Pedagogy, Culture & SocietyAquatic Insects Vol. 19, No. 2, July 2011, 221–237
Whatever happened to curriculum theory? Critical realism and curriculum change Mark Priestley*
School of Education, University of Stirling, Stirling, UK In the face of what has been characterised by some as a ‘crisis’ in curriculum – an apparent decline of some aspects of curriculum studies combined with the emergence of new types of national curricula which downgrade knowledge – some writers have been arguing for the use of realist theory to address these issues. This article offers a contribution to this debate, drawing upon critical realism, and especially upon the social theory of Margaret Archer. The article ﬁrst outlines the supposed crisis in curriculum, before providing an overview of some of the key tenets of critical realism. It concludes by speculating on how critical realism may offer new ways of thinking to inform policy and practice in a key curricular problematic. This is the issue of curriculum change. Keywords: curriculum; critical realism; curriculum change; curriculum theory
Introduction There is an emerging view in some areas that we face a ‘crisis’ of curriculum (Wheelahan 2010). While such rhetoric may be overblown, there is some validity in the notion that curriculum theory and practice are confronted by new uncertainties, and that such uncertainties require new approaches to practice, and new ways of thinking. There are two major facets of this situation. The ﬁrst concerns the recent emergence in curriculum policy around the world of new models of national curriculum. Such curricula tend to be characterised by various common features, notably a structural basis in outcomes sequenced into linear levels, and a focus on generic skills or capacities instead of a detailed speciﬁcation of knowledge/content. As such, they have been criticised for stripping knowledge out of the curriculum (Young 2008; Priestley 2010; Wheelahan 2010). The second facet of this crisis lies in the response of the academic community to these recent developments. It may be argued that the ﬁeld of curriculum studies, at least
ISSN 1468-1366 print/ISSN 1747-5104 online Ó 2011 Pedagogy, Culture & Society DOI: 10.1080/14681366.2011.582258 http://www.informaworld.com
in the UK, has declined in both status and practice in the universities and in the wider educational community (Moore 2006; Priestley and Humes 2010). This has important knock-on effects in terms of the capacity of policy makers and practitioners to deal with practical curriculum problems, at both the macro level of policy formation and at the meso/micro levels of implementation in local authorities, curriculum agencies and schools. This article is, in part, a response to this supposed ‘crisis’ of curriculum. I ﬁrst brieﬂy explore emerging curricular trends (bearing in mind that a full analysis is beyond the scope of this article). I suggest that, at a time when there has been an apparent decline in the application of curriculum theory to the emergence of new forms of curriculum in some areas, robust theory is badly needed to critique and address issues arising from the new curricula. These new curricula tend to be theoretically agnostic (Priestley and Humes 2010) and thus often riddled with contradictions, with the resulting further potential for negative impact on curricular practices in schools and other institutions. The remainder of the article makes the case for the use of a particular set of theories, underpinned by the philosophy of critical realism, to address curricular issues. I ﬁrst outline the key tenets of critical realism, then explore the potential of such theory to address a particular key curriculum problematic, the issue of how teachers engage with policy promoting curriculum change.
The ‘crisis’ of curriculum A new breed of curriculum The last 10 years have witnessed the development of a new breed of...
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