Creative Education
2012. Vol.3, No.8, 1311-1319
Published Online December 2012 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 1311
The Evolution of Curriculum Development in the Context of
Increasing Social and Environmental Complexity
Richard Plate
Department of Forest Resources and Conservation, University of Florida, Gainesville, USA
Received October 2nd, 2012; revised November 4th, 2012; accepted November 18th, 2012
The history of curriculum development has been characterized and a series of “crises” with the pendulum
shifting between traditionalists’ call for getting back to the basics and the progressives’ focus on the
learner. However, tracing this history, one can see a common theme in the criticisms expressed by both
parties: the failure of the existing curriculum to meet the demands presented by an increasingly complex
society. I follow this theme in order to provide historical context for contemporary calls by scientists and
educators for wider use of systems-oriented curricula (i.e. curricula designed to improve systems thinking)
at primary, secondary, and tertiary levels of education. With this context, one can view these current calls
not as a radical shift of direction, but as a logical next stage in the evolution of curriculum. I conclude
with a call for more research assessing the effectiveness of systems-oriented instruction and provide
guidelines for enhancing the usefulness of such research in the current United States system.
Keywords: History of Curriculum Development; Systems Thinking; Complexity
One can hardly believe there has been a revolution in all
history so rapid, so extensive, so complete. Through it the
face of the earth is making over, even as to its physical
forms; political boundaries are wiped out and moved
about, as if they were indeed only lines on a paper map;
population is hurriedly gathered into cities from the ends
of the earth; habits of living are altered with startling
abruptness and thoroughness; the search for the truths of
nature is infinitely stimulated and facilitated, and their ap-
plication to life made not only practicable, but comer-
cially necessary (John Dewey).
In his 2006 State of the Union address, George W. Bush an-
nounced his new educational program, the American Competi-
tiveness Initiative, committing over $136 billion over the next
ten years “to encourage innovation throughout our economy”
(Bush, 2006). A US Department of Education (D.O.E.) report,
titled Meeting the Challenge of a Changing World: Strengthen-
ing Education for the 21st Century, explains the administra-
tion’s view of “innovation”:
To Americans, innovation means much more than the lat-
est gadget. It means creating a more productive, prosper-
ous, mobile and healthy society. Innovation fuels our way
of life and improves our quality of life. And its wellspring
is education. (US D.O.E., 2006: p. 3)
Educator David W. Orr has sharply criticizes Americans’
view of innovation, what he calls “technological fundamental-
ism”—a “kind of technological immune deficiency syndrome
that renders us vulnerable to whatever can be done and too
weak to question what it is that we should do” (2002: p. 63).
Nonetheless, Orr would likely find much to agree with in the
above characterization, for he aims his criticisms specifically at
Americans’ focus on the latest gadget and the general disregard
for a more healthy society. In Orr’s words, Americans favor
“innovations that produce fast wealth, whatever their ecological
or human effects... on long-term prosperity” and neglect inno-
vations “having to do with human survival” (2002: p. 69).
Both Bush and Orr cite the need for education to respond to
the changing global situation. The difference is a matter of
focus. For the current Bush administration, a more productive,
prosperous, and healthy society implies the need to graduate
students who are prepared to compete in a global market and
maintain a high level of national security. While Orr acknowl-
edges the importance of enabling individuals “to compete more
favorably in the global economy”, he suggests that there are
“better reasons to rethink education” (1994: p. 26)—among
them, the challenges of stabilizing world population, reducing
greenhouse gas emissions, protecting biodiversity, and manag-
ing renewable resources sustainably. In short, Orr explains,
students today “must begin the great work of repairing as much
as possible, the damage done to the earth in the past 200 years
of industrialization” (1994: p. 26).
For Bush, a renewed focus in science and math represents the
best way to meet current educational challenges; for Orr, the
most important curriculum change involves using environ-
mental lessons to integrate school subjects, turning them into a
cohesive whole and producing ecologically literate graduates.
With these suggestions, both Bush and Orr echo a charge made
often during the history of curriculum development in the USA:
our schools do not adequately prepare their students to meet the
demands of contemporary society. Reasons cited for this failure
can be put into two broad categories. One, a critic may find the
educational theory to be lacking. That is, new research on edu-
cation or cognitive development may have produced findings
that point toward new developments in curriculum. And two,
the educational context—that is, the demands placed upon stu-
dents by society—may have changed, necessitating a corre-
sponding change in curriculum. These categories are not mutu-
ally exclusive. In practice critics of curriculum often cite some
combination of the two.
The focus of this article favors the second category. My ar-
gument is not that conventional curricula used at primary, sec-
ondary, and tertiary levels of education are fundamentally
wrong. Rather, I believe, along with Bush and Orr, that conven-
tional curriculum does not prepare students for the new chal-
lenges they will face as a result of industrialization and, more
recently, globalization. In this article I review how the needs of
both the individual and the society have shifted over the last
century and trace the response to these shifts in curriculum
A brief note on terminology is in order. The field of curricu-
lum development has come to mean something significantly
different from its original meaning. In the seminal text The
Curriculum Franklin Bobbitt offers two definitions for curricu-
lum: “1) it is the entire range of experience, both undirected and
directed, concerned in unfolding the abilities of the individual;
or 2) it is the series of consciously directed training experiences
that the schools use for completing and perfecting the unfold-
ment” (1918: 43, quoted in Jackson, 1992: p. 7). Bobbitt ex-
plains, “Our profession uses the term usually in the latter sense”
(1918: p. 43, quoted in Jackson, 1992: p. 7). More recently, the
field of curriculum development (or simply curriculum) has
been broadened to include investigations into the former defini-
tion, focusing on the “hidden curriculum” (i.e. implicit lessons
that students receive during their educational experience). Thus
contemporary studies in the curriculum often analyze the school
experience in terms of gender, race, or politics, just to name a
few. While this is a rich area of research, I will confine the
present discussion to the latter definition, staying, as Phillip
Jackson describes “within the single tradition of curriculum
specialist as advice giver to practitioners” (1992: p. 27).
