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Means-Ends Reasoning and the Curriculum


by Ronald T. Hyman - 1972

A criticism of the Tyler approach to learning which states that one must set up goals and rigidly work toward them. The author feels setting objectives restricts the curriculum; predetermined behavior should be the only acceptable kind; ends should arise from teaching activity. (Source: ERIC)

Ronald T. Hyman is associate professor of education at Rutgers University.


People who teach believe that they can and do change their students. Whether these changes are in overt behavior or in some predisposition to alter overt behavior is an open matter, but teachers do not hold that teaching is futile, that the student is beyond help or incapable of learning.


With such a belief as a basis, teachers set forth the changes they seek to effect and then establish the curriculum they think will bring about those changes. That is, they set their ends, and then determine the means (curriculum) to reach them.


This approach is common in our society. Statesmen set their ends and then determine the legislation and enforcement procedures needed to achieve their policies. Doctors, generals, engineers, carpenters, and many others follow a similar pattern. With regard to curriculum, we can trace the use of this concept back centuries, but it emerged as a recognized professional method at the beginning of the twentieth century.1 Early curriculum practitioners such as Franklin Bobbitt and W.W. Charters accepted and employed it unquestioningly.

The Tyler Rationale


This means-ends, step by step approach to curriculum, where educators establish objectives as ends to be reached, select subject matter and a teaching method, organize the teachers and pupils, and finally evaluate their activities to see if they reached their objectives, is most notably disseminated through the work and writing of Ralph Tyler, a disciple of Bobbitt and Charters. The “Tyler rationale” was set forth in Tyler’s now classic syllabus for “Education 360” at the University of Chicago, Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction. Tyler wrote his book as an attempt “to explain a rationale for viewing, analyzing, and interpreting the curriculum and instruction program of an educational institution .... This book outlines one way of viewing an institutional program as a functioning instrument of education.”2


The Tyler rationale centers around “four fundamental questions which must be answered in developing any curriculum and plan of instruction. These are:


1. What educational purposes should the school seek to attain?


2. What educational experiences can be provided that are likely to attain these purposes?


3. How can these educational experiences be effectively organized?


4. How can we determine whether these purposes are being attained?”3


It is important to note that these questions are to be answered in the order they are asked. Therefore, the stating of objectives is the crucial step for Tyler. The .other three responses are given in light of the objectives chosen. Tyler makes this point about objectives clearly at the beginning of his book: “These educational objectives become the criteria by which materials are selected, content is outlined, instructional procedures are developed, and tests and examinations are prepared. All aspects of the educational program are really means to accomplish basic educational purposes. Hence, if we are to study an educational program systematically and intelligently we must first be sure as to the educational objectives aimed at.”4


Though Tyler himself indicates that his rationale is but one way of viewing curriculum matters (see the first quotation from his book), the Tyler formulation has crystallized to become the rationale. Many students of curriculum even fail to realize that there can be other rationales.5 This failure is due to the inaccessibility of other rationales and the lack of curriculums developed according to them. Many students also fail to realize that curriculum development according to a step by step approach began before 1949, the year Tyler first published his syllabus. Rather, in 1949 Tyler simply formally presented his interpretation of an approach which had been utilized for at least thirty years by professional curriculum theorists and practitioners. We have, then, in the Tyler rationale only one man’s formulation of one approach to curriculum development, but one which has risen to the position of near dogma.

Criticisms of the Tyler Rationale


Recently there have appeared some criticisms of the value and use of the Tyler rationale. In particular these are aimed at the primacy of objectives. They are not necessarily attacks on the overall means-end approach or the intent of the Tyler rationale. Instead, most are raised with the desire to refine the current approach to curriculum development, and some are merely attacks on Ralph Tyler’s particular formulation of the means-ends approach.


The first criticism raised concerns the specificity of curricular objectives. For years curriculum workers have claimed that curricular objectives should be stated in specific terms rather than in broad generalities if the objectives are to be helpful in determining the curriculum as the means to the end. Some people are now realizing that specific objectives severely restrict the curriculum. Specific objectives lead to specific curricular elements, and the net result of this is a loss of flexibility which is needed in a program serving a wide range of pupils varying in age, interest, and ability. Thus, though specificity in objectives may help in determining a focus, the same specificity may serve to restrict the curriculum in actual operation.


The second criticism concerns the stating of specific objectives in behavioral terms.6 Hilda Taba, who requires as her first criterion for guiding the formulation of objectives the description of the kind of behavior expected of the student and the context to which that behavior applies, is typical of such curriculum workers.7 Her thought is based on Tyler himself who says, “The most useful form for stating objectives is to express them in terms which identify both the kind of behavior to be developed in the student and the content or area of life in which this behavior is to operate.”8 Taba justifies her position of specifying behavior by claiming that it is “necessary in order for the objectives to serve as a platform for both curriculum development and evaluation.”9


Two critical objections exist to this requirement of specifying behavioral changes. First, teaching is not merely interested in changing a student’s behavior. Indeed, brainwashing, threatening, and torturing all can induce behavioral changes, and if someone simply wants to induce behavioral changes, he can resort to these non-teaching approaches. Teaching, in contrast to brainwashing, attempts to induce change that is guided by reason and principle. “The widely known and accepted dogma that the aim of teaching is to change behavior is both patently false and dangerously misleading. The aim of teaching is not to change people’s behavior but to transform behavior into action.”10 (Action, according to Green, the author of this quotation, entails giving reasons. In acting a person consciously follows certain rules and has reasons for justifying what he does.)


