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Reinventing the Curriculum: New Trends in Curriculum Policy and Practice

reviewed by Brian Wright & Shelly Counsell - April 13, 2015

coverTitle: Reinventing the Curriculum: New Trends in Curriculum Policy and Practice
Author(s): Mark Priestley & Gert Biesta (Eds)
Publisher: Bloomsbury, London
ISBN: 1472596005, Pages: 256, Year: 2014
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The editors, Mark Priestley and Gert Biesta, in collaboration with their contributing chapter authors, have prepared an extensive and thoughtful review, analysis, and critique of Scotland’s Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) as a significant new curriculum model in contemporary education. The authors’ examination begins with a brief historical overview of previous Scottish curriculum reform efforts and the potential consequence for curriculum development when global pressures are leveraged to align curricula with specific ideological positions that favor and promote a particular relationship between schooling, economy, and society. After illustrating how the CfE reflects a growing trend in curriculum policy and practice that articulates education purposes as capacities (in terms of what students should become rather than what students should learn), the authors devote four chapters (one chapter for each targeted purpose) toward examining, framing, and critiquing how the four learner capacities (key competencies) are conceptualized and implemented: successful learners, confident individuals, responsible citizens, and effective contributors.

The authors broaden the scope of their exploration and discussion of the CfE in the remaining chapters, by further situating their examination and critique in light of global trends in curriculum policy and practice (between 2004 and 2012) within English-speaking countries that include Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales, England, New Zealand, Australia, and the United States. This global perspective on curriculum policy and development includes an important examination of: (a) the teacher’s role and teacher agency within the process of curriculum development and implementation and (b) the Australian State of Queensland New Basics program as an instructive comparison. The authors conclude with a synopsis of the multiple perspectives and threads that lead to subsequent implications for curricular policy and practice across contexts and settings.

Whether effective or meaningful examination of knowledge and truth claims about the human condition or human experience can be fully understood apart from historical conditioning may be questionable. Nonetheless, understanding that knowledge is a discursive category (that is neither apolitical or ahistorical) is important in providing insights that can arguably be gained whenever historical perspectives and contexts become the vantage point from which interpretations and analyses are conducted, completed, and disseminated (Sefa Dei, 2011). Based on this view, effort to better understand the emergence and advancement of Scotland’s Curriculum of Excellence, as demonstrated by the authors, is increased when contemplated in light of (a) Scotland’s historical context of curriculum reform efforts; (b) the complexity of relationships between schooling, economy, and society; and (c) the global trends in education reform today.

As mentioned above, the first part of the text provides extensive detail and discussion concerning the defining aspects in relation to the four capacities that are central to the CfE structure. By approaching the CfE as a case study, the authors raise many compelling arguments and concerns according to five critical questions designed to challenge whether the CfE capacities (a) result in a disjointed (tick-box) curriculum; (b) can be articulated in terms of the difference between necessary and sufficient conditions for good or effective performance; (c) reintroduce a new emphasis on behaviorism; (d) run the risk of using education to promote adaptation rather than democratic agency; and (e) are based on factual description of the situations for which education should prepare learners or in actuality, normative values and judgments.

The authors utilize various teaching and learning theories and approaches to guide and inform their interpretation and critique of each of the four capacities. For example, theories of cognitive development include constructivism/social constructivism according to Piaget (no citation provided), Vygotsky (1978), and Bruner (1977) in addition to Roger’s (1969) humanistic counseling therapy and Maslow’s theory of motivation to understand and critique the CfE’s notion and application of a successful learner. Similarly, the authors use an ecological approach to agency to explain how teachers as agents of change act by means of their environment rather than simply in their environment as they critically shape their responses to problematic situations (Biesta & Tedder, 2006, p. 11). The authors further utilize an understanding of agency argued by Emirbayer and Mische (1998) that is informed by the past, oriented toward the future, and acted out in the present to help illuminate and emphasize how agency is built on past achievements, understandings, and patterns of action.

While the authors utilized multiple theoretical frameworks to describe and explain Scotland’s CfE, teaching professionalism, teacher agency, and Queensland’s New Basics Project, the authors missed the opportunity to employ an overarching theoretical framework that would serve to synthesize all of the multiple considerations, perspectives, and threads into a single, larger conversation about curriculum policy and development worldwide. German sociologist and philosopher, Jürgen Habermas, in the tradition of critical theory and pragmatism, would agree with the authors’ focus on the critical role of individual agency in the quest for emancipation, empowerment, and deliberative democracy for students and teachers alike. From Habermas’ perspective, individuals are empowered when knowledge production and claims are legitimated through communicative action.

