Section 3: Models and the curriculum process

1. Details of this section



Learning outcomes

At the end of this section of the topic you will be able to

Learning activities


2. Introduction

In the final part of the last section, where we examined the role of ideas, values and beliefs in shaping curricula, we expressed caution about regarding curriculum work as unconstrained and individualistic activity. In fact much of the writing about curriculum has focussed on providing order and so-called ‘rationality’ in curriculum work through the advocacy of particular curriculum models. The models fall, into two types, models for the curriculum which prescribe what teachers should do (prescriptive) and models of the curriculum which describe what teachers actually do (descriptive).

We begin this section with a reading of Chapter 3 from Murray Print’s (1993) book Curriculum Development and Design. Print’s work is designed for primary and secondary school teachers but the models are readily applicable at higher levels.

Activity 1.10 Reading and discussion

Now read the Print’s Chapter 3 The Curriculum Process which is in e–Reserve.

Make notes on each of the models for your own purposes.

Have you seen any of them applied in your work place?

Try and classify each of Print’s models as prescriptive or descriptive.

You may wish to share your ideas in the discussion topic Models and the curriculum process.

3. A traditional prescriptive curriculum model

Probably the most well-known curriculum model is Ralph Tyler’s Objectives or Rational Planning Model. This is clearly a model for the curriculum or a prescriptive model. It sets out what curriculum workers should do. Tyler’s work Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction was first published in 1949. Rumour has it that Tyler left his lectures notes lying around and his students thought they were so good that they had them published. Perhaps this is something to which we should all aspire!

For Tyler the curriculum process involved four fundamental questions. It was a rational and orderly process of answering the following questions.

The ‘purposes’ in the first of these questions became known as objectives and hence the model became known as the Objectives Model. Objectives were to be written in terms of changed learner behaviour which could be readily measured. Tyler’s work advocated a broad view of objectives but many of those that followed him supported a more narrow view. In the United States, in particular, there was strong support for the use of ‘behavioural objectives’ where behaviours had to be clearly specified in objectives which used verbs such as to write, to recite and to identify. Verbs such as to know, to understand and to appreciate were not to be used.

The Objectives Model attracted much criticism. It was claimed that writing objectives was difficult and time consuming, particularly in the form demanded by writers like Mager (1962) who argued that each objective had to contain a statement of the ‘behaviour’ to be attained, the’ conditions’ under which it would be demonstrated and the ‘standards’ by which it would be judged.

In the 1970s English writers such as Lawrence Stenhouse (1976) mounted much stronger criticisms. He claimed that the use of behavioural objectives resulted in curricula which focussed on skills and knowledge acquisition only. Higher order thinking skills, problem solving and values development were important educational functions that could not be written in behavioural terms. There was a risk that they would be excluded from curricula developed through the use of behavioural objectives.

Activity 1.11

In his book Objectives in Curriculum Design Davies (1976) has produced a list from Mager of words that can and can’t be used in behavioural objectives. Words open to few interpretations are suitable. Those with many interpretations are not. Such lists are still in use. You may have come across them.

Words open to many interpretations
Words open to few interpretations
to know
to write
to understand
to recite
to really understand
to identify
to appreciate
to differentiate
to fully appreciate
to solve
to grasp the significance of
to construct
to enjoy
to list
to believe
to compare
to have faith in
to contrast

Think about a curriculum that you are engaged in.

Are the words on the right hand side adequate to describe all the activities in which you wish your students to engage?

Do you have to use some on the left hand side?

Share your answers with some examples in the discussion topic Models and the curriculum process.

This is the main activity for this week and you should all attempt a posting.

4. A contemporary prescriptive model

The use of the Objectives Model has waned in response to criticisms such as those above. The importance of being clear about the purpose of a curriculum is reasonably well accepted but no longer are behavioural objectives demanded.

More recently another prescriptive model of the curriculum process has emerged in the form of Outcomes Based Education (OBE). Like Tyler those who advocate for this approach start with a simple message. Curriculum should be defined by first thinking about the outcomes that you wish to be obtained by your students. You then work "backwards" to determine content, teaching and learning activities, assessment and evaluation.

Activity 1.12

Read the editorial I wrote on OBE for the journal Medical Education. You will find it in e–Reserve.

The claim is made in the editorial that OBE is a return to the Objectives Model in another guise. Is this a fair claim?

