Five reasons to give curriculum theory a place in the classroom …

… (or why you should read some Stenhouse)

Author: Eleanor Hotham, (@EleanorHotham) SHU White Rose Doctoral Student, 2019-, researching ‘Curriculum making and professional learning: interactions in teacher practices’

Curriculum is central to the education we offer our children. It defines what we choose to value, what we choose to share. It is heartening therefore to see a greater emphasis on curriculum in educational policy, such as through the Ofsted Education Inspection Framework (Ofsted, 2019). From my own teaching experience, opportunities to make and develop curricula have been among the most creatively driven and rewarding moments in the classroom. But what of the theory behind the practice? Where theories of learning from the likes of Vygotsky or Piaget are widely known, curriculum theory does not provoke such universal recognition.

Beyond a minority of practitioners who explore curriculum theory during initial teacher education or a professional qualification, this rich area of research is often undiscovered. Indeed it was only through my personal foray into research that I realised all that it offers to our classrooms. Which is not to say that principles from curriculum theory do not guide practice, or that there are not pockets of expertise utilising this professional knowledge. There will certainly be some who give due consideration to selecting, sequencing and pacing curricula, drawing on the principles of Bernstein (1975). Indeed looking forwards, calls for wider inclusion of curriculum studies within teacher education (Pountney, 2020) offer much hope for the future. But for those teachers, school leaders, teacher educators, and researchers who will not benefit from such developments, theorist Lawrence Stenhouse, who was president of BERA  1979-90, offers an excellent jumping off point into curriculum theory.

Lawrence Stenhouse (1926-82)

First published in 1975, Stenhouse’s “An introduction to curriculum research and development”, presumes a level of curriculum autonomy at both school and practitioner level that is not so readily realised today. How then can such theorising inform our current practice? In addition to offering a curricular lens beyond our accepted status quo, Stenhouse presents principles for an ideal type of curriculum, timeless theoretical ponderings to guide curriculum developers, five of which I outline below.

1. An objectives model is limiting.

Stenhouse (1978) critiques an objectives approach, where curriculum success is measured through predetermined, prescribed student outcomes, rather than how knowledge is actually organised. He is sceptical that such assessment-led practice can offer a ‘systematic solution to our curricular problems’ (ibid., p. 71). One wonders what Stenhouse would make of the current national curriculum tied so closely to national testing strategies.

2. Curricula should be ambitious.

As an alternative, Stenhouse proposes a knowledge-rich curriculum, developed through the expert selection of knowledge. Realising that this may appear unattainable, he also recognises that an ambitious curriculum will necessarily ‘produce unique blends of success and failure’ (ibid., p. 116). It is heartening to think of curriculum development as an ongoing process, with shades of success, rather than zero-sum outcomes.

3. Teachers are key to a successful curriculum.

Stenhouse argues that teachers are centrally placed within the classroom to design, test and review curricula, and therefore key to the realisation of an ambitious curriculum. They should have the opportunity to develop and evaluate curricula, and so ‘be the critics of work in curriculum, not docile agents’ (ibid., p. 75). It is worth considering where curriculum development happens, whether it is removed from the classroom context entirely, and who, or what external body, evaluates its outcomes.

4. Collaboration between teachers (and researchers) is important in supporting curriculum development.

Although individual teachers are seen as key actors, Stenhouse sees collaboration as an essential part of curriculum development too. Indeed he recommends that ‘each classroom should not be an island’ (ibid., p. 157).  Encouraging teachers to work together to realise the best possible curriculum, Stenhouse also suggests that educational researchers are well-placed to support this process. If curriculum design is an ongoing process of exploration and evaluation, we gain when we learn from one another.

5. It all comes down to teacher professional learning.

Critiquing curriculum development that does not focus on developing individual teachers, Stenhouse asserts that ‘the use of objectives laid down from the centre is a kind of teacher proofing’ (ibid., p. 83). For Stenhouse then, if teachers are to be successful, autonomous curriculum developers, opportunities for accessing quality CPD are fundamentally important, as ultimately ‘there can be no educational development without teacher development’ (ibid., p. 83).

Although it may feel idealistic in today’s education system, Stenhouse’s work offers an opportunity to think beyond our current curriculum context. He argues for teachers’ work in curriculum making as a form of action research as “systematic enquiry made public” (Stenhouse 1981, p104). This is teacher enquiry whose value lies in its potential for broader institutional dissemination, for example, through discussion of findings with colleagues. Indeed, if he speaks of a curricular approach we would like realised, his theory offers the tools to do so.


Bernstein, B. (1975). Class, codes and control, Volume 3. London, UK: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Ofsted. (2019). Inspecting the curriculum. Retrieved from

Stenhouse, L. (1978). An introduction to curriculum research and development. London: Heinemann Education Books Ltd.

Stenhouse L. (1981). What counts as research? British Journal of Educational Studies, 29(2): 103-114.

Pountney, R., (2020) Curriculum makers and thinkers: the case for curriculum studies in teacher education (video), BERA British Curriculum Forum online event, Researching curriculum subjects: how teachers plan, design, and lead the curriculum. Retrieved from:

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