The Reflective Dialectic of Pedagogic Praxis Curriculum

Deborah Lynn Stirling
DCI 701
Arizona State University
Spring, 1997 

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Statement of Problem and Objectives

    In the midst of calls for systemic reform, national standards, and the pursuit of excellence, I propose that "excellence" is DEAD. The notion of excellence requires a referent and a fixed standard to make such a judgment. So when a school district declares an environment of excellence, what are they using as a criteria set? In place of emphasizing efficient systems of teaching and learning designed as one size fits all, the narrative of schooling needs to redraw its defining value center from mass production to customization. Why would customization of the teaching/learning process be of value? Customization encourages participants to approach curriculum authentically through a process of reflecting on the context of the lived experience (Brimfield, 1992). van Manen believes current curriculum theorists are failing to recognize the essential question of "how the subject of (educational) theory should ever be spoken (1982, p. 41). He continues this line of inquiry by stating:

  • . . . curriculum theory could be seen as edifying displays of examples of pedagogic praxis: relations and situations of thoughtfully "leading" the child into the world, by mediating tactfully between the original self-activity, the deep interest of the child, and the spiritual, cultural meanings and objectifications of the world. (1982, p. 47)

The question then becomes, how do we conceptualize a curriculum that strives to create a microcosm bent on the aim of providing meaningful educative experiences for all?

    An answer or solution would be to (a) place the learner in the center with the role of teacher as mentor and (b) to design a "conversation" model of curriculum to replace a "corpus" model. This curriculum would aim to create a culture of learners thereby redefining curriculum. A curriculum, a dynamic curriculum coherent with the changing culture of education. A curriculum not prescribed, not limiting but transformed and constructed by a community of learners' cognitive artifacts.

    Research in the area of collaborative databases represents one form of cognitive artifacts. The work in the area of Computer Supported Intentional Learning Environments (CSILE) suggests a new form of interaction with the content. Communal databases changes the interaction from one-way to two-way and the "internal didactic conversation" can be extended by learner-learner interactions. Scardamalia, Bereiter, Brett, Burtis, Calhoun and Lea (1992) conducted experiments validating the critical role a communal database plays in a setting designed to foster a community of inquiry, intellectual dialogue, and provide opportunities for the social construction of knowledge.

    This paper will present a synthesizing process as an approach to develop my thoughts. To deconstruct the varying approaches and theories of curriculum development, I use an expanded definition of curriculum as a format. The purpose of this technique is to construct through a dialectic process a synthesized representation of curriculum and an integrated procedure for guiding the implementation of this curriculum.

What is Curriculum?

    Curriculum is the study of "what should constitute a world for learning and how to go about making this world" (Macdonald in Brimfield, 1992). According to Eisner (1985) a common-sense meaning ranges from "what schools teach" to "a specific educational activity planned for a particular student at a particular point in time" (p. 39). A conceptual definition of curriculum by Eisner (1985) is "The curriculum of a school, or a course, or a classroom can be conceived of as a series of planned events that are intended to have educational consequences for one or more students."

    He continues his discussion by distinguishing the intended curriculum from the operational curriculum. The former is "planned in advance of classroom use and . . . is designed to help students learn some content, acquire some skills, develop some beliefs, or have some valued type of experience" (p. 48). Operational curriculum refers to the "activities that occur in the classroom, taking into consideration the materials, content, and events in which students are engaged." Eisner posits five orientations to curriculum: (a) development of cognitive processes, (b) academic rationalism, (c) personal relevance, (d) social adaptation and social reconstruction, and (e) curriculum as technology (1985).

Expanded Definition of Curriculum

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   Can you explain what it doesn't mean?

    Curriculum is a set of plans or materials, and teaching is the transformation of this or these into a course of action.Macdonald (1971)continued this discussion, "They are essentially two separate action contexts, one (curriculum) producing plans for further action; and, the other (instruction) putting plans into action. Broudy, Smith, and Burnett (1964) agree with Macdonald and indicate that modes or styles of teaching are not a part of curriculum.

