Book Review: A Post-Modern Perspective on Curriculum

By William E Doll Jr

There is not enough space here to do this book justice. It is one of the most incredible studies of the potential power of curriculum, and the ineffectiveness of our current system. That being said, it is academic, it is dense, and it at times hard to peer through the jargon and roll through the various theories and their subtle differences. It leaves you with many potential pathways and ideas for curriculum reform (and a foggy framework) but it gives no answers. That would be against the message of the book. Curriculum, like life itself, should be self-organizing and co-authored with the students, teacher, and other stakeholders. It should emerge, not be pre-built.

Easier said than done.

I'll do my best to summarize the book into a concise page or so. I will also try to keep my voice out of it with the knowledge that it is impossible to do so.


Doll sees the world as going through three major paradigms shifts; pre-modern (ancient greek belief systems), modern (the scientific revolution, Descartes, Newtonian clockwork world, cause/effect measurement, which still pervades every aspect of our life) and the post-modern (which is still emerging and evolving and is unclear since we in this paradigm, but is being seen in fields like quantum physics, information systems, etc).

Education is very much entrenched in the modern worldview. We are obsessed (to the detriment of our students, argues Doll) with cause and effect relationships and pre-set aims. If we set the aims (through curriculum) then we will bring the students to the desired space we want them to be. This is epitomized by the Tyler rationale in curriculum design:

1) What educational purposes should the school seek?
2) What educational experiences will provide for those purposes?
3) How can they be organized?
4) How can they be assessed?

or put another way:

1) What to Learn
2) How to Learn
3) Structure
4) Assessment

or another way;

We have our raw material being input into the factory (the child), we determine what we they are required to learn (our outcomes) we plan experiences to have them learn those things (units of study) and then we assess how well they have learned the things we want them to learn (assessment).

It is a closed system and linear. The object is to transfer knowledge (the knowledge we deem important to transfer) in an organized and linear fashion. Like an assembly line. It is all over education. You work in a system like this, with a curriculum like this. I do too. Our curriculum is segmented into subjects, each of which has its own outcomes which get progressively more difficult as one moves through the system. Yes, it might spiral, or it might be focused on concepts, but it is still spiraling towards a pre-set goal goal, a filling in of the space we want filled in.


Post-Modernism brings us a different lens through which to view the world and curriculum, though Doll occasionally forgets this fact in part II of the book as he dives deep into emerging sciences in dissipative systems, evolutionary theory, and human cognition. It sees the world as complex, not as orderly or linear, but not as chaotic either. There is an organization to the world, and that organization arises from the interactions of the parts. The biggest point Doll tries to make is that curriculum is not about the transfer of knowledge, but about the transformation of the person and how they view the world (and learn, and know, etc). Pre-set aims and pre-planned units transfer knowledge, but an open system and a space to explore will transform it.

Doll goes into some long descriptions of different areas of science. Very long. Too long, even for me, who loves evolutionary philosophy. At the end of his long walks, he comes briefly to how it might apply to curriculum. Frustrating, but then it was written in 1993, and there has been a great deal of progress since then, so I think it is time for this book to be revisited and re-interpreted. A project for the future? If only I had the time! (Mike, care to play?)


This part is maddeningly short but I will make the longest part of this post. This is where he takes all the theories and realizations from parts one and two and puts it into his vision of curriculum. Frankly, there is just not enough information here, but what he does do is provide a structure that could inspire others to view their curriculum through a complex and self-organizing lens. It all ends with his 4 R's, but before he gets there, he presents some background conditions that must be met for a curriculum to have the power to transform. Complex systems will become alive and grow and evolve, and newness will emerge only if the conditions are right. It is the conditions of schooling we need to focus on, not the content.

Developing the Practical. The current relationship between theory and practice in curriculum is top down. Theory informs practice. Academics and thinkers come up with ideas and teachers and educators adopt them in the classroom. Doll argues that it should be flipped over. Theory should arise from the day to day practice. If teachers and students were "demanded" (his word, not mine) to co-create the curriculum together, we would use our minds and experiences to create our world, rather than have our worldview handed to us, and theory would emerge from practice.

Utilizing Self-Organization. This is all about perturbation. A new idea or piece of knowledge enters the learning system and challenges the members of the community to re-evaluate how they view the text (subject). Doll argues that we can set up our emerging curriculum around powerful perturbations, and let it evolve from there. It is like planting the seeds, and seeing where it grows. This of course, reminds me of powerful provocations as the center piece to inquiry. Present the students with something that challenges their view, and let it go from there. Doll calls this process Self-Organization, as he looks at it through a Systems and Complexity lens. I call it inquiry.

The Role of Authority. As educators we are used to being the one in charge. Society sees it that way. Parents expect it that way. But what is control really? Doll asks if it is in the best interest of learning for there to be a centralized control agent in the middle. Shouldn't control be more distributed. Here he offers one of my favorite realizations from the book. Control, is self-organizing and local. It depends on the situation, and it depends on the people involved. What a wonderful way to think of inquiry!

Metaphor and the Narrative Mode. Traditionally learning is viewed as a spectator process. The knowledge exists, we just need to shown how to access it. For that, we only need to be spectators in the game, not players. In the narrative view of learning, this is different. Instead of explaining the learning, we are interpreting along side the students. In the former, we would like to have precise and engaging "presentations" of content, in the latter, we are looking for a "continued dialogue" that grows and expands. One of the key ways to keep this generative conversation going, is through metaphor and story. This is not to delimit the importance of logic, but to open pathways that include narrative and metaphorical texts in conjunction with our need for logical thought and reasoning.

