“Each orientation harbors an implicit conception of educational virtue. Furthermore, each orientation serves both to legitimize certain educational practices and to sanction others negatively.” (Eisener, 1985, p. 83)
This quote encapsulates the main argument that Eisener puts forth in this article, which is that different fundamental beliefs about the values and purpose of education impact the design and delivery of curriculum in practice. And that these orientations can serve to justify both the inclusion of certain practices, content, or learning opportunities and the exclusion of others. Neither the quote nor the article favours one orientation over the others.
Eisener summarized 5 major value orientations that exist within education: the development of cognitive processes, academic rationalism, personal relevance, social adaptation/reconstruction, and curriculum as technology. He argues that each of these orientations has implications on various aspects of educational practice, including the role of the instructor, the learning opportunities afforded to students, the subject matter that is included or excluded from those learning opportunities, the content of the curriculum, and the educational climate in general. He explains in detail how each of these orientations “are permeated through and through with values that shape one’s conception of major aspects of practice” (1985, p. 83) and provides specific details on the consequence of each orientation on educational practices.
I think that the delineation of educational values into different orientations can be a useful framework for understanding curriculum, but think it’s important to realize that in practice educational beliefs are not this clearcut. Eisener identified 5 distinct orientations, but orientations could likely be delineated any number of ways. Eisener alludes to this as well when he states that these orientations “are seldom encountered in their pure form” (1985, p. 84). In practice, different orientations often co-exist and overlap in educational settings; furthermore, in my professional experiences, often participants in the development of curriculum do not have a clear understanding of their own implicit orientation, so it is possible that contradictory decisions are made. It is also important to realize that education is a collaborative activity between institutions, instructors, students, communities, and others, so multiple orientations (pure or hybrid) can exist. Eisener argues in the original quote that an institution or instructor’s orientation can impact the design and delivery of education, but I think it’s equally important to consider how a student’s orientation can impact the resulting way in which education is experienced.
The reason that this quote interested me is because having worked in complex educational settings, I often see correlations and contradictions between epistemological beliefs and curricular design decisions. In educational settings where multiple stakeholders contribute to the development and delivery of the curriculum, tensions can exist between these different groups’ understandings of what knowledge is and what the purpose of education is. I think these tensions can be aggravated by participants not realizing that they have different orientations and understandings of the value and purpose of education. In my work in educational development, many of the challenges we face in innovation and curricular reform seem to be symptoms of different orientations. As a specific example, in the last week I held two student focus groups to discuss educational design. The goal was to get feedback on the design of digital learning experiences. The dominant orientation adopted by one group of students seemed to be understanding curriculum as a technology; the curriculum is the means to an end. The “end” is passing their MCC exams (the qualifying exam for doctors). This group questioned the value of any learning activities that did not clearly align with this understanding of the purpose of the activities. With this group, it was challenging to discuss the design of the activities because the value of the content and the purpose was in question. As Eisener stated, “what we encounter at the point of controversy and contention are often the symptoms of more deep-seated differences” (1985, p. 85).
Eisener, E. (1985). Five basic orientations to the curriculum. In E. Eisner, The educational imagination: On the design and evaluation of school programs (pp. 61-86). New York: Macmillan Publishing.