Efforts regarding this more narrow view of curriculum de-
velopment have been criticized for lacking historical perspec-
tive (Bellack, 1969; Davis, 1976; Moore et al., 1997). Veteran
educators, having over the course of their careers seen countless
educational fads move in and out of fashion, have perhaps
earned the skepticism with which they often view new educa-
tional techniques and tools. As one contemporary educational
theorist admits in the introduction of his text on a new theory,
“The promise of a new educational theory… has the magnetism
of a newspaper headline like ‘Small Earthquake in Chile: Few
Hurt’” (Egan, 1997: p. 2). Fortunately, I am not trying to intro-
duce a new educational theory here. My objective is much more
humble: to point out a specific shortcoming common in con-
temporary curricula in our public schools and universities and
to suggest systems-oriented instruction as a promising tool for
correcting that shortcoming.
In the following section, I provide a general history of cur-
riculum development in the USA since the end of the nine-
teenth century. From this context, Section 3 emphasizes spe-
cific aspects of curriculum change and describes its relationship
with social change. In Section 4, I describe contemporary social
challenges and discuss how systems-oriented instruction, as a
reasonable next step in the evolution of curriculum, might ad-
dress these challenges.
A Short History of Crises in US Education
In The Saber-Toothed Curriculum Harold Benjamin (1939)
tells the story of a Paleolithic educational system. In this par-
ticular tribe schools focused on three skills that were crucial
for their young people to learn: fish-grabbing, horse-clubbing,
and tiger-scaring. The first skill provided food, the second pro-
vided both food and skins, and the third was a matter of safety.
Under this system, the young people were taught the skills they
needed to prosper in the future and to help the entire tribe
prosper in the future as well.
There is no shortage of reported crises in the history of cur-
riculum design in this country. The first came at the turn of the
twentieth century. For most of the nineteenth century American
educators emphasized the traditional Latin and Greek curricula
of the classics. The field of faculty psychology (also called
mental discipline) provided the scientific foundation for these
traditional curricula. Proponents of faculty psychology viewed
the mind as a muscle to be exercised by memorization and
recitation (Pinar et al., 1995: pp. 71-73). Often cited by cur-
riculum history scholars, The Yale Report on the Defense of the
Classics expresses the motivation behind much of the tradi-
tional curriculum: “Familiarity with the Greek and Roman
writers is especially adapted to form the taste, and to discipline
the mind, both in thought and diction… It must be obvious
even to the most cursory observer, that the classics afford mate-
rials to exercise talent of every degree” (Yale Report, 1828: pp.
Nineteenth century critics voiced their objection to the tradi-
tional curriculum on two fronts. First, the choice of curriculum
was cited as evidence of an over-emphasis by public high
schools on college preparation. At its outset American public
education was designed to give all of its citizens an equal op-
portunity to education. The traditional curriculum, critics charg ed,
failed to address the needs of students not bound for college—a
group that in the 1889-1890 school year comprised 85% of
American high school students (Meyer, 1967: p. 405, Tanner &
Tanner, 1990: p. 68). This problem worsened as enrollment in
city schools skyrocketed due to large waves of immigrants and
the general trend toward urbanization (Cremin, 1961: p. 20;
Ornstein & Levin, 2000: p. 152). School was no longer just for
the elite; it was for the masses. As such, it was subject to criti-
cisms of practicability.
Secondly, the focus on memorization and recitation was seen
as responsible for shortcomings in students’ basic reasoning
skills. As a result, Americans were seen as particularly suscep-
tible to persuasive rhetoric. Charles Eliot, the president of Har-
vard at the turn of the century and a leading curriculum scholar,
argued that the traditional curriculum would not “protect a man
or woman…from succumbing to the first plausible deduction or
sophism he or she may encounter” (Eliot, 1892: pp. 75-76). He
continued, “One is fortified against the acceptance of unrea-
sonable propositions only by skill in determining facts through
observation and experience, by practice in composing facts or
groups of facts, and by the unvarying habit of questioning and
verifying allegations” (Eliot, 1892: pp. 75-76). Other leading
scholars of the period expressed fear that most Americans were
being educated by the “cheap newspapers” that were shaping
public opinion “via the emotional appeal of sensational events”
(Tanner & Tanner, 1990: p. 91)1.
By the turn of the century the work of Edward L. Thorndike,
who is credited with the rise of experimental psychology in
education, had discredited faculty psychology, taking away the
traditionalists’ scientific foundation (Cremin, 1961; Pinar et al.,
1995). However, Tanner and Tanner (1990) suggest that a more
1See also Cremin (1971).
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s.
powerful force of change was at work as well. They explain
that the traditional curriculum, as well as faculty psychology,
“had originally evolved to serve an aristocratic society and, in
addition to being absolutely unfounded from a scientific stand-
point, it did not meet the new social and industrial demands of a
democratic society. These demands, rather than the findings of
experimental psychology, proved to be the most powerful ar-
gument against mental discipline” (1990: p. 110). As a result of
this failure, in 1900 the vast majority of students (almost 90%)
enrolled in public schools dropped out before graduating high
school, citing a lack of need for what was being taught (Tanner
& Tanner, 1990: p. 72)2.
