Curriculum Foundations

John Goodland (2012) stated “philosophy is the beginning point in curriculum decision making and is the basis for all subsequent decisions regarding curriculum” (para. 18). The critical function of philosophy on curriculum assists educators to “determine what schools are for, what subjects have value, how students learn and what methods or materials to use” (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2009, p. 32). Within education, philosophy is a meditative activity which requires an individual to be reflective on their experiences including the ideas, attitudes and belief about society, culture and learning. When these aspects are considered they direct both the curriculum content and its organization (Ritz, 2006).

Furthermore, philosophy contributes and gives meaning to both the actions and the decision making of those involved in the curriculum development for schools and classrooms. It also provides educators with a basis for dealing with individual tasks and for making judgment calls about which  textbooks or other cognitive and non-cognitive activities, how to use these materials, what homework to give to students and how much homework is needed, how to assess students, how to use assessment results, as well as what subject matter to emphasize (Ornstein, 1990).

Curriculum FoundationsThere are four principle philosophies within education which can be sorted into either traditional or contemporary views. Idealism and realism are both considered to be more traditional than their contemporary counterparts of pragmatism and existentialism. However, they each share distinct characteristics.

Idealism focuses on the spiritual and moral development of the student. Educators who base their educational philosophy in this arena believe that all knowledge is truth. Values are absolute and timeless. These truths are universal and cross all interdisciplinary lines (Ritz, 2006).  Also, it uses knowledge to cultivate higher levels of thinking and reasoning skills. All learning is an intellectual process which uses facts and ideas to relate to other concepts (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2009).

The other traditional philosophy is realism. The development of this philosophy is linked to Aristotle. Realists believe that the world is know through reasoning and senses as it is experienced through nature (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2009). Realism emphasizes logic and activities or experiences that will develop additional reasoning and thoughts. Curriculum for realists consists of reading, writing arithmetic, science and the arts (Ritz, 2006).

A contemporary philosophy counterpart to idealism and realism is pragmatism. Within this domain, knowledge is accepted as consistently changing. It is not a matter of a timeless truth but of an experience between the learner and his interactions within his environment (Ornstein, 1990). The most essential skills to be considered are problem solving and critical thinking as a student learns how to deal with their surroundings (Ritz, 2006). Teachers are considered guides as they help their students explore the world. Learning how to think is more important than learning what to think (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2009).

Lastly, existentialism focuses on both individualism and self-fulfillment. Individuals are encouraged to create their own meanings in life (Ritz, 2006). Students are to makes choices which define themselves. The consciously develop themselves through daily decisions and experiences. They “cultivate self-expressions and portray the human condition and situations involving choices” (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2009, p. 37).

The historical foundations of curriculum also contribute to education. In the early development of American higher education, the main purpose of curriculum was “directed toward the acculturating of young people -their character formation, preparation for careers, access to society, language and manners” (Cohen & Kisker, 2010, p 32). In modern day, the purpose of curriculum has altered. Today, “curriculum enables people to make sense of their lives and the world around them. Individuals use curriculum with varying degrees of intentionality to interpret events, to deepen their understanding of what they learn and who they are as learners, and to create a shared experience for teaching and learning” (Huggett, Smith & Conrad, 2010, p 1).

Curriculum of the 1636 to 1789 era was directed toward the preservation of knowledge. Based on this foundation, the nine colleges in operation in the colonies at this time offered few courses. This outlook changed to today’s coursework offered. The main motive of education today is to the purpose of advancing knowledge and not to simply “pass on knowledge and information” (Cybercollege Internet Campus, 2006, p 1). The evolution of a society mandates a continual change in its educational system. Higher education must “continually revise methodology and topics of study” (Cohen & Kisker, 2010, p 510). Although the core curriculum has remained steady through the last several decades, society must steadily address its needs and the relevance of the offered higher educational curriculum to meet those needs.

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The psychological foundations also play an essential role in the development of curriculum in education. It answers the question of “how people learn” and encourages “curriculum specialists to ask how psychology can contribute to the design and delivery of curriculum” (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2009, p. 107). Psychology helps educators understand the processes within both teaching and learning.

Learning within the psychological foundations has been divided into three different areas.  These theories of learning are behavorist, cognitivist and humanistic. Behaviorism bases its theory on the works of Aristotle and Rousseau. The classical conditioning of behaviorism uses both a stimulus and a response. Thorndike refers to this as a habit formation (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2009).

Cognitive psychology “is the branch of psychology that studies mental processes including how people think, perceive, remember and learn” (Cherry, 2012, para. 1). It focuses on how people get information, use and store it. These psychologists are specifically interested in how people develop structures for knowledge as they apply problem solving skills.