Green’s point is well taken. Teachers are interested not only in what a student does, but in why he does it. To state merely what a student should do (for example, answer test questions on his own) is thus inadequate. An objective stated in behavioral terms without further specification of reasons is not a useful tool for curriculum development or evaluation. Teachers desire that their students not cheat due to a commitment to honesty and respect of other people and prefer this to not cheating due to fear of the hickory stick. But, if all a teacher knows is that Jonathan did not cheat on his last exam, then he has insufficient data for evaluating both his own teaching efforts and Jonathan’s progress in regard to cheating.


Secondly, the specification of expected behavioral changes is made with the belief that, since behavior can be observed, a behavioral objective can and will facilitate objective measurement and evaluation. In other words, overt behavior can be observed, in contrast to such activities as reflective thinking, creativity, and appreciating good music which cannot. However, we must candidly admit that presently we have no adequate way to observe and measure all the desired behavioral outcomes we already have established, let alone such desired activities as appreciating music which steadfastly remain nonmeasurable.


Moreover, those who advocate behaviorally specified objectives, by their insistence on these, also seem to advocate that an objective is worthwhile only if we can observe and measure its attainment. Obviously, despite common acceptance in some quarters, it is false that only behaviorally stated objectives are valuable. J. Myron Atkin, who is involved in the teaching of science, puts it this way:


Worthwhile goals come first, not our methods for assessing progress toward these goals. Goals are derived from our needs and from our philosophies. They are not and should not be derived primarily from our measures. It borders on the irresponsible for those who exhort us to state objectives in behavioral terms to avoid the issue of determining worth. Inevitably there is an implication of worth behind any act of measurement. What the educational community poorly realizes at the moment is that behavioral goals may or may not be worthwhile. They are articulated from among the vast library of goals because they are stated relatively easily. Again, let’s not assume that what we can presently measure necessarily represents our most important activity.11


But even if we could adequately measure every specified behavior, we still would not automatically arrive at an evaluation. To evaluate any particular behavior we need criteria, that is standards, with which to compare the observed measured behavior. In some fields of study such as mathematics there are accepted criteria for designated behaviors, and it is therefore easy to evaluate the student’s work in adding, subtracting, dividing, and multiplying, for example. However, in other fields, such as art, dance, poetry, and creative scientific research, which rely on qualitative elements that are not observable, there are no definite standards for judging the value of a performance. And it is precisely these qualitative elements such as creativeness, understanding, critical reasoning, and insight which most educators seek as objectives of curriculum and instruction.12

Predetermined Objectives


The third and perhaps most important criticism concerns the function of objectives. According to the Tyler rationale, teachers establish objectives prior to establishing the curriculum focus and prior to working with the students since these objectives are to serve as guides for the teachers. Teachers operate under the belief that they know their objectives prior to teaching and can specify the outcome of teaching prior to their interaction with students. Yet it is reasonable to argue that teachers only fully know their objectives while teaching a lesson or after completing one. John Dewey claimed that “ends arise and function within action. They are not, as current theories too often imply, things lying outside activity at which the latter is directed. They are not strictly speaking ends or termini of action at all. They are terminals of deliberation, and so turning points in activity.”13


In commenting on this point, Herbert M. Kliebard makes a significant contribution. What Tyler has as step number two (learning experiences) might indeed replace objectives as step number one if we accept the point that objectives emerge within the course of teaching. “If ends arise only within activity it is not clear how one can state objectives before the activity (learning experience) begins, Dewey’s position, then, has important consequences not just for Tyler’s process of evaluation, but for the rationale as a whole. It would mean, for example, that the starting point for a model of curriculum and instruction is not the statement of objectives but the activity (learning experience), and whatever objectives do appear will arise within that activity as a way of adding a new dimension to it.”14


This crucial criticism of the position and function of objectives deserves restating. The same point is made cogently by James B, Macdonald in examining current myths about curriculum and instruction.


Objectives are viewed as directives in the rational approach. They are identified prior to the instruction or action and used to provide a basis for or a screen for appropriate activities.


There is another view, however, which has both scholarly and experiential referents. This view would state that our objectives are only known to us in any complete sense after the completion of our act of instruction. No matter what we thought we were attempting to do, we can only know what we wanted to accomplish after the fact. Objectives by this rationale are heuristic devices which provide initiating sequences which become altered in the flow of instruction.