The result of the criticism and public dissatisfaction was a
broadening of the curriculum and a shift of emphasis toward the
learner. Classical studies gave way to contemporary and voca-
tional studies, and it was in this context, during the first few
decades of the twentieth century, that John Dewey’s progres-
sive ideas of education came to exert more influence on cur-
riculum. The focus shifted from classical materials and lan-
guages to meeting the individualized needs of the student. This
shift is evidenced in catch phrases like “the needs of learners,”
“teaching children, not subjects,” and “adjusting the school to
the child” (Cremin, 1961: p. 328).
In addition to bringing the learner into focus, this period also
saw a new emphasis on the connection between education and
the welfare of society as a whole. More specifically, Lester
Frank Ward—and later Dewey—proclaimed the potential for a
school system to create social change (Pinar et al., 1995: p.
104). Many educational reformists believed that the industriali-
zation of society not only created a demand for a skilled public,
but also “had dissolved the fabric of community leaving alien-
ation in its wake” (Cremin, 1961: p. 60). In this context the role
of school broadened to include preparing students not only for a
career, but also for understanding their career in the context of
the larger social system3. A statement from the oft-cited 1917
National Education Association (NEA) report, “The Cardinal
Principles of Secondary Education,” illustrates how the inclu-
sion of both the individual student and the larger connections to
society had become part of the institutionalized focus of educa-
tion: “Education in a democracy…should develop in each indi-
vidual the knowledge, interests, ideals, habits, and powers
whereby he will find his place and use that place to shape both
himself and society toward ever nobler ends” (1918: p. 157).
This shift of focus met with its own set of critics who be-
lieved that the progressive influence was making education soft,
ultimately depriving students of a sound background in basic
lessons. Such criticism came to a head after the end of World
War II, energized by new concerns regarding communist ex-
pansion and the rise of the Soviet Union. These concerns com-
bined with budgeting problems brought about by the war, ram-
pant inflation, and ever-increasing industrial demands for a
trained, intelligent workforce to usher in “the deepest educa-
tional crisis in the nation’s history” (Cremin, 1961: p. 339).
Numerous texts, including Bernard Iddings Bell’s Crisis in
Education (1949) and Arthur Bestor’s Educational Wastelands
(1953), accused education of misplaced emphasis on social and
emotional matters to the detriment of fundamental, academic
skills. Curriculum scholar Hilda Taba suggested, “Public edu-
cation today is facing a crisis which may be deeper and more
fundamental than any preceding one” (1962: p. 1).
The launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik in 1957 galvanized
concerns regarding Soviet supremacy over the USA, reinforc-
ing the back-to-the-basics attitude in school and placing science
education at the center of concern. Congress responded with the
National Defense Education Act (NDEA) in 1958, directing
federal funding to improve science and mathematics curricula
and increase opportunities for exceptional students seeking
training in critical scientific fields4. The National Academy of
Sciences organized a conference at Woods Hole in Cape Cod,
gathering together leading psychologists, scientists, and mathe-
maticians to discuss how best to help American students be-
come the scientific leaders of the future. Jerome Bruner, chair
of the conference, published the results in the physically unas-
suming book, The Process of Education (1953).
Weighing in at ninety-two pages, The Process of Education
is widely viewed as the most influential curriculum text of its
time (Tanner & Tanner, 1980; Willis et al., 1993; Pinar et al.,
1995; Marshal et al., 2000), during a period referred to as “one
of the largest and most sustained educational reform move-
ments in American history” (Silberman, 1970: p. 158). Bruner
devoted the opening two chapters to the importance of teaching
the “structure of the disciplines,” meaning basic concepts re-
garding each subject (e.g. chemistry, language, mathematics).
This phrase—and indeed the whole text—was understood by
back-to-the-basics proponents as supporting the need for a rig-
idly defined discipline-centered curriculum. Richard Hofstadter
(1963) even stretched Bruner’s ideas to support Hofstadter’s
own arguments for a resurgence of faculty psychology. While
Bruner’s ideas are at times overly rigid5, Marshal et al. point
out, “To be fair, Bruner’s ideas were far more complex than the
manner in which they were eventually employed” (2000: p. 57).
We will revisit the complexity of Bruner’s ideas later in the
For all of its influence, Bruner’s strict, top-down system of
curriculum development did not match the 1960s trend toward
liberation. By 1969, educators had come to associate the top-
down curriculum with “the military-industrial complex, patri-
archal hierarchies, heterosexual orthodoxies and conventional
wisdom,” (Marshal, 2000: p. 92), to which they had become
resistant. As a result, they pushed for a more responsive cur-
riculum, giving rise to what Pinar et al. characterize as a “crisis
of meaning” (1995: p. 188). Charles Silberman’s (1970) widely
read indictment of education Crisis in the Classroom helped to
usher in a new stage of curriculum development—humanistic
reform. Silberman argued that “schools can be genuinely con-
cerned with gaiety and joy and individual growth and fulfil-
3In Democracy and Social Ethics, Jane Addams provides many examples o
how the industrial work could be humanized by providing future workers
with a broader perspective of the system. For example, she explains, “It
takes thirty-nine people to make a coat in a modern tailoring establishment,
yet those same thirty-nine people might produce a coat in a spirit of ‘team
work’ whi ch would make th e entire proces s as much mor e exhil arating than
the work of the old solitary tailor” ( 1902: p. 219).
