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Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction

Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction

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by Ralph W. Tyler

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In 1949, a small book had a big impact on education. In just over one hundred pages, Ralph W. Tyler presented the concept that curriculum should be dynamic, a program under constant evaluation and revision. Curriculum had always been thought of as a static, set program, and in an era preoccupied with student testing, he offered the innovative idea that teachers and


In 1949, a small book had a big impact on education. In just over one hundred pages, Ralph W. Tyler presented the concept that curriculum should be dynamic, a program under constant evaluation and revision. Curriculum had always been thought of as a static, set program, and in an era preoccupied with student testing, he offered the innovative idea that teachers and administrators should spend as much time evaluating their plans as they do assessing their students.

Since then, Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction has been a standard reference for anyone working with curriculum development. Although not a strict how-to guide, the book shows how educators can critically approach curriculum planning, studying progress and retooling when needed. Its four sections focus on setting objectives, selecting learning experiences, organizing instruction, and evaluating progress. Readers will come away with a firm understanding of how to formulate educational objectives and how to analyze and adjust their plans so that students meet the objectives. Tyler also explains that curriculum planning is a continuous, cyclical process, an instrument of education that needs to be fine-tuned.
This emphasis on thoughtful evaluation has kept Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction a relevant, trusted companion for over sixty years. And with school districts across the nation working feverishly to align their curriculum with Common Core standards, Tyler's straightforward recommendations are sound and effective tools for educators working to create a curriculum that integrates national objectives with their students' needs.

Editorial Reviews

Times Higher Education

"Tyler addresses the essential purposes of teaching in a way that still has relevance for contemporary students of education, and communicates to them how important and timeless the quality of the pupil-teacher interaction actually is."

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Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction

By Ralph W. Tyler

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-08664-4



Many educational programs do not have clearly defined purposes. In some cases one may ask a teacher of science, of English, of social studies, or of some other subject what objectives are being aimed at and get no satisfactory reply. The teacher may say in effect that he aims to develop a well-educated person and that he is teaching English or social studies or some other subject because it is essential to a well-rounded education. No doubt some excellent educational work is being done by artistic teachers who do not have a clear conception of goals but do have an intuitive sense of what is good teaching, what materials are significant, what topics are worth dealing with and how to present material and develop topics effectively with students. Nevertheless, if an educational program is to be planned and if efforts for continued improvement are to be made, it is very necessary to have some conception of the goals that are being aimed at. 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.

But how are objectives obtained? Since they are consciously willed goals, that is, ends that are desired by the school staff, are they not simply matters of personal preference of individuals or groups? Is there any place for a systematic attack upon the problem of what objectives to seek?

It is certainly true that in the final analysis objectives are matters of choice, and they must therefore be the considered value judgments of those responsible for the school. A comprehensive philosophy of education is necessary to guide in making these judgments. And, in addition, certain kinds of information and knowledge provide a more intelligent basis for applying the philosophy in making decisions about objectives. If these facts are available to those making decisions, the probability is increased that judgments about objectives will be wise and that the school goals will have greater significance and greater validity. For this reason, a large part of the so-called scientific study of the curriculum during the past thirty years has concerned itself with investigations that might provide a more adequate basis for selecting objectives wisely. The technical literature of the curriculum field includes hundreds of studies that collected information useful to curriculum groups in selecting objectives.

Accepting the principle that investigations can be made which will provide information and knowledge useful in deciding about objectives, the question is then raised what sources can be used for getting information that will be helpful in this way. A good deal of controversy goes on between essentialists and progressives, between subject specialists and child psychologists, between this group and that school group over the question of the basic source from which objectives can be derived. The progressive emphasizes the importance of studying the child to find out what kinds of interests he has, what problems he encounters, what purposes he has in mind. The progressive sees this information as providing the basic source for selecting objectives. The essentialist, on the other hand, is impressed by the large body of knowledge collected over many thousands of years, the so-called cultural heritage, and emphasizes this as the primary source for deriving objectives. The essentialist views objectives as essentially the basic learnings selected from the vast cultural heritage of the past.

Many sociologists and others concerned with the pressing problems of contemporary society see in an analysis of contemporary society the basic information from which objectives can be derived. They view the school as the agency for helping young people to deal effectively with the critical problems of contemporary life. If they can determine what these contemporary problems are then the objectives of the school are to provide those knowledges, skills, attitudes, and the like that will help people to deal intelligently with these contemporary problems. On the other hand, the educational philosophers recognize that there are basic values in life, largely transmitted from one generation to another by means of education. They see the school as aiming essentially at the transmission of the basic values derived by comprehensive philosophic study and hence see in educational philosophy the basic source from which objectives can be derived.

