Curriculum Orientations

Elliot Eisner’s 5 Orientations to Curriculum (Eisner, 1970):

Development of Cognitive Processes

  • major functions of school are to (1) help children learn how to learn and (2) provide children with opportunities to use and strengthen variety of intellectual processes
  • generally views mind as made up discrete and relatively independent abilities
  • emphasizes process over content
  • curriculum focus tends to be problem centered

Academic Rationalism

  • major function of school is to foster intellectual growth in subject areas that are most important
  • all children should be introduced to basic fields of study in order to find what they're good at and interested in
  • link with Idealist traditions — studying the "great books", etc.
  • develop people's rational abilities

Personal Relevance

  • emphasis on personal meaning
  • educational programs should be developed in collaboration with students
  • in order for school experience to be educational students must have a stake in what goes on
  • teacher's role is to provide enough structure and guidance for students to be productive
  • A. S. Neill was a proponent of this orientation

Social Adaptation and Social Reconstruction

  • derives aims and content from an analysis of the society in which school is situated
  • focus on addressing societal needs and issues
  • important to note that the Social Adaptation orientation is essentially conservative — serving the needs of various groups of society and maintaining the status quo
  • the Social Reconstruction orientation focuses on developing critical consciousness — controversial issues are a major focus — geared towards social action.

Curriculum as Technology

  • views curriculum planning as a technical task — a means-ends approach
  • accountability movement is representative of this orientation
  • Benjamin Bloom, Hilda Taba, Ralph Tyler, and John Dewey all advocated such an approach

In general, either one or a combination of these five orientations dominates teachers' and schools' approaches to curriculum. In order to clarify and create a consistent curricular approach, it is important to identify which of these orientations are important, the proceed to enact these approaches in a consistent manner.

This work by Elliot Eisner was quite significant in providing teachers and curriculum developers with insights into understanding curriculum. However, since that time, a great deal of change has occurred, including the emergence of new theories and understandings of curriculum. Although these five orientations are still quite evident in schools, we can add a few new possibilities to the list. The following list suggests new orientations that may involve some of the ideas embedded in Eisner’s five orientations.

Curriculum for Social and Political Control

  • This orientation has been added as a possible explanation for how curriculum is used as a political tool to control the population. Such control may include:
    • Not covering topics, issues, and skills to prevent children from acquiring such knowledge and skills.
    • Emphasizing particular knowledge content and skills or specific biased perspectives of such content and skills at the expense of other knowledge and skills.
    • Emphasizing coverage of many topics, so that the knowledge is fragmented and disconnected, so that most students are unable to develop meaningful and coherent understandings.
    • Pressures of testing and curriculum coverage in reading and mathematics, prevent many teachers from covering social studies, science, art, etc. in any depth. At the same time, inquiry, critical thinking, and creative thinking are not addressed, because of the time it takes to develop these skills.

Curriculum as Emergent

  • Emergent curricula may be related to Eisner's "Personal Relevance" orientation in that such curricula are grounded in the notion of relevance. However, the emergent curriculum is further characterized as:
    • Curriculum that arises or extends from students' interests, concerns, and questions.
    • Although a particular topic may be initiated by the teacher, the curriculum unfolds from the dynamic interaction among students’ and the teacher in response to emergent questions, concerns, and interests.
    • The focus is on developing in-depth, meaningful, and relevant understandings.

Curriculum for Complex Understandings and Thinking

  • The development of complex understandings and thinking focuses on concepts and patterns that are important within and across subject matter areas, as well as within personal experiences and cultural traditions.
  • This orientation may overlap with or incorporate aspects of Eisner's orientations of Personal Relevance, Development of Cognitive Processes, Academic Rationalism, and Social Reconstruction. In addition, this orientation may incorporate aspects of Emergent Curriculum, Curriculum for Democracy, Curriculum for Social Justice, and Project-Based curricular orientations.

Curriculum Education for Democracy

  • Curriculum for Democracy is associated to some degree with Eisner's Social Reconstruction orientation.
  • The focus of this orientation can be (a) on involving students in participating in democratic communities in and out of the classroom and/or (b) on learning about democracy, including thinking critically about issues facing democratic societies.

Curriculum for Social Justice

  • Curriculum for Social Justice also is related to Eisner's Social Reconstruction orientation.
  • The focus is on critical issues involved in the equitable treatment and opportunities for all people in one’s society and in societies around the world.

Project-Based Curriculum

  • Project-Based curriculum involves some aspects of Eisner's Personal Relevance and Cognitive Processes orientations.
  • The focus is on engaging students in working towards relevant and meaningful goals while involved in authentic projects.
  • Projects are generally small group or whole class projects.


  • Eisner, E. W. (1970). The educational imagination: On the design and evaluation of school programs. New York: Macmillan.
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