4The current Bush administration cites the success of this program as a
model for the A merican Competitiveness Initia tive (US D.O.E., 2006: p. 4).
5In addit ion to being ass oci ated wit h a back -t o-t he-
asics movement, Bruner
is also criticized for removing the curriculum specialist and teacher from the
rocess of curriculum development. The almost total absence of teachers
and curriculum specialists at the Woods Hole conference lends credence to
this critici s m.
2Kliebard (1995) reports of a 1913 survey of child laborers in Chicago.
Helen M. Tood, a factory inspector asked 500 children working in the facto-
ries if they would prefer to be in school if their families could afford it.
Kliebard explains, “Of the 500,412 told her, sometimes in graphic terms,
that they preferred the often-grueling factory labor to the monotony, hu-
miliation, and even sheer cruelty that they experienced in school” (6).
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 1313
ment without sacrificing concern for intellectual discipline and
development” (1970: p. 208). It was in this context that the
Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development enti-
tled their 1970 yearbook To Nurture Humaneness and devoted
it to how to remain humane in the midst of the broad social
changes that were taking place. In one chapter of the yearbook,
Francis S. Chase identifies several types of knowledge needed
in order to develop “in the individual those capabilities believed
to be distinctively human,” including “knowledge of self,”
“knowledge of others,” and “knowledge of the evolution and
functioning of institutions” (pp. 98-100). Other curriculum texts
of the period (e.g. Weinsten and Fantini’s (1971) Toward Hu-
manistic Education)—exhibit a similar focus on personalizing
the curriculum, teaching students to retain their sense of hu-
manity despite the pressures of modern society.
But this focus on humaneness did not last for long. By the
1980s the USA’s global economic dominance was diminishing,
and just as critics of the 1950s blamed lack of educational rigor
for the USA falling behind in the space race, 1980s critics cited
lack of educational rigor for the USA’s waning economic po-
wer. In 1983 the National Commission on Excellence in Educa-
tion, appointed by the Reagan administration, published A Na-
tion at Risk, accusing educators of “losing sight of the basic
purpose of education” and squandering “the gains in student
achievement made in the wake of the Sputnik challenge” (Na-
tional Commission on Excellence in Education 1983: p. 1)6.
Authors of the report call for a return to the core subjects that
had been neglected as a result of schools attempting to provide
“solutions to personal, social, and political problems” (National
Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983: p. 1).
While many have since challenged the evidence used (Ber-
liner & Bingman, 1997) or the conclusions drawn (e.g. Willis et
al., 1993; US Department of Education, 1986) in A Nation at
Risk, no one denies its broad impact on schools and curriculum.
First, it served to widen the gap between the field of curriculum
and the development of “consciously directed training experi-
ences.”7 Second, it brought ideas like educational assessment
and school/teacher accountability to the center of the conversa-
tion about US schools. These topics have retained their central
position through to the present, but while many decry the cur-
rent focus on standardized tests as the sine qua non of educa-
tional assessment, contemporary texts on curriculum develop-
ment still include a combination of progressive and traditional
themes. For example, Arthur K. Ellis divides Exemplars of
Education (2004) into chapters on “Learner-Centered Curricu-
lum,” “Society-Centered Curriculum,” and “Knowledge-Cen-
tered Curriculum,” echoing the historical themes of curriculum
development. In the next section, I will identify an additional
theme—the co-adaptive curriculum—in order to place systems-
oriented instruction within the history just discussed.
The Co-Adaptive Curriculum
With the Paleolithic educational system conveying the three
most important skills—fishgrabbing-with-bare-hands, woolly-
horse-clubbing, and tiger-scaring-with-fire—the tribe pros-
pered for many years withfish or meat for food,” “hides for
clothing,” andsecurity from the hairy death.” Benjamin ex-
plains, “It is to be supposed that all would have gone well for-
ever with this good educational system if conditions of life in
that community had remained the same forever” (1939: p. 33).
However, the tribe did so well that after generations of fish-
grabbing, the slow fish available for grabbing had all been
eaten, leaving only the faster, more alert fish. And after gen-
erations of horse-clubbing, the small woolly horses available
for clubbing had left and been replaced by shy and speedy an-
telopes that could smell attackers long before they were within
a clubs reach. The saber-toothed tigers had become extinct
(due to reasons unrelated to the scaring itself) and were re-
placed by bears that were not as easily repe lle d with fire as the
tigers were.
In The Child and the Curriculum, John Dewey (1902) de-
scribes two camps of thought regarding education—those who
support a traditional core curriculum and those who support
changing the curriculum to better reflect the interests of the
child. After describing each of these positions for several pages,
Dewey notes, “Such oppositions are rarely carried to their logi-
cal conclusion” (1902: p. 15). While Dewey is famous for his
ideas regarding educational reform, he recognized that the di-
vide between traditionalists and reformists is not absolute.
Dewey continues, “Common-sense recoils at the extreme char-
acter of each of these results. They are left to the theorists,
while common-sense vibrates back and forward in a maze of
inconsistent compromise” (1902: p. 15). This understanding
should be kept in mind when interpreting the above history of
crises. A key theme runs throughout the ebb and flow between
progressivism and traditionalism: the attempt to adjust educa-
tion to meet the needs of an increasingly complex society.