The point of view taken in this course is that no single source of information is adequate to provide a basis for wise and comprehensive decisions about the objectives of the school. Each of these sources has certain values to commend it. Each source should be given some consideration in planning any comprehensive curriculum program. Hence, we shall turn to each of the sources in turn to consider briefly what kinds of information can be obtained from the source and how this information may suggest significant educational objectives.

Studies of the Learners Themselves as a Source of Educational Objectives

Education is a process of changing the behavior patterns of people. This is using behavior in the broad sense to include thinking and feeling as well as overt action. When education is viewed in this way, it is clear that educational objectives, then, represent the kinds of changes in behavior that an educational institution seeks to bring about in its students. A study of the learners themselves would seek to identify needed changes in behavior patterns of the students which the educational institution should seek to produce.

An investigation of children in the elementary school in a certain community may reveal dietary deficiency and inadequate physical condition. These facts may suggest objectives in health education and in social studies but they suggest objectives only when viewed in terms of some conception of normal or desirable physical condition. In a society which takes dietary deficiencies for granted, there would be little likelihood of inferring any educational objectives from such data. Correspondingly, studies of adolescence during the depression indicated that a considerable number were greatly pertrubed over the possibility that they would be unable to find work upon graduation. This does not automatically suggest the need for vocational guidance or occupational preparation. Studies of the learner suggest educational objectives only when the information about the learner is compared with some desirable standards, some conception of acceptable norms, so that the difference between the present condition of the learner and the acceptable norm can be identified. This difference or gap is what is generally referred to as a need.

There is another sense in which the term "need" is used in the psychological writings of Prescott, Murray, and others. They view a human being as a dynamic organism, an energy system normally in equilibrium between internal forces produced by the energy of the oxidation of food and external conditions. To keep the system in equilibrium it is necessary that certain "needs" be met. That is, certain tensions are produced which result in disequilibrium unless these tensions are relieved. In this sense every organism is continually meeting its needs, that is, reacting in such a way as to relieve these forces that bring about imbalance. In these terms one of the problems of education is to channel the means by which these needs are met so that the resulting behavior is socially acceptable, yet at the same time the needs are met and the organism is not under continuous, unrelieved tensions. Prescott classifies these needs into three types: physical needs such as the need for food, for water, for activity, for sex and the like; social needs such as the need for affection, for belonging, for status or respect from this social group; and integrative needs, the need to relate one's self to something larger and beyond one's self, that is, the need for a philosophy of life. In this sense all children have the same needs and it is the responsibility of the school as with every other social institution to help children to get these needs met in a way which is not only satisfying but provides the kind of behavior patterns that are personally and socially significant. A study of such needs in a given group of children would involve identifying those needs that are not being properly satisfied and an investigation of the role the school can play in helping children to meet these needs. This may often suggest educational objectives in the sense of indicating certain knowledge, attitudes, skills, and the like, the development of which would help children to meet these needs more effectively. These studies may also suggest ways in which the school can help to give motivation and meaning to its activities by providing means for children to meet psychological needs that are not well satisfied outside the school.

It is well to keep these two meanings of the term "needs" distinct so that they will not be confused in our discussion. The first use of the term represents a gap between some conception of a desirable norm, that is, some standard of philosophic value and the actual status. Need in this sense is the gap between what is and what should be. The other use of the term by some psychologists represents tensions in the organism which must be brought into equilibrium for a normal healthy condition of the organism to be maintained.

A large number of investigations has been carried on during the last ten or fifteen years to identify needs of students. Many of them use the term "need" in the first sense and have consisted essentially of studies aimed to find out the present status of students in terms of factors that are accepted as desirable norms. This information about the student is then compared with these norms and gaps identified in this way. Studies of needs in the psychological sense have also been conducted particularly by students of so-called "dynamic" psychology.

The argument for considering the needs of students as an important source for educational objectives runs somewhat as follows: The day-by-day environment of young people in the home and in the community generally provides a considerable part of the educational development of the student. It is unnecessary for the school to duplicate educational experiences already adequately provided outside the school. The school's efforts should be focused particularly upon serious gaps in the present development of students. Hence, studies that identify these gaps, these educational needs, are necessary studies to provide a basis for the selection of objectives which should be given primary emphasis in the school's program. Most of these studies will have two parts, first, finding the present status of the students, and second, comparing this status to acceptable norms in order to identfy the gaps or needs.