Goals, Plans, Purposes. These assume a linearity in the world, a cause/effect relationship that does not simply exist in dynamic systems (and what could be more dynamic that human knowing and learning). Dewey suggested (way back when) that students should be inside the process of planning and implementing their own curriculum. The reality is different. We have a top down system handed to students and they become spectators. An individual cannot learn to plan and implement by being a passive agent in somebody else's planning and implementation. This process needs to be driven by the students, with the teachers guiding and helping and asking for reflection.

Evaluation. Doll here admits that this is impossible in a post-modern frame. The problem is, when we evaluate and grade, we use a pre-set norm to do so (number grades, letter grades, progressive descriptors, smily faces, whatever, they are all pre-set norms). In a complex and system based view, this pre-set norm does not exist because the system is always moving and in-flux. Instead of norms, we should be looking at parameters or limits. This would broaden our conception of evaluation and assessment, though Doll is not particular about how. The one hint at how this applies to curriculum is that tests and assessments need to be iterative, they need to be revisited and re-evaluated at various points. Evaluation and assessment need to be negotiated between teacher and student, not handed down. Like the joint building of the curriculum itself, the evaluation needs to be created with students.


At this point in the book, the last five pages or so, Doll presents four guiding beacons to light the way for future curriculum developers.

Richness. The depth and the layers of meaning open the curriculum up to many interpretations. We need chaos, disequilibrium, and lived experiences that perturb the learner. In Dolls estimation, the most important aspects of this richness include developing it through dialogue, interpretations, hypothesis generation and proving, and pattern playing.

Recursion. Doll is an advocate of Bruners idea of spiral curriculum (I am not, I think it is limiting and a poor choice of metaphor; fractal is a much better conception). There should be no pre-set beginning or ending. One project or piece of writing is not the end, but merely starts a new line of inquiry in a new direction. We keep visiting the ideas we study, and keep expanding our ideas and feeding them back into what we know. The key to this is reflection. Revisiting old tasks and old thinking without reflecting on them is shallow and not transformative.

Relations. There are two reasons this important, the pedagogical reason and the cultural reason. The pedagogical reason is all about connecting all we have learned to others things we have learned, and what we intend to learn in the future. Students are transformed by their learning, so the curriculum should move with that transformation, not against it. The second reason is cultural. We live in culture, and are influenced by it. We in turn influence the culture. But our culture interacts with other cultures, and sometimes form even bigger cultures (or smaller). Our cultures exist in this foggy soup of being human, which in turn exists within a natural ecosystem (which in turn exists in a cosmological system). Designing a curriculum that is aware and sensitive to these multiple layers of being, but also grounded in the localness of our lives (the here, the now, the place) is the key difficulty facing future curriculum designers because, as Doll puts it, "our progress and our existence -- as individuals, as communities, as a race, as a species, as a life form -- depend on our ability to bring these perspectives into complementary harmony".

He gives no thought as to how to do this. In fact, this is how we ends the section on relations.

Thanks, Mr Doll.

Rigor. This word is loaded. It historically meant something like, the deductive powers of Aristotle, Descartes clear and distinct logic, the mathematical "truths" inherent in the universe, to the measurement and objectivity of the scientific revolution. Doll asks us to completely rethink what this word means. He asks us to think of rigor as the ability to "never be certain that one has it right -- not even in the 95th or 99th percentile, because on must be continually exploring, looking for new combinations, interpretations, patterns, and playing with ideas". Here, Rigor means purposefully looking for different alternatives, relations, and connections.


  1. Hi Craig

    Thank you for reading this book and for such a thorough analysis. This means I don't need to read it ;)

    It would be lovely to be able to talk out these ideas in person.

    It sounds like Mr Doll is talking about a utopian world. I don't think my "real learning" about who I am, the world around me, and my "transformation" to take up my place in the world started until I had finished my undergraduate degrees and got my basic needs looked after (food, shelter) and then some.

    So, I guess what I'm wondering is whether this "utopian" can be realized until humans are freed from the stress of meeting our survival needs? There was no way that I was going to challenge traditional thinking and methods when I was a new teacher, as I was afraid of losing my job etc. etc.

    So, our students are more exposed than us, when they aren't meeting the "traditional' bench marks.

    Thank you for a very thought-provoking discussion. Would love to hash this out across a table with a few other teachers and a cup of tea :)

  2. Hi Craig,

    Thank you for your synopsis of this book. It sounds/looks amazing. It was also great to once again 'hear' your voice through the work.

    I wrote a longer response but lost it somehow. Regardless, I will restate my two most burning thoughts about co-creating learning experiences. For one, I agree with Doll on the idea of recursion. If it is worth teaching/learning/doing (with teacher/peer guidance and support) then the students should have opportunities to reflect, apply feedback, flex their creative muscles and renegotiate/re-create the task so long as interest/momentum dictates.

    Second, I am fed up with so much focus being placed on assessment that all too often misses the purposes of learning. The emphasis is being placed on the measurable, comparable, quantifiable points rather than the transformative aspects. This is not to say that I do not assess constantly, but I do so for the purposes of guiding 'where do we go next' (planned perturbations) rather than for the primary purpose of reporting out.

    Thanks again Craig.

    Let's keep the dialogue going.



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