Before tracing the history of this theme in curriculum devel-
opment, let us pause for a moment to reflect on what meeting
the needs of modern society means. The systems concepts of
bi-directional causality and scale may be useful here for under-
standing the nature of this challenge. Figure 1 shows a two-
by-two matrix, illustrating four distinct aspects of meeting so-
A. Abilitytounderstand
B. Abilitytomeet
A. Personalskillsfor
B. Skillsfor
A. Abilitytoforge
B. Inclinationtoward
A. Abilitytoperceive/
B. Abilitytoprovide
Individual Social
one’s sense of
6George Willis et al. (1993) note a key difference between this and the
post-Sputnik efforts of the 1960s: “In that era the federal government began
to supply large amounts of funding for schools; in the 1980s, in contrast, the
federal government placed responsibility for funding educational reforms on
state and local governments while at the same time reducing the overall
level of revenues it dis persed to stat es and local communities” (401).
7Recall this term from Bobbit’s duality explained in the opening of this
chapter. In the 1970s and 1980s the field of curriculum moved away from
lanning the classroom experience and focused instead on understanding
aspects of the “hidden” or unofficial curriculum. This scholarship involves
deconstruction of the curriculum in order to identify hidden power relation-
ships with an eye toward, for example, feminist, racial, and literary theory
(e.g. Pinar, 1998; McCarthy & Crichlow, 2005). Figure 1.
The co-adaptive relationship between education and society.
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s.
ciety’s needs. Quadrants I and II illustrate the how society in-
fluences education. On the individual scale, schools are sup-
posed to develop in students those skills necessary for em-
ployment and for dealing with the challenges of everyday life8.
On a social level, this function may translate into a number of
educational goals, from meeting community or national occu-
pational needs to creating a voting public able to understand the
political and social concerns of the day9. In quadrants III and IV
the arrow of influence is reversed. In this context, schools are
expected to produce students who have the ability to take a
proactive role in defining both their own identity within society
and redefining society to meet future unforeseen needs.
Scholars may argue about where the proper balance lies in
meeting these goals, but most would agree that all four are nec-
essary to some degree. Quadrants I and II serve immediately
practical goals of meeting current individual and social chal-
lenges and provide social cohesion, while quadrants III and IV
enable society to grow, for each generation to find its own
truths within the context of the truths it has learned. I have used
the term co-adaptive in describing the curriculum to emphasize
this dual nature. Responding to society’s needs does not simply
mean molding the individual to fit society; it must also include
developing individuals who can help to mold society.
Using this model, one can trace the theme of meeting soci-
ety’s changing needs through the history of curriculum devel-
opment crises. Even in the Yale Report of 1828, the argument
for retaining the classic Latin and Greek curricula was ex-
pressed as more than a historical appreciation for our cultural
heritage. Classic texts were presented as the most useful means
of providing students with “the discipline and the furniture of
the mind” (Italics in original text: 28)—i.e., providing student
with thinking skills such as “the art of fixing the attention, di-
recting the train of thought, analyzing a subject proposed for
investigation” (p. 28). The focus here was on the development
of the individual—quadrants I and III. While the Yale Report
might be considered more readily connected to quadrant III (e.g.
creating a civilized society as measured by knowledge of clas-
sic texts) than to quadrant I, the report’s authors contended that
skills acquired in the classic curricula could be generalized and
applied to modern challenges. This report has been criticized
not for its focus on thinking skills, but for its contention that
these skills could be best developed by memorizing passages of
classic texts. That is, critics agreed with the central importance
of improving students thinking skills, but argued that the classic
curricula were almost entirely divorced from the skills required
in an industrializing nation of the 1890s.
This same criticism lies at the heart of both the turn of the
century crisis that resulted in the rise of progressive education
and the post WWII crisis that saw the fall of progressivism.
Taba characterizes the difference between these two crises,
noting that while the “criticisms of the1890s flailed against
formalism, hard discipline, [and] narrowness of education,”
1950s critics faulted schools “for their softness, anti-intellectu-
alism, progressivism, egalitarianism, [and] a lack of emphasis
on fundamentals and academic skills” (1962: p. 2). But she
explains that both crises were “caused by the transforming ef-
fects of technology and science on society, with criticism fo-
cusing on the failure of the schools to solve the problems cre-
ated by that transformation” (1962: pp. 1-2). Similarly, Cremin
suggests in 1955, “As in the period between 1893 and 1918,
new social and intellectual currents are calling for new educa-
tional outlooks” (1955: p. 308). Just as traditionalists of the
nineteenth century had failed to adapt to contemporary needs,
the progressives of the mid-twentieth century “failed to keep
pace with the continuing transformation of American society
(Cremin, 1961: p. 351). Tanner and Tanner echo this sentiment,
citing the progressives’ “inability to recognize social change”
(1990: p. 262) as a primary reason for their decline.
The NEA’s 1918 report (quoted earlier)10 illustrates how this
theme of adjustment to modern needs came to be emphasized
on both individual and social scales. The focus on shaping both
the individual and society “toward ever nobler ends” demon-
strates the inclusion of quadrants III and IV in the NEA’s view
of education. Dewey’s writing during this period also empha-
sizes the inclusion of the social scale. Indeed, an emphasis on
the impact that education can have on social development, as
well as on the connections between individual and social wel-
fare, stands as a defining contribution of Dewey’s progressive
ideas (e.g. Dewey, 1902, 1916). While many scholars empha-
size the stark differences between the progressivism before
WWII and the return to a more structured core curriculum post-
Sputnik, a close evaluation of the dominant texts of the late
1950s shows a continuation of this same theme of individual
and social adjustment to meet the challenges arising from a
more complex soci ety.
