Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction ~ Ralph Tyler

I was very sad while reading this book. It would seem that if Tyler's assertions were basic principles then most people should know them – especially as it is 60 years later and should be well developed. But, it seems, his thoughts have been buried with other great ideas like the library at Alexandria.

When I first began teaching, I was handed a curriculum guide that achieved its effects like “water dripping upon a stone” (p. 83) wearing away at the children. The guide was clearly designed by “experts” - mostly, the textbooks available and the former teachers. Although the objectives were clear, it was based strictly on knowledge and skill, not developing “modes of thinking or critical interpretation, emotional reaction, interests and the like” (p. 29). It was so detailed that it indicated the number of days to spend on each unit. With all the fragmented lessoning (it wasn't learning) going on, it seemed, as Tyler also stated, “Many educational programs do not have clearly defined purposes” (p.3). I don't think I've ever taught in a school that did have a clearly defined purpose. Of course, they all had philosophy statements and curriculum guides, but what actually happened in the classrooms was frequently inconsistent and incongruent.

If education is, as Tyler states, “a process of changing behavior patterns . . . includ[ing] thinking and feeling as well as overt action” (p. 5-6) then an understanding of the students, the standard, the expectations of society etc. would be necessary. However, I am a little uncomfortable with this definition, because it would seem to indicate indoctrination, which, if the uproar over Obama's education speech to students is any indication, is a poor choice of words. But, looking at his treatment of the word “need” in education, I relaxed a bit. In the first definition, it means taking the information about a learner and comparing it to a standard with the difference being the space for educational need. The second definition has a more psychological slant – that being that all people have physical, social and integrative needs and education should help satisfy and balance these needs. I believe I will have to ponder this a while longer, as I, myself, do not have a ready definition for “education”.

I have been in two schools in which the philosophy and mission statements were “updated” yet neither school really addressed defining what they believed was the purpose of education. Tyler mentions the various tensions that can be raised between the “essentialists” and “progressives”, the subject area specialist and the child-centered teacher etc. I think this tension exists in every school, but there is very little opportunity to address the tension and build a shared vision of the school's purpose and philosophy. At the beginning of the year, too many schools rush teachers through multiple in-services on multiple topics, without considering this basic question – what is our purpose.

One of the most significant influences on my teaching was when I came to understand, as Tyler states, “a smaller number of consistent highly important objectives need to be selected” (p.33). I attended Harvard's Project Zero one summer and was introduced to the idea of Thoroughline, or more commonly called, Essential Questions. This made me seriously consider the design of my own curriculum – taking in account the school's mandates, my own professional knowledge, the various needs of the students, and a need to balance preparing students for was is and what will be. When I work with student teachers, this is one of the most complicated areas to explain. Tyler suggests that objectives can be attained from at least five areas of information, with multiple forms of data within each area. To be able to synthesize all that information and create “objectives in a form to be helpful in selecting learning experiences and in guiding teaching” (p. 43) is a major undertaking. One of my former colleagues, who just began her tenth year of teaching stated incredulously, “It seems that my teaching is smooth and fluid – what am I doing differently this year?” I replied, “Practice and experience. Now, go teach that to novice teachers!”

Tyler, R. (1951) Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.