Curriculum Theories: The Most Prevalent in the School Setting

Subject: Education
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In education, a curriculum refers to the content that is decided and proven by the school management to be taught in schools. A curriculum mostly contains standards that are adopted by certain designated schools. Scholars argue that an effective curriculum focuses on the student as opposed to the content. However, such a curriculum is yet to gain popularity as many people believe that it should lay a significant emphasis on the content. The kinds of curriculum designs are explained in various theories from which the curriculum concept is developed (Muller, 2012).

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Consequently, the scope of this paper is to explain, by giving examples, curriculum theories, which are the most prevalent in the school setting. The theories to be looked at are Jean Piaget’s, Lev Vygotsky’s, Gestalt’s, and Maslow’s theories.

Curriculum Theories Applied in the School Setting

Curriculums comprise theoretical and practical parts that are used in understanding major aspects of various fields of study. In a curriculum, theories refer to the most complex views that explain how the former is useful in the learning process. A theory in a curriculum may also be defined as a statement that provides meaning to the events that occur in class (Null, 2011). Consequently, a good and effective curriculum theory should state and explain principles, relationships, and concepts that exist within the field of education. An effective theory should also state and explain the actions that need to be taken at every stage of learning. Theories enable curriculums to establish sensible practices while remaining systematic in their approach (Muller, 2012).

Jean Piaget’s Theories

Piaget’s curriculum theories are based on the stages of cognitive development, from birth to maturity. Piaget asserts that cognitive development is realized through four main stages, including sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operations, and formal operations levels in that order. In the first stage, which takes place when the child is between a day and 2 years, the child is supposed to demonstrate the ability to understand sensorimotor as well as reflex processes. For instance, during this stage, a child recognizes the permanence of objects and consequently starts to establish relations between items that look similar (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2009).

The second stage is realized when the child is between two and seven years of age. During this stage, children begin to assign symbolic meaning to the objects that they see around them. For example, children at the preoperational stage can understand that clothes are for wearing, chairs are for sitting and books are for writing. At this stage, the child proceeds to learn more complex things by experiencing them. For example, the child can get to learn that objects such as bananas and oranges are fruits and are meant to be eaten only after they get the opportunity to do so (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2009).

In the third and fourth stages, concrete operations and formal operations stages, a child learns to arrange data into coherent relationships and get to understand abstract and formal operations respectively. The third stage occurs between ages seven and eleven and a child in this stage should be capable of judging situations based on reciprocal and reversibility relations. For instance, a child should be able to see that a short wide glass holds the same quantity of milk as a long and narrow one. The fourth stage occurs from age eleven moving upward, and a child at this stage should be able to think logically, analyze ideas, grasp abstract operations, formulate hypotheses or theories, and construe possible outcomes (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2009).

Piaget lays a lot of emphasis on a child’s cognitive development, which he explains happens in four main stages. In his child development theory, Piaget asserts that the curriculum should be developed with the child’s maturation in mind. This shows that Piaget, in his theory, supports the argument that curriculums should be based more on the child’s cognitive development and maturation than the content. This requires teachers and syllabus specialists to develop a curriculum by abiding by and emphasizing each of the main stages of human cognitive development as put across by Piaget (Null, 2011).

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Lev Vygotsky’s Theories

In his theories, Vygotsky mainly talks about the cultural bases and social origins of human development. According to Vygotsky, children realize their strength and potential only after they are exposed to society’s norms and mores through enculturation. Unlike Piaget who maintains that children have to go through certain developmental stages to be able to undertake certain cognitive assignments, Vygotsky asserts that children can acquire some skills before they enter a particular stage of development. For example, Vygotsky believes that children can acquire a good command of language before they enter the stage in which they are taught how to speak (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2009).

Vygotsky explains that development in children occurs as a result of a socio-genetic process, which is greatly influenced by the way they interact with culture through play and dialogue. Children and adults are born in an environment that has already been transformed through the interactions and actions of the previous generations; for that reason, the present generation is accessible to the artifacts that they use to interact with their social and physical worlds. These worlds are generally divided into two: man-made and natural worlds. According to Vygotsky, it is the man-made world that has a great influence on the way people develop and mature.

Vygotsky explains that both psychological and cultural functions need to be considered when developing a curriculum. These include the way people think, talk, and the way they solve any challenging situations that they are faced with. Human actions and culture are said to develop over time, implying that a change in a person’s way of thinking will automatically influence their cognitive development. The changes that occur in one’s mind during cognitive development have a significant impact on a person’s tools and practical activities (Pinar, 2012).

The tools and physical activities that a person gets involved in have a significant influence on his culture and way of thinking. These tools, according to Vygotsky, include works of art, language, mnemonic skills, counting systems, and mechanical drawings. Vygotsky explains that all these tools are very important in the advancement of maturity as each of them has a specific role to play in human development. For example, he explains that language brings about one’s organization of thinking, and without it, people would not be able to think. Since language is considered as an attachment of meaning to objects and symbols, it is one of the main tools of human culture (Pinar, 2012).

Gestalt Theory

Gestalt theory is based on the philosophy that stimuli are only meaningful if they are explained in terms of other stimuli. For example, the way students learn can only be explained about the entire problem. For that reason, learning is abstract, and at the same time, complex. This implies that in the school setting, a learner is supposed to analyze the learning problem before discriminating between important and less important information (Kelly, 2009). Learning should also be regarded as a process by which students need to be allowed to make their own choices. Teachers and curriculum specialists should understand that students recognize a problem about the whole and that recognition is dependent on the previous experiences they have had (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2009).

Maslow Theory

The last theory, the Maslow theory, mainly talks about self-actualizing individuals. The theory is referred to as a classic theory that explains human needs. According to this theory, the basic human needs include survival needs, such as oxygen, water, and food, which are required to maintain life; love and belonging needs, which comprise affectionate relations with other individuals; and safety needs, which are important in helping people to avoid danger. Other needs include esteem needs, knowing and understanding needs, and self-actualization needs. Self-actualization needs are important as they enable people to achieve their best by exploiting their potential to the fullest (Kelly, 2009). While developing a curriculum, Maslow insists that teachers and curriculum specialists should consider these needs to end up with a curriculum that emphasizes the learners as well as the content (Ornstein & Hunkins, 2009).


A curriculum in a learning institution refers to the content that is decided upon by its management or the education authority and based on which the learners are taught. A significant number of curriculum theorists assert that an effective curriculum puts a lot of emphasis on the students and not the content. Curriculum theories explained in this paper include those formulated by Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, Gestalt, and Maslow. All these theories explain the importance of giving priority to the learners when developing a curriculum.

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Kelly, A. V. (2009). The curriculum: Theory and practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publishers.

Muller, J. (2012). Reclaiming knowledge: Social theory, curriculum, and education policy. London: Taylor and Francis.

Null, W. (2011). Curriculum: From theory to practice. Plymouth: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Ornstein, A. C., & Hunkins, F. P. (2009). Curriculum: Foundations, principles, and issues. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Pinar, W. F. (2012). What is curriculum theory? Mahwah, NJ: Taylor and Francis.