Smith, Stanley, and Shores’ (1957) synoptic text Fundamen-
tals of Curriculum Development provides a good example, not
only because it was highly influential, but because their de-
scription of the social challenges of the day appear no less
relevant half a century later. Their discussion rests on the
premise that “the progress of science and technology has been
attended by far-reaching cultural changes, which have created
grave social problems” (p. 25). The authors develop this idea
with a detailed account of how specialization—“minute divi-
sion of labor” (p. 32)—has paradoxically increased both social
interdependence and individual isolation—the former because
nothing gets produced without a team effort and the latter be-
cause “each individual carries around in his head a specialized
picture of society, representing but a fragment of the total social
pattern” (p. 32). Devoting a little space early on to bemoaning
the changes at hand, the authors proceed to describe the need
for “a new common sense,” better suited for the realities of the
day, and they are clear about the role of education in meeting
this need:
It is the obligation of those who are responsible for cur-
riculum building to provide opportunities for children,
young people, and adults to engage in the common task of
rebuilding ideas and attitudes so as to make them valid for
the purpose of social judgment and action in a period
dominated by the complex web of impersonal relations.
(pp. 52-53)
8Philosopher Richard Rorty explains, “Even ardent radicals, for all their tal
of ‘education for freedom’, secretly hope that the elementary schools will
teach the k ids to wai t their turn in lin e, not to s hoot up in the johns , to obey
the cop on the corner, and to spell, punctuate, multiply, and divide” (1999: p
9Large scale social norms, such as valuing the tenets of a democratic gov-
ernment, might also fit into this quadrant, but would overlap into quadrant
10“Education in a democracy…should develop in each individual the know-
ledge, interests, ideals, habits, and powers whereby he will find his place
and use that place to shape both himself and society toward ever nobler
ends” (Department of the Interior, 1908: p. 157).
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 1315
The focus here is clearly in quadrant II. And perhaps more
importantly, the focus is on item A of this quadrant, a signifi-
cant distinction given the charges that curriculum development
during this period was focused too narrowly on the USA’s need
for future scientists in order to compete technologically with
the Soviet Union (i.e. focus on item IIB).
Such a characterization is overly simplistic. Even texts fo-
cused on the nation’s occupational needs viewed the challenge
more broadly. The 1958 Rockefeller Report, Education and the
Future of America—after describing social changes similar to
those identified by Smith et al. (1957)—emphasizes the need
for more future scientists, but the authors explain that the chal-
lenge lies not in filling shortages in one or two occupations, but
something more inclusive: “It is not a shortage now of engi-
neers, now of economists, that lies at the root of the problem. It
is the constant pressure of an ever more complex society
against the total creative capacity of its people” (Italics in
original: 10). The upshot of this constant pressure is clear:
“Among the tasks that have increased most frighteningly in
complexity is the task of the ordinary citizen who wishes to dis-
charge his civic responsibilities intelligent l y” (p. 11).
If the curriculum crisis of the 1950s was brought about by
the difficulty in understanding the new social complexities of
the time, then the 1970s crisis was a matter of retaining a sense
of personal connection to others amidst those complexities. The
sense of individual isolation described by Smith et al. (1957)
had increased, and curriculum scholars sought to address the
problem in an affective context. Introducing the 1970 yearbook
for the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Develop-
ment, Scobey and Graham express their interest in “educating
for humaneness during the so-called ‘human revolution,’ the
‘technological revolution,’ and the ‘revolution of expanding
knowledge’ now in progress” (1970). Like Smith et al. (1957),
contributors to Scobey and Graham (1970) identify widespread
changes in society and suggest ways to adjust curriculum to
best aid students in meeting new demands brought about by
those changes. In terms of the educational needs model in Fig-
ure 1, attention shifted from quadrants I and II to quadrant III.
But this shift was short-lived. The US Department of Educa-
tion’s 1983 report A Nation at Risk quickly steered the discus-
sion of educational objectives back to quadrants I and II. Most
of the attention received by this report has focused on the
enormous influence it had on assessment and accountability in
education, but the authors’ expression of the social needs of the
time is more pertinent to the current discussion. In the context
of quadrant I, the authors explain that in an age of globalization,
Americans are not only competing against other Americans, but
against a global pool of potential employees and businesses. As
a result, “individuals in our society who do not possess the
levels of skill, literacy, and training essential to this new era
will be effectively disenfranchised” (1983: p. 2). As before,
technology fuels this new era, “penetrating every aspect of our
lives” and “transforming a host of … occupations” (1983: p. 3).
And again, the civic importance of curriculum reform is high-
lighted: “For our country to function, citizens must be able to
reach some common understandings on complex issues,” at-
taining “the mature and informed judgment needed to secure
gainful employment, and to manage their own lives, thereby
serving not only their own interests but also the progress of so-
ciety itself” (1983, pp. 2-3).
My contention here is not that these historical texts are all
calling for the same thing. Indeed, one could hardly find a pair
of texts that differed more than To Nurture Humaneness and A
Nation at Risk. The disparity between these texts only strength-
ens the point at hand: Historical calls for educational reform,
for all of their differences, have shared a focus on adjusting
curriculum to meet the increasingly complex demands of an
increasingly complex society. In the following section, we will
look at our contemporary social needs and how they translate to
educational goals.
A New Crisis?
As a result of the prehistoric changes, the Paleolithic tribe
no longer had food, clothes, or security from the hairy death.
But in a short time, the Paleolithic tribes innovators caught up
with the changes of the fish, the antelope, and the bears. Fish-
ers learned to net fish rather than grab them, horse-clubbers
learned to snare antelope instead of clubbing them, and tiger-
scarers learned to dig bear pits instead of using fire. As a result,
the tribe had more fish, meat, and skins than they had ever had
before. Some suggested that in light of these new conditions the
educational curriculum be adjusted to address these new skills.