Habermas (1987) conceptualized modern society as comprised of both lifeworlds and systems. The lifeworld is conceptualized as the collective consciousness (i.e., values, attitudes, beliefs, assumptions, and convictions) used by communicative actors to make sense of their world. Habermas envisioned communicative action as the “acts of reaching understanding” (p. 5) to attain cooperation and group consensus among social participants. All societal enterprises (like public and private schools) use communicative action (symbolically mediated interaction) primarily expressed through speech acts “in a cooperative process of interpretation” as communicative actors “relate simultaneously to something in objective, social, and subjective worlds” (p. 120).

Modern society, as noted by Habermas, becomes differentiated as both a lifeworld and system in response to increasing demands for economic markets within a capitalist society (p. 153). As modern economies emerge, the need for systems with steering capacities that could regulate and manage the new economies result (p. 152). Habermas identified the system as the social mechanisms that operate according to instrumental, functional reasoning needed to achieve specific goals and outcomes such as school mandates, policies, and procedures. Systems (like education institutions) are created to support and promote lifeworld beliefs and achieve desired outcomes for communicative actors. Steering media, such as money, data, or political influence are the different means by which the rationalized system exercises direction and ultimate control of lifeworlds (Gotz, 1997).

As an instructive framework, Habermas’ theory of communicative action (or any other instructive use of critical theories) can be used to explain the most compelling global trends in curriculum development, policy, and practice as discussed by the authors in the text. The authors note early in the text that a culture of measurement tends to drive out a concern for what constitutes good education just as we find curriculum policy and practice heavily influenced by economic arguments often framed as competitiveness in the global economy. The employment of a critical theory as an instructive framework would help the author’s tremendously in their effort to make sense of the phenomena of what happens as various communicative actors’ and stakeholders’ lives interact with curriculum development, policy, and practice at the contextual intersection of schooling, economy, and society and what this means specifically for teachers and learners. Although the authors emphasize the important role of social activity, interaction, and agency as it relates to the four capacities, Mead’s work is briefly referenced only twice in the entire text.

Additionally, in contrast to cultures of measurement that tend to ignore quality over quantity (i.e., test scores), books like Reinventing the Curriculum: New Trends in Curriculum Policy and Practice must further ensure that schools, colleges, and universities deliver a curriculum that recognizes, understands, and integrates the pedagogic relevance of cultures, traditions, histories, identities, and ancestral funds of knowledge and communities of practice representative of learners in classrooms globally. In doing so, scholars and teachers who wish to truly “reinvent the curriculum” will challenge particular hegemonic ways of knowledge production, validation, and dissemination, giving currency and legitimacy to diverse bodies and practices of knowledge that will ensure that students are able to identify with the curriculum in ways that empower, embolden, strengthen, and sustain them to become fully engaged in their educational pursuits, locally, and globally.


Biesta, G. J. J. & Tedder, M. (2006). How is agency possible? Towards an ecological understanding of agency-as-achievement. Working paper 5. Exeter: The Learning Lives Project.

Bruner, J. S. (1977). The process of education (2nd ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Emirbayer, M. & Mische, A. (1998). What is agency? The American Journal of Sociology, 103, 962–1023.

Gotz, N. (1997). Communication and instrumentalization. On a theory of sustainable development of collective identities (M. Dale, Trans.). Berlin: Humboldt University.

Habermas, J. (1987). The theory of communicative action. Vol. 2: Lifeworld and system: A critique of functional reason (T. McCarthy, Trans.). Boston: Beacon Press.

Rogers, C. R. (1969). Freedom to learn. Columbus, OH: Charles E. Merrill Publishing.

Sefa Dei, G.J. (Ed.). (2011). Indigenous philosophies and critical education: A reader. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 13, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17930, Date Accessed: 5/20/2022 10:46:06 PM

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About the Author
  • Brian Wright
    University of Memphis
    E-mail Author
    BRIAN WRIGHT, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Instruction & Curriculum Leadership in the College of Education, Health and Human Sciences at the University of Memphis. His research focuses on high achieving African American males in urban schools, racial-ethnic identity, teacher identity development, men of color as early childhood education teachers, and STEM.
  • Shelly Counsell
    University of Memphis
    E-mail Author
    SHELLY COUNSELL, EdD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Instruction & Curriculum Leadership in the College of Education, Health and Human Sciences at the University of Memphis. Her research focuses on inclusion, constructivism, social justice, diversity, and STEM.
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