Curriculum Perspectives

, Volume 38, Issue 1, pp 81–84 | Cite as

Understanding curriculum? Notes towards a conceptual basis for curriculum inquiry

  • Bill Green
Point and counterpoint

An ongoing challenge is how to conceptualise curriculum—that is, how best to understand curriculum as concept. As Pinar (2012) has argued, curriculum is perhaps the only truly ‘indigenous’ concept in education studies. All too often, however, and notwithstanding its pervasiveness, curriculum as such is simply assumed, or taken-for-granted, as part of the doxic lexicon of education. Rarely is it conceptualised in its own right, let alone problematised. Yet, it can be argued that this is important work to do, if curriculum inquiry is indeed to develop as a coherent and generative field of educational research and scholarship. What is curriculum? How is curriculum to be understood? Relatedly, what constitutes and/or counts as curriculum scholarship?

Formulated like this, it may be clear that my interest here is in ‘understanding curriculum’, as a programmatic alternative to what has been presented as a more traditional, more or less technical focus on ‘curriculum development’. Further, in doing so, I indicate my own intellectual indebtedness to the so-called ‘Reconceptualist’ movement, arguably one of the most influential traditions in contemporary curriculum inquiry. Emanating from North America, and emerging in the 1970s, this is a body of work identified with a new emphasis on theory and an expanded view of curriculum itself, beyond schooling. I have indeed found such work influential and often inspiring (Green 2018). But that is not to say that it functions for me as a doctrine, and indeed, a good case can be made that it clearly needs to be supplemented by other perspectives and resources, perhaps most notably the European Didaktik tradition. Moreover, there are further and important distinctions to be made within the Anglo-American scene—for instance, between the reconceptualist and deliberationist traditions. Prior to developing that line of argument, it is useful to take stock of the field as currently constituted and how it might well be reconfigured.

This is something discussed recently in the South African context, with specific regard to doctoral study and curriculum scholarship (du Preez and Simmonds 2014). Their concern is with what they describe as ‘conceptual ambiguities in curriculum studies scholarship’ and also what might be involved in its ‘intellectual advancement’ (p. 1), especially with reference to doctoral research in education. With their focus on the related notions of ‘curriculum’, ‘curriculum development’ and ‘curriculum studies’, understood in certain, relatively familiar ways, they examine how the field itself—that is, the curriculum field—is being represented and ‘advanced’ in doctoral scholarship. They conclude that more clarity and coherence is needed, and that, at the very least, the field as currently constituted is unbalanced. It would be very interesting to see what a study of this kind would yield in the Australian situation (cf. O’Connor and Yates 2010). As I claimed some time ago (Green 2003), there is little being done here, explicitly and systematically, that can be identified formally as curriculum scholarship—as specifically located within curriculum inquiry and as a distinctive field of research and scholarship. (It is worth asking how we would go about teaching curriculum studies today, in Australia, at the graduate level. What would a doctoral curriculum in curriculum studies look like?) This is a debate well worth pursuing. What I will do, instead, is take up, briefly, the question of disciplinarity. What might be understood as the disciplinarity of curriculum inquiry? What makes it, recognisably, distinctively, a ‘discipline’ and an organised field of study?

In this regard, there is an interesting convergence in recent curriculum scholarship. On the one hand, recent work within what might be described as a neo-Bernsteinian framework has been influential in focusing on issues of disciplinarity and knowledge—for example, Young and Muller (2013). On the other hand, and indeed on the other side of the Atlantic, Pinar (2007) has been exploring for some time now what he expressly calls the disciplinarity of the curriculum field, drawing on a rather different intellectual framework. Intriguingly, though, both of these bodies of scholarship work with notions of ‘verticality’ and ‘horizontality’.1 The curriculum debates associated with Young and Muller, and others, refer back to Bernstein’s classic essay ‘Vertical and Horizontal Discourse: An Essay’ (Bernstein 1990) and see knowledge as structured either hierarchically (‘vertically’) or more or less aggregatively (‘horizontally’). We can ask what this might mean for curriculum inquiry. For Pinar (2007), ‘verticality’ refers to ‘the intellectual history of the discipline’, whereas ‘horizontality’ focuses on the ‘present circumstances’ of the discipline, linked with ‘the social and political milieus, which influence, and all too often, structure’ them (p. xiv). He insists that advancing curriculum inquiry as a ‘discipline’ requires attending to both the vertical and horizontal dimensions: ‘We can contribute to [its] intellectual advancement by attending to the disciplinary structures of the field: its verticality and horizontality’ (p. xvi). Again, we can ask what this means for curriculum inquiry in Australia. What can we look to regarding the historical record and the ‘present circumstances’ of the curriculum field?