Lastly, within the psychological foundations is the humanist theory. Humanists strive to develop the whole individual as they concentrate on the self-actualization of the whole child. They concentrate education around experiences. Within this theory, teachers do not lecture or demonstrate the role of a superior entity but rather are more as guides for students through the process of self-direction (Long, 2012).

Social aspects also make a significant contribution to education. A school community is a reflection of the larger community in which they are housed. Education “is processed through ceremonies, rituals, stories, observation and emulation of older children and adults, and strictly enforced codes of conduct and behavior” (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2009, p. 150). Additionally, the school educates the young into demonstrating the attitudes, mores and values of society.

A philosophical approach is a necessity within the educational realm as an educator especially when based experientially (Roberts, 2006). Experiential learning helps “learners demonstrate a greater awareness of their responsibility in making learning meaningful and monitoring themselves. They are curious and willing to try new things, view problems as challenges, desire change, and enjoy learning. They are also found to be motivated and persistent, independent, self-disciplined, self-confident and goal-oriented” (Abdullah, 2012).

Teachers can motivate students to pursue self-directed learning principles to the end of a lifelong learning desire. Younger students need to be taught how to deal with problems as they arise in their quests and be empowered with problem solving options. As a result these tools move the learner from needing extrinsic motivation to relying on intrinsic motivation (Gibbons, 2008).

Knowles (1975) proposed that within the formal classroom, experiential learning situations require a particular type of environment.  He called it a warm learning climate.  Such a warm learning climate possesses mutual respect for individual experience and creativity shaping a “warm, mutually respectful, dialogic and mutually trustful” (p. 29) environment.  It is conducive to communication where participants may be actively involved.

Philosophy helps give experiential learning meaning for both teachers and students. Educators need to acknowledge the function of philosophy within education in determining the values of knowledge especially within the development of curriculum (Ritz, 2006). However, not one foundation should be the sole determination in curriculum’s establishment as psychology, history and social aspects have significant contributions for education as well.




Abdullah, M. (2012). Self directed learning. Retrieved January 10, 2012 from

Cherry, K. (2012). What is cognitive psychology? Retrieved January 11, 2012 from

Cohen, A. & Kisker, C. (2010). The shaping of American higher education: Emergence and growth of the contemporary system. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cybercollege Internet Campus. (2006). Essential curriculum: recipe for revolution. Retrieved January 9, 2012 from

Gibbons, M. (2008). Motivating students and teaching them to motivate themselves. Retrieved Januaryy 11, 2012 from

Huggett, K., Smith, N., & Conrad, C. (2012). Higher education curriculum: traditional and contemporary perspectives. Retrieved January 9, 2012 from

Knowles, M. (1975). Self-directed learning: a guide for learners and teachers. Parsippany, New Jersey: Globe Fearon Press.

Long, H.B. (2012). From behaviorism to humanism. Retrieved January 11, 2012 from

Ornstein, A. C. (1990). Philosophy as a basis for curriculum decisions. Retrieved January 11, 2012 from

Ornstein, A. C., & Hunkins, F. P.   (2009).  Curriculum: Foundations, principles, and issues. Allyn & Bacon.

Priddle, V. (2012). Foundations of curriculum. Retrieved January 11, 2012 from

Ritz, J. (2006). Notetaking guides on philosophy. Retrieved January 11, 2012 from

Roberts, T. (2006).  A philosophical examination of experiential learning theory for agricultural educators. Journal of Agricultural Education, 47(1), 17-29.

By Tracy Atkinson

Tracy Atkinson, mother of six, lives in the Midwest with her husband. She is a teacher, having taught elementary school to higher education, holding degrees in elementary education and a master’s in higher education. Her passion is researching, studying and investigating the attributes related to self-directed learners. She has published several titles, including Calais: The Annals of the Hidden, Lemosa: The Annals of the Hidden, Book Two, Rachel’s 8 and Securing Your Tent. She is currently working on a non-fiction text exploring the attributes of self-directed learners: The Five Characteristics of Self-directed Learners.

Tracy Harrington-Atkinson

Tracy Harrington-Atkinson, mother of six, lives in the mid-west with her husband. She loved storytelling and sharing her stories with her children. As they grew, she started writing her stories down for them. She is a teacher, having taught from elementary school to higher education, holding degrees in elementary education, masters in higher education and continued on to a PhD in curriculum design. Her husband, Kerry and Tracy breed miniature dachshunds and love to spend time with their growing family. She has published several books including Calais: The Annals of the Hidden, Rachel's 8 and Securing Your Tent.