“Under the control of theory, curricular changes have their origin in new notions of person, group or society, mind or knowledge, which give rise to suggestions of new things curriculum might be or do…. The practical, on the other hand, because it institutes changes to repair frictions and deficiencies, is commanded to determine the whole array of possible effects of proposed change, to determine what new frictions and deficiencies the proposed change may unintentionally produce.” (Schwab, 2013, p. 615).
This excerpt compares the theoretical approach to curricular change to the practical approach to curricular change and argues that curricular innovation born from theory starts with the solution (or “new things curriculum might be or do”), while curricular change born from the practical starts by identifying the problem that exists then developing a solution while maintaining awareness of the possibility of introducing new problems. This quote resonated with me because I am very familiar with the “band-wagon” effect discussed by Schwab, in which programs adopt educational fads (2013, p. 615) arbitrarily in the interest of innovation rather than to solve any specific problem.
This is only one of many arguments that Schwab puts forth to support his main premise which is that curriculum studies is a field in crisis and that the root of this crisis is its reliance on the theoretical rather than the practical. He specifies numerous reasons as to why a theoretical approach to problem solving in education is flawed, including theory’s incompleteness, partiality of view and inability to be applied to a local and specific context. In contrast, he states that is necessary for curricular experts to divert their attention from theory to alternative modes of operation: the practical, the quasi-practical and the eclectic.
The reason that I selected this quote was because I found that it reinforced the overall argument in the essay and clearly juxtaposed the theoretical and the practical. I agree that a sole focus on theory is detrimental to progress and that decision-making and problem solving in curricular development need to occur at the local level and be driven by local concerns, with consideration to the trans-local impact of those decisions. This idea is also of particular interest to me because I am working on a research proposal for an institutional ethnography of curriculum design in Medical Education. Institutional ethnography also emphasises the importance of the local and uses a problematic to focus on a particular and specific lived experience (Campbell & Gregor, 2002, p. 47).
This quote also highlights the idea of mutual exclusivity between the theoretical and the practical that Schwab seems to develop throughout the essay. He states that “theoretical constructions are ill-fitted and inappropriate to problems of actual teaching and learning” (2013, p. 592). However, I would argue that theory serves the practical by providing knowledge that can be used both for identifying and understanding the problem and for informing the development of solutions to the problem. Schwab later acknowledges that theory can actually be used well in curricular practice if supplemented by the practical. (Schwab, 2013, p. 611).
I would go a step further and suggest that a reciprocal relationship can exist between the local and practical and the generalized and theoretical. This is contrary to Schwab’s premise that the practical is based solely on the unique factors of the local context and that knowledge derived from the success or failure of these decisions are not transferable to other contexts. He states that “applications to other cases proceed only from analogy and turn out to be good ones mainly by chance” (Schwab, 2013, p. 593). However, much like the fields of medicine, law or business, I feel that informed decisions can be made based on the results of earlier deliberations, as long as the unique characteristics of both cases are considered. In fact, Schwab himself later states that “Deliberation requires consideration of the widest possible variety of alternatives if it is to be most effective. Each alternative must be viewed in the widest variety of lights.” (2013, p. 618-619). This suggests to me that the field of curriculum studies needs both the practical and the theoretical, and that energy should not be completely diverted away from the theoretical.
Campbell, M., & Gregor, F. (2002). Mapping social relations : a primer in institutional ethnography / Marie Campbell and Frances Gregor. Aurora, Ont: Garamond Press.
Schwab, J. J. (2013). The practical: a language for curriculum. Journal of Curriculum Studies, 45(5), 591–621.