In this regard, Pinar (2007, p. xx) observes of the disciplinary work of curriculum inquiry that there are recognisable ‘scholarly moves’, reformulated by du Preez and Simmonds (2014, pp. 5–6) thus:
  • a synopsis of curriculum studies, on its own terms as a discipline;

  • analysing curriculum studies concept(s) within pertinent historical disciplinary traditions and present disciplinary circumstances;

  • critiquing the concept(s) on their own terms and from perspectives and proposals already extant within the intellectual history and evident in the present circumstances of the field;

  • extending the idea(s) by adding to or revising these concepts (and perhaps drawing upon scholarship outside the field) to do so; and/or

  • replacing the concept(s) with ‘new’ ones that perform their specific labours of understanding in a more satisfactory fashion (with more explanatory force, for instance) than the initial conceptualization.

This is an intriguing guide to inquiry, as well as to pedagogy. What might be the key concepts or arguments in curriculum research and scholarship, where have they come from, and how might they be ‘extended’? (In the Australian scene, I would nominate Musgrave’s [1979] notion of the ‘moral curriculum’ as one such concept and for another, the idea of ‘curriculum negotiation’).

At this stage, I want to return to my earlier point about the value of seeking to bring together the reconceptualist and deliberationist perspectives in curriculum inquiry. It is not the first time that this has been proposed—Gough (2003) pointed to it some time ago, and his own work demonstrates what this might involve, and what it might yield, although he never brought the two together in any fully theorised fashion. The reconceptualist movement is perhaps exemplified in the monumental volume Understanding Curriculum (Pinar et al. 1995). Clearly written from the standpoint of the post-1970s ‘Reconceptualisation’, its account of the field presented it in terms of a proliferation of different ‘discourses’, ranging from ‘curriculum-as-historical-text’ through ‘curriculum-as-political-text’ and ‘curriculum-as-theological-text’ to ‘curriculum-as-international-text’—ten in all, in that original account. By 2007, this had been extended to fourteen ‘discourses’ (Pinar 2007, p. xxv). Given its acknowledgement of the significance of poststucturalist theory and continental philosophy, it is appropriate to see this overall movement as manifesting the ‘linguistic turn’ in curriculum inquiry, in that formulation’s broader symbolic sense. It introduced into the field influential, albeit complex and controversial, notions of ‘curriculum as text’ and ‘curriculum as discourse’. My own work on curriculum and representation can be read in this context (Green 2018).

The deliberationist tradition (i.e. ‘curriculum deliberation’) is associated with well-known curriculum scholars such as William Reid, Joseph Schwab and Ian Westbury. Working within a neo-Aristotelian framework, its emphasis is on rationality, practice and the conduct of public schooling. As Deng (2017, p. 8) writes, it is ‘centrally concerned with curriculum making—including curriculum policymaking, curriculum development, classroom enactment or classroom teaching—with the intention to improve the work of schooling as an institution’, and moreover, it ‘construes curriculum making as a practical and deliberative endeavor’. (There are links here to the European Didaktik tradition). In Gough’s (2003, p. 8) terms, ‘Because it eschews abstract procedural rules for resolving practical curriculum problems, deliberative curriculum inquiry is exploratory, eclectic and pragmatic in relating knowledge to policy and action’. Its central concepts, arguably, are those of ‘practice’ and ‘institution’.2 It needs to be said, too, that this work takes a quintessentially modernist stance.