How does it work

    According to Reid (1992) curriculum is a subject which "reflects a significant social practice that is associated with learning, teaching, schools, and education, but that has a distinctive character of its own." He sees curriculum as a practice and says, ". . . the practices of curriculum are inevitably intertwined with; other practices, but that they have a unique character centering on particular understandings of the nature and place of formal learning in a society" (p .9). He highlights the point that curriculum practice is open to varying treatments because it involves "personal and collective judgment about what to pay attention to and how to treat it" (p. 9).

What are its parts?

    Eisner (1985) identifies the essential parts or characteristics of curriculum according to individuals such as Carl Bereiter, Robert Gagne, Robert Glaser, Robert Mager, and Lauren Resnick as a "planned, sequential series of steps that leads to ends that are known in advance and that are realized with a maximum of pedagogical efficiency (p. 13).

What does it look like?

    The look of curriculum changes in respect to the curriculum maker's beliefs in learning, teaching, schooling, and education as well as the defining aim and purpose of curriculum as a social activity.

Can it be compared with anything familiar?

    Reid categorized the different perspectives of curriculum thinking into four areas: systematizers, radicals, existentialists, and deliberators. He describes the first category, systematizers, seeing curriculum as a plan and uses an engineering metaphor to explain their perspective. Radicals see curriculum as cultural reproduction and their viewpoint maintains a strong a priori theoretical position. Existentialists view curriculum as personal experience and suggest listening to all the voices involved. Deliberators see curriculum as practical art using a method of practical problem solving where diverse sources are discussed (Reid, 1992).

Does it require any special conditions?

    Similar to the elusive nature of what curriculum looks like, the special conditions depend on the curriculum maker's perspective and orientation.

How is it used?

    According to Smith, Stanley, and Shores (1957) curriculum is "A sequence of potential experiences is set up in the school for the purpose of disciplining children and youth in group ways of thinking and acting" (p. 3). As many viewpoints on the definition, likewise the uses of curriculum will vary in respect to the curriculum maker's conception and orientations to this social activity.

What is its origin and background?

    Reid (1992) writes:

  • Some writers have seized on the relationship of curriculum to currus, and on that word's commonest meaning, and claimed that its significance comes from the metaphor of the race. We run races over (or through) various courses and, at the end, prizes are warded. The diminutive form of currus came into common usage to denote passage of time, so that, along with phrases such as curriculum horae (the passage of an hour), there also, and quite naturally, occurred curriculum studiorum (the time taken up by studies). This was acquired when the notion of simple passage of time in relation to learning was transformed into one that saw that time as structured to contain a sequence that was capable of completion. This transformation began in the European universities in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. (pp. 35-36)

A Method of Reflective Dialectic of Pedagogic Praxis

    In van Manen's The Tone of Teaching, he introduces the term "reflective dialectic of pedagogic praxis." He explains that "'reflective dialectic' refers to a constant alertness to the question of what education is, a constant measurement of my action against pedagogy. 'Pedagogic praxis' refers to thoughtful action: action full of thought and thought full of action" (p. 54).


    This curriculum was developed with the following goals for all participants: (a) a constant reflection on what constitutes an educative experience and (b) a constant dialogue between thought and action. Breaking from the tradition of viewing curriculum as an established body of knowledge selected from culture, curriculum is defined as construction of knowledge and experience for the enhancement of culture. Students are seen as active knowledge and culture participants. A communal database represents the conversations between learner and environment, learner and teacher, and learner and learners.


    The mediative role of the school relates the knowledge sources outside the school to the classroom curriculum and vice versa. This role is based on Dewey's (1916, pp. 89-90) definition of education as "that reconstruction or reorganization of experience which adds to the meaning of experience, and which increases ability to direct the course of subsequent experience." From this the learner is defined as an autonomous thinker, and a socially responsible individual capable of controlling her or his own course of action.

    Teacher's role is defined as (a) being there for students (b) being aware that each day holds a specific significance for each student (c) discovering how education is experienced and lived by each student (d) seeing students in the process of becoming (e) seeing themselves modeling ways of being (f) believing in the possibilities of their students (g) creating an atmosphere that fosters educative experiences (h) being aware that school mediates home and the community, and (i) having the lived space of the classroom reflect the cognitive artifacts of the students.

