This is not a review. These are my notes from reading Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction by Ralph W. Tyler (U. Chicago Press 1949, 128pp.)

How I found it

Brian’s reference led me to this post by Grant Wiggins. Tyler comes in at the bottom, but it turns out Wiggins writes about Tyler a lot. You can get a lot of what follows just from reading those Wiggins links, but it was fun for me to go to the source. Here’s what I found.


The book describes curriculum planning as a process of answering four questions:

  1. What are the right objectives?
  2. What learning experiences are likely to attain those objectives?
  3. How to effectively organize (sequence) those experiences?
  4. How to evaluate those experiences?

He doesn’t answer them directly but outlines very wide-ranging considerations to use when approaching the answers. Every educational philosophy, trend, and approach I can think of sits neatly somewhere in the framework he lays out.

What I’m taking from it

The things that are sticking with me appear early in the book:

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 obtained over many thousands of years, the so-called cultural heritage, and emphasizes this as the primary source for deriving objectives…. 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…. 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…. 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. -pp. 4-5

I tend to get identified with one point of view at a time, then suddenly agonize about what I’m not doing. This helped me realize that all these points of view are legitimate and there’s room for all of them in the curriculum, though maybe not all of them at all times. I can relax and think about how to keep them all involved in my teaching overall. Maybe as I get stronger you’ll be able to see more of them in each individual day.

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 perceived in this way, it is clear that educational objectives, then, represent the kinds of changes in behavior patterns of the students which the educational institution should seek to produce. -p.5

This quote didn’t really mean something to me until I’d read the rest of the book, but it sticks with me on three levels. On the shallowest level, this helped me move from “skills vs. content?” to “use skills on content.” Tyler recommends a 2D matrix with behaviors on one axis and content on another. So in the Algebra II planning I’m doing for next year with colleagues, we’ve come up with a chart of 26 skills by 5-7 function families. Together these make a year’s worth of daily objectives; it’s what most people think of as “Algebra II”.

The second level is more broad behaviors, or as Wiggins says, “use content well”. For me this is something like “Given some data, make a prediction.” It’s the broad skill of identifying and then using a functional relationship to answer a question. Can you do that and explain it verbally and in writing? This is what our Algebra II course is about. So the matrix is predict, write, present predictions vs. linear, quadratic, exponential etc.

The third level is life skills – what we learn to do in math that helps us everywhere. I took a stab at defining these for myself here, but haven’t made those goals an explicit part of my instruction. Yet. More soon.