What I propose is that these two traditions—the reconceptualist and the deliberationist—can be brought together, albeit in a re-articulated form. That is, to what extent is it productive, conceptually and pragmatically, to bring together ‘text’ and ‘discourse’, ‘practice’ and ‘institution’ as a representation of the curriculum field? (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1

The curriculum field

Each of these terms would need to be reworked, and their relations systematically theorised. For instance, I would suggest that attending to the particular relations of ‘text’ and ‘practice’ in curriculum thought leads, almost inevitably, to due consideration of the body and of corporeality (Green and Hopwood 2015), which clearly has implications for teacher education as well as classroom pedagogy and much else. There would also be possibilities here for finding ways of moving beyond charges of ‘textualism’, etc. This would only be enhanced by due consideration of ‘discourse’ and ‘institution’ and their interplay. What is foregrounded here, importantly, are issues of constraint and power. However, it is that larger material-discursive field which is important to attend to, finally, in thinking curriculum—that is, a total field organised by these concepts and their interrelational dynamics. I see this formulation as a hypothesis, to be ‘tested’, but perhaps more importantly as contributing to the exploration and interrogation of a concept, in the philosophical sense. Needless to say, all this warrants further investigation.

I want to conclude this short piece by taking up, briefly, one challenge of recent neo-Bernsteinian work in curriculum inquiry. This is the argument that disciplinarity is to be understood in terms of knowledge building, or cumulation—disciplinary knowledge accumulates, explicitly building on previous work in the scholarly field. Contrasted to this is knowledge that more or less simply proliferates. A complex argument, and not altogether satisfactory or appropriate, nonetheless it enables me to speak to the issue of the seemingly serial proliferation of ‘discourses’ in contemporary Anglo-American curriculum theory. More positively, this can be seen as taking the form of ‘a series of specialized languages with specialized modes of interrogation, [and] specialized criteria for the production and circulation of texts’ (Bernstein 1990, p. 160). As I have already noted, there were ten such discourses nominated in their original context in 1995, and this was extended a decade later to fourteen, and potentially at least others can be added ad finitum—‘curriculum-as-intergenerational-text’, for instance.

What marks such work from the outset, however, is its deliberate backgrounding of public schooling, which it designated as ‘curriculum-as-institutional-text’, or at least its strategic de-privileging. (This was perhaps the most unsatisfactory chapter in the 1995 book, in fact.) It is a view that sharply contrasts with that adopted elsewhere, in Europe for instance, which positions schooling much more centrally, and also in countries like Australia, although here it may be more by default than anything else. To be fair, the Anglo-American stance has been nuanced since—witness for instance this statement from the website of the American Association for the Advancement of Curriculum Studies, describing curriculum inquiry as ‘entail[ing] rigorous attention to cultural issues and methodological concerns involved with understanding curriculum as many kinds of texts, including, but significantly extending beyond, curriculum-as-administrative-text’ ( Still, there seems to be an ongoing problem here, in linking curriculum inquiry to work in teacher education and the school curriculum, as I argue elsewhere (Green 2018).

It might be useful therefore to see these various discourses as more closely and systematically interwoven into and with each other, rather than existing more or less side by side, or serially.3 The way they tend to be (re)presented implies at times an incompatibility, or even a certain measure of incommensurability.4 This is more so with some than with others, it must be said. What is described as ‘curriculum-as-political-text’is clearly less positively regarded, as is ‘curriculum-as-institutional-text’. (There is a history in this, of course, and a perhaps distinctively American perspective.) I want however to see these as part of the total potential of curriculum, in thought and in the world. The political and the institutional are always already implicated in curriculum inquiry, whatever its focus is. It is the weave of discourses that matters, in the end, in opening up the field to truly generative conversations and productive debate and curriculum and schooling that makes a difference.


  1. 1.

