and math teachers are shying away from the perspective in building their curricula. However, the perspective is alive in elementary schools using the Montessori method. Because learning is adapted to a child’s developmental level, the constructivist approach is a prime way to create curricula for students to absorb knowledge.


The five perspectives above can be viewed as a veritable timeline of the development of curricular movements in American education. The traditional perspective promotes a return to the mastery of basic literacy skills and the diffusion of common values. The experiential perspective promotes the need to incorporate all aspects of a student’s life in developing the curriculum he will learn. The disciplines perspective promotes the development of intellectual capabilities by focusing on the thought structures of given content areas. The behavioral perspective promotes the setting of learning objectives and the focusing of curriculum to meet the needs of students as they acquire those objectives. Finally, the constructivist perspective promotes the notion that educators should devise curricula so that students may personalize their learning by reorganizing their thought structures around what they learn in school. All five perspectives provide vantage points that augment varying visions of modern education.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on the perspectives above. Send me an email and let me know what you think...


Bestor, A. E. (1988). Educational wastelands: The retreat from learning in our public schools (2nd ed.). Urbana-Champagne, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Bobbitt, J. F. (1952). How to make curriculum. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Chamot, A. U., & O’Malley, M. J. (2009). The CALLA handbook: Implementing the Cognitive Academic Language Learning Approach (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson ESL.

Commission On The Reorganization Of Secondary Education (1918). The cardinal principles of secondary education (National Education Association). Washington, D.C.: United States Government Printing Office.

Hirsch, E. D. (1987). Cultural literacy: What every American needs to know. London: Vintage.

Mayer, R. (2004). Should there be a three-strikes rule against pure discovery learning? The case for guided methods of instruction. American Psychologist, 59(1), 14-19.

Posner, G. J. (2004). Analyzing the curriculum (3rd ed.). New York: McGraw Hill.


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