In the final analysis, it could be argued, the teacher in actuality asks a fundamentally different question from “What am I trying to accomplish?” The teacher asks, “What am I going to do?” and out of the doing comes accomplishment.15


Since teaching is a dynamic activity in which all the relationships among variables are never known and where unexpected things regularly emerge, it is impossible to specify all the outcomes ahead of time even if we cared to do so. A teacher may not only alter his objectives, but he may discover new ones to pursue during the act of teaching. What is more, the most desirable outcomes are often not those specified in advance as objectives. The most significant outcomes may be those that are not planned for nor fully anticipated when establishing objectives.16


Many of those who propose the use of behavioral objectives fail to realize that these objectives carry certain latent functions. The teacher’s efforts to attain only behavioral objectives allows students to depend on him to set objectives, rather than learning to be autonomous and to set their own objectives. This is particularly important with regard to secondary and college students who are in the stage of developing independence.17 Furthermore, when the teacher strongly sets out ahead of time to develop certain objectives, the students learn to deemphasize or disregard any unexpected outcomes or spontaneous events which may in themselves be extremely valuable. In short, though behavioral objectives have the manifest functions of facilitating measurement and evaluation and of permitting the marketing of profitable materials and machines, their latent functions of restricting learning to a mode of dependence and expectedness are important enough in themselves to warrant opposition to them.


These three criticisms of the current approach to curriculum development, that is, criticism concerning the specificity of objectives, the stating of objectives in behavioral terms, and the function of objectives, are not to be dismissed lightly. They serve to alert the student of curriculum to issues found in proposals formulated under a Tyler-type approach. The student can search such curriculum proposals for responses to these criticisms, evasions of them, or adjustments made to them which obviate or weaken them. The treatment of these criticisms here is presented not to destroy the currently accepted framework within which to propose curriculums, but rather to spur further thought about that framework.

Choosing Objectives


Even if these criticisms are rejected, we must still seek an answer to the fundamental question, “How should a teacher choose his objectives?” Obviously, a general means-end approach offers no specific answer. Neither does Tyler provide much help. Tyler recognizes three sources of objectives “to provide a basis for wise and comprehensive discussions about the objectives of the school.”18 That is, he proposes that the curriculum worker consider studies of the learners themselves, studies of contemporary life outside school, and suggestions about objectives from subject matter specialists. Since he recognizes that these are sources not criteria for the selection of objectives—and the distinction is crucial—Tyler then proposes that the teacher filter the data obtained from the three sources first through a philosophical screen and secondly through a psychological screen.


However, the concepts of a philosophical and psychological screen do not offer much guidance. There are obviously many “educational and social philosophies” which a teacher might accept; there are several schools of thought on the psychology of learning which a teacher might accept. Yet Tyler does not tell the teacher how to validly select from among the many alternatives in philosophy and psychology. In spite of the suggestion to consider three sources of objectives, in spite of the suggestion that objectives be in harmony with an accepted educational and social philosophy, and in spite of the suggestion that objectives be consistent with the theory of learning which, according to Tyler, each curriculum worker needs to formulate, the teacher receives little direction. Tyler is not wrong but, rather, simply not very helpful. The teacher is still thrown back on himself without significant criteria for choosing worthwhile objectives.


So the question of how to select objectives still persists, fundamental and unanswered, despite Tyler’s apparent answer and despite all furor raised by criticisms of Tyler.19

A Partial Alteration of the Tyler Rationale


At this point it seems appropriate to offer at least one scheme for partially altering Tyler’s sequential, ordered approach. The commonly accepted approach calls for stating objectives first and selecting learning experiences second. In light of my criticism of this approach in the preceding sections of this paper the following schema is presented as one possible alternative.


This plan,20 shown in Figure 1, includes the same four main elements as Tyler’s rationale. The alteration is in their interdependence as contrasted with Tyler’s sequential method. Each element is related to the others and thereby influences the determination of the particulars falling under the other three main elements. The relationship between objectives and learning experiences (in Figure 1 simply labeled subject matter) is not a one way street. Rather, the subject matter selected to be taught influences the objectives just as objectives influence the selection of subject matter. Interdependence eliminates any particular order in proceeding.


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Nevertheless, despite its advantages, this scheme also fails to indicate how objectives are selected, fails to tackle the issue of specificity of objectives, and fails to deal with the issue concerning behavioral objectives. Obviously, then, there is need for further work in refining this revision. Yet this in no way should minimize the salient point of this schema—the interdependence and mutual influence among the elements in curriculum development.

The Need for Alternatives


The Tyler rationale for curriculum development is currently widely accepted. Other possibilities are not well worked out and virtually unknown by curriculum workers in the schools. It is precisely because of the acceptance of the Tyler rationale as near dogma that criticisms and doubts about it deserve the careful, serious attention of curriculum workers. First, there is need for even the Tyler disciples to fill the gaps in their rationale via alternate schemas. Second, the mounting literature against Tyler’s behaviorism—which does not criticize the means-ends approach—contains many valid points which educators have long advocated. Third, the alternatives to the Tyler means-end framework, though presently few and unrefined, ought not to be cast aside. These alternatives offer curriculum workers the opportunity to infuse new life into the schools through the alternative concepts and values that they support. There is no doubt that the seventies call for a general revision of curriculum design for our public schools, and a critical, open-minded reassessment of the current overall framework would be a productive step in that direction.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 73 Number 3, 1972, p. 393-402
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 1582, Date Accessed: 10/23/2021 9:54:53 AM

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