Reflecting on Conceptions of Curriculum

I am fascinated by curriculum and the perspectives it offers about different societies and insight into their beliefs about what children should learn and how. Before I began my readings, I came up with a few questions I hope to understand better by the end of this course.


  1. What conception(s) of curriculum does the International Baccalaureate follow for the Primary Years Programme, Middle Years Programme, and Diploma Programme? Society-centered, skills-centered, learner-centered in the PYP. Society-centered, skills-centered and knowledge-centered in the MYP and DP.
  2. Can/do school systems use more than one conception when developing their school’s curriculums? Yes
  3. Which conception(s) is used by: Queen’s University PME programme, the Ontario Ministry of Education, Kia Ora and Te Whariki (New Zealand), and the British National Curriculum?
  4. Will understanding the conception of the curriculum allow me to improve our curriculum design, and how we engage in planning, teaching and assessment?
  5. What are the advantages and disadvantages of each conception?
  6. Are the various conceptions attached to certain theories of learning (behaviourist, cognitivist, constructivist, social constructivist, etc…)
  7. Can there be one “ideal” curriculum?

I have not yet found satisfactory answers to all my questions, but I am developing more clarity. To begin, I have attempted to clarify the different key terms and concepts used by various authors to explain conceptions of curriculum. I organised them using my own terms (as this seems to be one of the perks of the social sciences) based on the perspective the curriculum takes towards its priority.













To have a closer look, please click here: Conceptions of Curriculum

Why have some conceptions of curriculum continued to be used over time, while others have diminished?

Despite Vallence’s argument that the learner-centered approach has all but disappeared, from my perspective all of the approaches listed above are still very much in existence. Definitely different perspectives have dominated during different times and I think this is largely due to the political and social climate of the time.

For example, the learner-centered perspective has regained considerable attention due to the work of people like Ken Robinson who advocate for an individualised education that encourages students to seek excellence in whichever aspect of life is most intrinsically rewarding to them. Here’s his TED talk expounding this very idea. During this talk he tells a great story about a boy who always wanted to be a fire-fighter and went on to so despite being told it was not worthy of his intellect. His point about our obsession with getting kids to university is robbing students of achieving self-actualisation and preventing society from benefitting from the varied gifts each of us can bring to our world.

Technology-centered and knowledge-centered perspectives have survived, and indeed flourished, in many regions of the world where education is publicly funded.  Technology-centered curriculum is attractive because it appeals to policy makers and politicians. This model attempts to reduce the cost of education, thus making it easier to prove judicious use of public funds. The accountability aspect means that failure to achieve is attributed to the system – the teachers, school leaders, materials and methods – not to the curriculum conception itself, thus perpetuating its existence. Additionally, this model likely feels intuitive to a public that is concerned with equality. The idea of scripted lessons, standardised materials and standardised tests means every student is given an “equal” chance to improve his or her life. However, this model ignores the issues of equity, which is addressed by the social reconstructivist perspective.

The knowledge-centered curriculum has flourished for a number of reasons. First, the fact that it is content driven means it is easier to assess and therefore to collect data that can be used to justify the public expenditure. Second, it is the model most people are familiar with as it has dominated the education system for the last 100 years. Parents continue to fixate on math and language acquisition in primary school above all other disciplines because they see these skills as necessary for future success and as the mark of an “educated person”. Third, our higher institutes of learning are still organised by discipline, thus acceptance into university requires evidence of achievement in these particular subject disciplines. Therefore, high schools in particular are forced to focus on more discrete disciplines and the push for disciplinary teaching gets pushed downwards into lower grades. Fourth, learning is domain specific, meaning we learn language by engaging in language and we learn language differently to how we learn how to navigate a city. There is, therefore, a need to inculcate new learners into the ways of the domain. Focusing on subjects in isolation makes this inculcation easier. Finally, as a Western society whose ideals and values are largely reflected in this curriculum conception, it is difficult for many of us to let go of this perspective of education.