You should reflect on this and perhaps make some personal notes

You will find that the use of outcomes to underpin the curriculum process is becoming increasingly popular in health professional education. There is much reference to outcomes approaches in medical education, for example. We use outcomes to define the medical courses at Flinders University. Year 3 is taken by students in different sites at Flinders Medical Centre, Royal Darwin Hospital, the Riverland and the South-East of South Australia with more sites to come. We would argue that students should arrive at the same outcomes albeit by different pathways.

The important thing is to avoid some of the excesses of the Objective Model by focussing, as the editorial suggests, on the ‘significant and enduring outcomes’ of curricula. A narrow focus on specific competencies or precisely defined knowledge and sets of skills to be acquired may result in the exclusion of higher order curriculum content that is at the very heart of the clinical education process.

5. Descriptive models of the curriculum process

In the first reading of this section Print argues that evidence demonstrates that teachers do not use curriculum models in their day-to-day work. Do you think this is the case for clinical teachers? Reflect on your own practice and the excerpts from the interviews we set out in the last section. Other writers have picked up this theme. It is summarised in a very readable article by Maurice Holt which compares curriculum making to film making.

Activity 1.13

Read the article by Holt in e–Reserve.

Is this yet another metaphor for curriculum?

Is it a useful one?

What is the essential point that Holt is trying to make?

Again reflect on this and make some personal notes. You might like to share these with others in the discussion area

Curriculum work is a complex human activity. Like the making of film classics it should not just be seen as a matter of following a few precisely defined steps. Descriptive curriculum models or models of the curriculum are those that are grounded in the complexity of practice. They represent what is actually happening, albeit in an abstracted form.

We have mentioned Stenhouse’s work previously in connection with a critique of the Objectives Model. He put forward a research-based model of the curriculum. For him the curriculum process represented an agenda for classroom-based research by teachers.

One of the most enduring models of the curriculum is the Situational Model developed by an Australian, Malcolm Skilbeck. You will have already come across it in Chapter 3 of Print. Under Skilbeck’s model it is important to fully consider the ‘situation’ or context in which the curriculum is located. Curriculum developers should ask questions about the significant external and internal issues that will impinge on the curriculum process. Reynolds and Skilbeck (1976) originally listed the major factors to be considered.

External factors
Internal factors
Societal expectations and changes

Expectations of employers

Community assumptions and values

Nature of subject disciplines

Nature of support systems

Expected flow of resources


Institutional ethos and structures

Existing resources

Problems and shortcomings in the existing curriculum

The consideration of these factors was labelled Situational Analysis. It was listed as one of five important steps in the curriculum process (Reynolds and Skilbeck 1976).

  1. Situational Analysis
  2. Goal formulation
  3. Program building
  4. Interpretation and implementation
  5. Monitoring, assessment, feedback, reconstruction

Under the Situational Model all steps must be undertaken. Situational Analysis must be done and done systematically. The steps, however, do not need to be followed in any particular order. Contrast this with the two prescriptive models we have considered. In those models there were clear starting points; defining objectives or determining outcomes. But is it necessary for the curriculum process to start at those points? Newble and Jaeger (1983), for example, have shown how changing assessment methods in a medical course began a process by which the whole curriculum changed. Think about curriculum changes in which you have been involved. What was the starting point?

6. Conclusion

Does the Situational Model bring us any closer to a workable and useful model to guide our curriculum work? Certainly it asks us to consider the context of curriculum and this is important. If we go back to our original view of curriculum as the translation of educational ideas into practice then we simply cannot discount the importance of context and the external and internal factors that impinge on the contexts in which we work. But does the Situational Model lock us into another series of five steps which cannot deal with all the complexity that Holt portrays?

I would argue that we should abandon the search for models. What we could do is to use the work of Skilbeck and others to define the essential Elements of curriculum. These would be

Situational analysis
Statements of intent (aims, objectives, outcomes)
Implementation and organisational strategies 
Monitoring and evaluation.

While the Elements are all inter-related there is no lock step sequence nor prescribed order. Essentially each Element represents an important area of curriculum work and activity which should be subject to investigation, debate and critique. Taken together the Elements represent a comprehensive statement of the curriculum process but putting them together is a complex human activity which is not easily reduced to simple principles.

This may appear to leave the debate in mid air. We will return to look at these curriculum elements in more detail in the next module.


Last Modified: October 7, 2005