    They seem to have developed quite independently of each other, too, and as far as I know, there has been no acknowledgement of their coincidence in curriculum scholarship.

  2. 2.

    These concepts have been extended in recent work on professional education, in the context of practice theory and philosophy (Green, Reid and Brennan 2017). There are links still to be made here with curriculum scholarship (e.g. Westbury 2005).

  3. 3.

    It is worth recalling an earlier (Australian) description of ‘curriculum studies’ as involving ‘a critical investigation of a series of partial, layered, interlaced and superimposed socially constructed historical narratives’ (Smith and Ewing 2002, p. 32).

  4. 4.

    Pinar’s (2007, p. xxvii) observation that ‘post-1995 scholarship is characterised by mixed versions of what were depicted in Understanding Curriculum as distinct discourses’ needs to be acknowledged here.


  1. Bernstein, B. (1990). Vertical and horizontal discourse: an essay. In Pedagogy, symbolic control and identity: theory, research, critique (pp. 155–174). London: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.Google Scholar
  2. Deng, Z. (2017). Rethinking curriculum and teaching. In Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education (pp. 1–25). Oxford Online Publication Date: May 2017: Oxford University Press. Scholar
  3. du Preez, P., & Simmonds, S. (2014). Curriculum, curriculum development, curriculum studies? Problematising theoretical ambiguities in doctoral theses in the education field. South African Journal of Education, 34(2), 1–14.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Gough, N. (2003). Introduction: narrative experiments as curriculum inquiry. In Intertextual Turns in Curriculum Inquiry: Fictions, Diffractions and Deconstructions. unpublished PhD dissertation, Deakin University, Victoria, Australia, pp 1–32.Google Scholar
  5. Green, B. (2018). Engaging curriculum: bridging the curriculum theory and English education divide. New York & London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  6. Green, B., & Hopwood, N. (2015). The body in professional practice, learning and education: a question of corporeality. In B. Green & N. Hopwood (Eds.), The body in professional practice, learning and education: body/practice (pp. 15–33). Dordrecht: Springer.Google Scholar
  7. Green, B., Reid, J., & Brennan, M. (2017). Challenging policy, rethinking practice; or, struggling for the soul of teacher education. In T. A. Trippestad, A. Swennen, & T. Werler (Eds.), The struggle for teacher education: international perspectives on teacher education governance and reforms (pp. 39–55). London: Bloomsbury.Google Scholar
  8. Green, W. (2003). Curriculum inquiry in Australia: Toward a local genealogy of the curriculum field. In W. F. Pinar (Ed.), International Handbook of Curriculum Research (7 ed., pp. 123–141). Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
  9. Musgrave, P. (1979). Society and the curriculum in Australia. Sydney: George Allen & Unwin.Google Scholar
  10. O’Connor, K., & Yates, L. (2010). Classifying curriculum scholarship in Australia: a review of postgraduate theses 1975–2005. Aust Educ Res, 37(1), 125–143.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Pinar, W. F. (2007). Introduction, in Intellectual advancement through disciplinarity: verticality and horizontality in curriculum studies (pp. xi–xxxv). Dordrecht: Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.Google Scholar
  12. Pinar, W. F. (2012). What is curriculum theory? (2nd ed.). New York & London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  13. Pinar, W. F., Reynolds, W. M., Slattery, P., & Taubman, P. M. (1995). Understanding curriculum. New York: Peter Lang.Google Scholar
  14. Smith, D., & Ewing, R. (2002). Curriculum studies. Change: Transformations in Education, 5(1), 21–45.Google Scholar
  15. Westbury, I. (2005). Reconsidering Schwab’s ‘Practicals’: a response to Peter Hlebowitsh’s ‘Generational ideas in curriculum: a historical triangulation'. Curric Inq, 35(1), 89–101.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Young, M., & Muller, J. (2013). On the powers of powerful knowledge. Review of Education, 1(3), 229–250.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Australian Curriculum Studies Association 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Charles Sturt UniversityBathurstAustralia

Personalised recommendations