If a school is to make a comprehensive investigation of the needs of its students, several difficulties are encountered. In the first place, the needs of students may fall in any aspect of life. It is difficult to study all aspects of life simultaneously or in a single investigation. Hence, it is generally desirable to analyze life into some major aspects and investigate each of these major aspects in turn. For example, in studying the needs of children in a junior high school in Smithville the staff might profitably break down the investigation into the following phases: (1) health, (2) immediate social relationships, including life in the family and with friends and acquaintances, (3) socio-civic relationships, including the civic life of the school and the community, (4) the consumer aspects of life, (5) occupational life, and (6) recreational. These are not the only categories which might be used or are the necessarily the best, but they illustrate the division of all of the younster's life into aspects each of which can be investigated more conveniently. For each of these aspects of life, the investigation might properly include studies of the child's practices, knowledge and ideas, attitudes, interests, and the like. For example, in the case of health study, the investigation might go into such health practices as food habits, habits relating to rest and relaxation, habits of cleanliness, practices relating to safety and protection of the health of others, present health knowledge, and misconceptions students have about facts of health and hygiene, attitudes toward the importance of personal health and their responsibility for the protection of health of others, interests in learning more about the field of health. Investigations of this sort can give a great deal of information about the present status of children in the school so far as health is concerned. This information would then need to be compared with some set of desirable norms in order to identify serious gaps which in turn would suggest educational objectives.

In studying the needs of the learners, certain data will be found to be common to most children of that age level whether they live in one part of the country or another, whether they are rural or city children, whether they are of one social class or another. On the other hand, there are other facts which would vary quite markedly from one school to another and from one group in the school to another group. For example, the health habits and knowledge, the skills in reading, writing and mathematics, the knowledge of socio-civic affairs, and attitudes toward social institutions will vary markedly among schools. Hence, a school that is making an investigation will find it possible to draw upon general scientific studies for certain information about children of the age level concerned, but it will be necessary to supplement this general information by studies of the particular students within the particular school concerned, and in making these investigations it will often be necessary to recognize the varied composition in the student body representing the typical school. It is possible then to identify some needs that are common to most American children, other needs that are common to almost all of the children in the given school, and still other needs that are common to certain groups within the school but not common to a majority of the children in the school.

To get a clear picture of the needs of learners, I would suggest that you consider the school with which you are most familiar and that you outline particular investigations that could be carried on in that school to give you the kind of information about the needs of students which would throw some light on objectives for that school.

Another type of study of the learner, which demands particular consideration, is the investigation of students interests. A good deal of publicity has been given to the purported theory of progressive education that the primary basis for educational objectives is the interests of the learners themselves. According to this idea, children's interests must be identified so that they can serve as the focus of educational attention.

Probably no thoughtful proponent of progressive education ever advocated teaching students only the things in which they were at that moment interested, but the argument for using studies of student interests as a basis for objectives runs somewhat as follows: Education is an active process. It involves the active efforts of the learner himself. In general, the learner learns only those things which he does. If the school situations deal with matters of interest to the learner he will actively participate in them and thus learn to deal effectively with these situations. Furthermore, it is argued that the increasing effectiveness with which he handles present situations guarantees his ability to meet new situations as they arise. Hence, it is essential to see that education provides opportunities for the student to enter actively into, and to deal wholeheartedly with, the things which interest him, and in which he is deeply involved, and to learn particularly how to carry on such activities effectively.

There are many educators who do not consider attention to the present interest of students as an adequate educational program because one of the functions of education is to broaden and deepen the student's interest so that he will continue his education long after he has ended his formal school training. But even these educators recognize the value of beginning with present student interests as a point of departure. Hence, various groups conduct investigations of student interests to throw light upon the possible educational objectives of the school. Where these interests are desirable ones they provide the starting point for effective instruction. Where the interests are undesirable, narrow, limited or inadequate, they indicate gaps which need to be overcome if the student is to receive an effective education.


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Meet the Author

Ralph W. Tyler (1902–94) was professor of education and dean of the Division of the Social Sciences at the University of Chicago. He also served as founding director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences and chaired the committee that eventually developed the National Assessment of Educational Progress. 

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