Skills-centered curriculum has gained significantly more attention as well over the last twenty years, due to the invention of the microcomputer and the Age of Information. Access to knowledge is no longer an issue. Since we no longer need a person to provide us information, the focus has shifted to the process of learning – how do we make sense of all the information we can access? Learning how to learn has becoming a much greater focus in many national curriculums and is a centerpiece of the Primary Years Programme.

Education, in many parts of the world, is seen as the agency through which social reform and equity can be achieved; education as the great leveller. Society-centered curriculum designed to helping the disenfranchised sectors of their society is common in many national curriculum. The Te Whairiki and Kia Ora curricula from New Zealand, for example, have been designed to embrace the cultural ways of knowing that are part of the Maori and Pacific Islander culture and enable students from these populations to find success in school. Yet I think few public education systems are actively pursuing a society-centered curriculum focused on exploring issues of power and the need for social reform currently due to the ever widening division of interests within our communities. Unfortunately this is also the type of curriculum that is most needed to find solutions and bring these diverse groups closer together.

How can we use these conceptions of curriculum to frameworks to analyse planning, instruction and assessment?

As Brown (2006, 164) discussed, a lack of clarity about the conception of curriculum being used allows each stakeholder to interpret the curriculum as they prefer. This can lead to conflicts over what should be taught and who should be the active agent – the student or the teacher. By clarifying the conception of curriculum, the what and how should be much clearer.

For example, in a knowledge-centered curriculum, planning for chemistry would include the teacher identifying opportunities to model the thinking that is specific to the subject discipline. During instructional time, the teacher would engage the students in chemistry content that allows them to explore how the ways of knowing work within that subject, and then assess their understanding by having them engage in a chemistry lab and evaluating the product of their work. The results of the assessment would indicate who has attained the knowledge and who has not.

In a learner-centered classroom, the teacher would pre-assess the students’ knowledge and skills about a specific topic of interest to them and then design the learning environment and activities within those children’s zones of proximal development to help them move forward with their learning, give them opportunities to engage in self-assessment and receive feedback from the teacher.

Understanding the conceptions of curriculum should allow teachers to determine the priorities in the curriculum, help them structure lessons that will support the goal of the curriculum perspective and design and use assessments in line with the role of the learner.

I will have to engage in more contemplation about how the use of more than one conception of curriculum impacts on planning, teaching and assessing, as this is the situation I believe I am in with the Primary Years Programme. I will post an update once I’ve had more time to work through it.



Al Mousa, N. (2013). An examination of cad use in two interior design programs from the perspectives of curriculum and instructors, pp. 21-37, 138-147 (Master’s Thesis).

Brown, G. T. L. (2006). Conceptions of curriculum: A framework for understanding New Zealand’s Curriculum Framework and teachers’ opinions. Curriculum Matters, 2, 164-181.

Eisner, E., & Vallance, E. (Eds.). (1974). Five conceptions of the curriculum: Their roots and implications for curriculum planning. In E. Eisner & E. Vallance (Eds.), Conflicting conceptions of curriculum (pp. 1-18)Berkeley, CA: McCutchan Publishing.

McNeil, J. D. (2006). Contemporary curriculum in thought and action (6th ed., pp. 1-13, 24-34, 44-51, 60-73). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Ornstein, A. C., & Hunkins, F. P. (2013). Curriculum: Foundations, principles, and issues (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson. Read part of Chapter 1, pp. 1-8.

Pratt, D. (1994). Curriculum perspectives. In D. Pratt, Curriculum planning: A handbook for professionals(pp. 8-22). Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace College Publisher.

Shiro, M. S. (2008). Introduction to the curriculum ideologies. In M. S. Shiro, Curriculum theory: Conflicting visions and enduring concerns (pp. 1-12). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Sowell, E. J. (2005). Curriculum: An integrative introduction (3rd ed., pp. 37-51). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Thomas, C. J. (1990). Conceptions of curriculum and classroom practice: An ethnographic study of family life education teachers, pp. 26-34 and 74-112 (Doctoral Dissertation).

Vallance. (1986). A second look at conflicting conceptions of the curriculum. Theory into Practice, 25(1), 24-30.

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