    Based on Dewey's "curriculum as mode of thought" reflective thinking is the underpinning of the integrative frame of curriculum development. Dewey describes the essentials of reflection as follows:

  • They are first that the pupil have a genuine situation of experience--that there be a continuous activity in which he is interested for its own sake; secondly, that a genuine problem develop within this situation as a stimulus to thought; third, that he possess the information and make the observations needed to deal with it; fourth, that suggested solutions occur to him which he shall be responsible for developing in an orderly way; fifth, that he may have the opportunity and occasion to test his ideas by application, to make their meaning clear and to discover for himself their validity. (1916, p. 102

Intended Audience

    This technique is designed for upper elementary grades and middle school classrooms that use core teams or an integrated curriculum and classroom size is no larger than 15 students.

Description of the Method

    Teacher's use of this curriculum development technique has two facets:

  • 1. Engaging students in group discussion about lived experiences

    2. Reflecting on the nature of student responses

    A goal-based project (GBP) is the result of this technique. The GBP represents a set of plans or the curriculum. In this method, the design of a GBP is guided by epistemic forms. These forms have been described by Minsky (1975) as frames, scenarios by Sanford & Garrod (1981) and schemata by Anderson (1977) and van Dijk (1981) to be used to help interpret and deconstruct texts (Morrison & Collins, 1995). The teacher by means of productive learning conversations (King, 1994; Scardamalia, Bereiter, & Steinbach, 1984) help develop epistemic fluency, which is the ability to use and create different ways of constructing knowledge (Morrison & Collins, 1995).

    A constructivist learning environment supports this type of transformative dialogue and Eisner's notion of the curriculum as a mind expanding experience (Eisner, 1997) as well. Why is this type of environment desired? Eisner posits that an environment rich with different forms of representations, like writing a play to express what a student learned about the life and times of Madame Curie, increases students' cognitive abilities and creates a citizenry better able to contribute and participate in a community and school culture.

    Since participation and unique contribution is valued, an authentic assessment method is used. Assessment is used as feedback for the student to reflect and converse with the instructor. Assessment is not used to evaluate the worthiness of one project over another. Each project represents a student's strengths and weaknesses, or in other words, the student's present state of being. The student is productively aware of his or her own process of becoming. GBP assessments are used as learning gauges not as products to be evaluated for ranking purposes. GBPs include teacher mediated goals and student discovery goals. The GBP provides students with the experience of exploring a variety of media to represent the nature of their inquiry and the expression of the result of their inquiry. The community built upon sharing these projects provide the learning environment with a rich repository of resources stored in the form of a communal database.

    1. Engaging students in group discussion about lived experiences. A group discussion centered on lived experiences generates the "genuine situation of experience." To initiate this discussion, the teacher selects a text from literature, fiction or nonfiction. The students read the text after a brief introduction by the teacher. The after-reading discussion evolves as a three-step process:

    Step 1: Initial Generation of Responses

    Using media, the teacher spurs brainstorming by a series of questions: What comes to mind when . . .? What do you think of . . . ? What might you see, hear, feel . . . ? What might it mean . . .?

    Step 2: Reflections on Initial Associations

    During this step, students explain their initial associations generated in Step One. The purpose of this discussion is to encourage students to discover the bases of their responses and those generated by their peers.

    Step 3: Reformulation of Knowledge

    In this step the teacher asks for additional thoughts or ideas or changes to their initial responses. Also to extend thought, the teacher and students brainstorm goal-based projects that would explore the associations listed on the board. This step provides the teacher with feedback in respect to students' interests.

    2. Reflecting on the nature of student responses. To provide teachers with information necessary to guide the design of a goal-based project with the student, teachers reflect on the responses generated by the students.

    Step 1: Problem Statements

    Teacher asks students to develop a problem statement generated from this discussion.

    Step 2: Information Categories

    This involves four parts, students: (a) generate a list of what they know about the problem, (b) determine their learning goals or what they want to learn, (c) design a strategy sheet for locating sources of information, and (d) create a plan of action to solve the problem.

    The teacher and student continue to converse and reflect on the implementation of the GBP. The final project is shared with other members of the learning community and eventually becomes a part of a communal database. 

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Copyright 1997
Most recent revision July 14, 1998