But the majority argued that the curriculum was already filled
with fish-grabbing, horse-clubbing, and tiger-scaring, leaving
no room forfads and frills like net-making, antelope-snaring,
and—of all things—bear killing” (Benjamin, 1939: p. 43).
In light of the history recounted above, one might be hesitant
to declare yet another crisis in education. Given the luxury of
historical perspective, one can view the series of crises as sim-
ply the continuing development of curriculum necessary to
meet the changing demands of a changing society. In this con-
text, it may be worth surveying some contemporary changes in
society. Let us start in quadrant I with occupational demands.
Describing the collapse of progressive education after WWII,
Cremin explains, “The econo my had entered upo n an era m a rked
by the harnessing of vast new sources of energy and the rapid
extension of automatic controls in production, a prodigious
advance that quickly outmoded earlier notions of vocational
education” (1961: p. 351). A recent report from the US De-
partment of Education echoes this same shift: “Whether filling
“blue collar” or “white collar” positions, employers seek…
practical problem-solvers fluent in today’s technology. If cur-
rent trends continue, by 2012, over 40 percent of factory jobs
will require postsecondary education” (2006: p. 4).
In this context, being a practical problem-solver means more
than being technologically savvy. In a 1989 article in Fortune
Magazine Brian Dumaine, describes a new trend in US industry,
explaining that “the most successful corporation of the 1990s
will be something called a learning organization, a consum-
mately adaptive enterprise with workers freed to think for
themselves, to identify problems and opportunities, and to go
after them” (p. 48)11. A joint report produced a decade later by
the US Departments of Commerce, Education, and Labor sup-
ports Dumaine’s assertion, predicting that economic success in
the 21st century “will require adopting organizational work sys-
tems that allow workers to operate with greater autonomy and
accountability” (1999). Table 1, taken from the 1999 report,
illustrates the organizational shift from linear hierarchies to
flexible networks that will require employees to have a broader
understanding of their organization’s operations (US Depart-
ments of Commerce, Education, and Labor, 1999: p. 3). Note
11One might cite 3 M as an example of the type of organization Dumaine
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s.
Copyright © 2012 SciRe s . 1317
Table 1.
Organizational shift in companies and the need for systems thinking skills in employees (from U.S. Department of Commerce, Education, and Labor,
Element Old System New System
Workplace organization Hierarchical
Networks or
muti/cross- functional Teams
Job design
Do one job
Do many jobs
Multiple responsibilitie s
Employee skills Specialized Multi/Cross-skilled
Workforce management Co mmand/control systems Self-management
Communications Top down
Need to know Widely diffused
Big picture
Decision-making responsibility Chain of com mand Decentralized
Direction Standard/fixed operating procedures Procedures under constant change
Worker autonomy Low High
Employee knowledge of organization Narrow Broad
that the difference on this table between the Old System and the
New System is analogous to the shift called for by proponents
of systems-oriented curricula.
But today’s students will also face a number of new chal-
lenges represented in the social challenges of quadrant II. Re-
call that in the history of educational crises, calls for curriculum
change were generally made in the context of social change.
That is, observations regarding increased complexity referred
primarily to changes in relationships between people, often
brought about by technological advance. Today, in addition to
changing the nature of our relationships with each other, tech-
nological advance has also changed our relationship with the
environmental systems that support us. Ervin Laszlo alludes to
this change in his discussion of the logic of the modern Indus-
trialized society—“a logic”, he explains, “that led from the
“progressive appropriation of the world” to “progress that mas-
ters the world”, all the way to the environmental, economic,
social and cultural limits inherent in industrialization” (Laszlo
et al., 1993).
In other words the complexity inherent in earlier stages of
industrialization involved learning to succeed in a world made
faster, busier, less personal, and more complicated by increased
appropriation of resources, but the resources themselves were
believed to be infinite, as was the ability of the earth to deal
with the wastes produced through the use of those resources.
The complexity cited in the early quotations above still refers
to a world without limits. Today, the idea of a “complex soci-
ety” has grown to include the limits of a finite world, and as we
approach these limits, Laszlo suggests, “the developmental
curve of modern industrial society registers a turnaround”
(Laszlo et al., 1993).
One need not look very hard to observe evidence of this
turnaround. For example, the earth currently holds 6.3 billion
people, roughly twice the population of the 1960s when human
effects on environmental systems first became widely noticed
in the USA, and that number is expected to grow to almost 9
billion by 2050 (Cohen, 2003). In addition, the level of con-
sumption per capita in industrialized nations has increased. In
the USA personal consumption expenditures increased 33%
from 1993 to 2004 (Council of Economic Advisors, 2005).
Increased human population and consumption has led to in-
creased problems managing wastes from human activity. For
example, industrial air pollution now poses a serious health risk
on both regional and global scales (Akimoto, 2003; Ezzati et al.,
2005), and global climate change has now been officially rec-
ognized by leading nations, including the USA, as a “serious
and long-term challenge” attributed “in large part” to human
activities (G8 Gleneagles, 2005). Add to these concerns the loss
of biodiversity (Jenkins, 2003), the collapse of large fisheries
(Pauly et al., 2003; Essington et al., 2006), the loss of forests
and soils (Stocking, 2003; Wright & Muller-Landau, 2006), and
the projected scarcity of potable water (Tully, 2000; Gleik
2003), and one might be tempted to look nostalgically back at,
say, the 1950s, when an increase in the complexity of society
referred only to the dehumanization of the individual as a result
of industrialization.
Ecologists Howard Odum and Elizabeth Odum (2001) write
extensively about this turnaround in the text A Prosperous Way
Down. The Odums argue that, as their title suggests, the pros-
pect of making the adjustments necessary to address these
challenges need not inspire apocalyptic visions of collapse. In
their view “the global society can turn down and descend pros-
perously, reducing assets, population, and unessential baggage
while staying in balance with its environmental life-support
system” (2001: p. 3). However, such a path would require sig-
nificant changes in social policies and institutions analogous to
those outlined in Table 1. Therefore, without belittling the pro-
blems of prior generations, it seems fair to say that today’s stu-
dents will face a set of challenges qualitatively different than
those facing students when Smith et al. wrote:
An educational program must include new patterns of thin-
king, wherein a number of social variables in politics,
economics, and the like are kept in the picture in the
process of reaching conclusions about social policies and
actions, instead of the prevailing and now obsolete habit
of thinking in a linear and compartmentalized fashion
(where, for example, the attempt is made to keep political
and economic thought in their separate spheres) (1957: p.
We can nevertheless learn from their wisdom, continuing to
ask ourselves what new patterns of thinking might best enable
us to address contemporary challenges.
The story of the Paleolithic tribe struggling with its own cur-
riculum controversies (e.g. tiger-scaring versus bear-pit-digging)
ends with the Paleolithic youths, bored by the obsolete curricu-
lum, becoming listless underachievers. Meanwhile, a neighbor-
ing tribe—a thinly veiled version of Hitler’s Germany that has
taken a more pragmatic position regarding curriculum af-
fairs—invades. The story, written in 1939, is in some ways a
product of its time, but one need not try very hard to see echoes
of it in the stories implied by George W. Bush and David W.
Orr at the opening of this article. In Bush’s version, the
neighboring tribe would not be Nazi Germany, but perhaps
China or India. And the invasion would not be military, but
economic. In Orr’s version, the invading tribe would not be
people at all, but rather the compounding problems created by
our own environmental negligence collapsing upon us. In any
case, the point would be the same: a curriculum must evolve
with the society for which it is designed.
In this article I have reviewed the history of curriculum de-
velopment, characterizing it as a series of curriculum changes
brought about through co-adaptation with changes in society
itself. The practice of adjusting curriculum in order to address
the educational needs of an increasingly complex society is
nothing new. However, the degree of complexity has grown
exponentially with our population and our technological capa-
bility to affect large-scale systems (e.g. climate change).
In 1861, Herbert Spencer asked a question that has been
quoted so often in curriculum texts, one might consider it the
north star of the field of curriculum development: “What knowl-
edge is of most worth?” (p. 11). We might also take Smith et al.
lead and ask, What patterns of thought are of most worth?
Many scholars (Boulding, 1953; Meadows, 1991), scientists
(Odum, 1994; Forrester, 1996), educators (Orr, 1994; Booth
Sweeney & Sterman, 2000), business leaders (Agyris, 1976;
Ackoff, 1999), and politicians (Strong, 2001; Gore, 2006) have
suggested that systems thinking represents a set of skills par-
ticularly well suited for addressing our current challenges. De-
spite this fact, systems-oriented instruction remains an under-
used and under-studied aspect of curriculum development.
There are numerous anecdotal accounts of the usefulness of
systems-oriented instruction for improving students’ ability to
understand and manage complexity. However, convincing more
educators and administrators to explore this avenue will require
quantitative data, and any methodology used to acquire that
data will likely need to have the following attributes:
1) Short assessment period: Standardized tests are popular,
largely beca use they are easy to administe r in large numbers. A
number of studies (e.g. Maani & Maharaj, 2004) utilize meth-
odologies of assessing systems-oriented instruction that are
useful as early explorations, but are too time consuming—for
both the researchers and the participants—to be used on a
broader scale. Producing the amount of data necessary to draw
strong conclusions about the effectiveness of systems-oriented
instruction will require efficiency and ease of implementation.
It is a truism in education that teachers are always strapped for
time. Designing an assessment methodology that requires large
periods of class time for assessment is one of the best ways to
ensure it is not widely adopted.
2) Broadly applicable design: Existing attempts to implement
systems-oriented instruction span a broad range of subjects and
educational levels. The methodology, therefore, needs to be
usable in a variety of contexts.
3) Focus on learning: Systems thinking is a skill, so any as-
sessment of it should focus on evaluating not what students
know, but how they learn.
4) Objective evaluation: Some earlier studies assessing sys-
tems-oriented instruction rely heavily on feedback from the
participants themselves (Huz et al., 1997; Cavaleri & Sterman,
1997). This feedback is important, particularly in situations
where the participants are interested in taking an active role in
their own education. However, such data will likely not be as
persuasive to teachers and school administrators as objectively
calculated cores and indices analogous to those included in
standardized tests.
In the short term studies may be kept simple, focusing on the
performance of students who have received systems-oriented
instruction compared to those who have not. However, long-
term research plans should include more nuanced comparisons
that explore the advantages and disadvantages of various ap-
proaches toward systems-oriented curricula. Such comparisons
are difficult to make at present due to the dearth of systems-
oriented educational programmes. Thus it is my hope that this
article will evoke interest both on the part of researchers and
practitioners to devote more time and resources to study this
promising path for curriculum development in the 21st century.
The author would like to thank Leslie Thiele, Martha Monroe,
Stephen Humphrey, Anna Peterson, and Mark Brown for their
guidance and assistance.
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