History of Education: Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


Ralph W. Tyler Publishes Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction

With the publication of Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction, Ralph W. Tyler could not have suspected that his little book of only eighty-three pages would make such an indelible mark on the field of curriculum theorizing, as well as on teaching practices in the American public schools. In 1949, Tyler probably could not have predicted that in time he would become the most prominent name in curriculum studies in the United States, either. Yet, this is exactly the course his career would take through the mid-twentieth century.

A student of Charles Judd at the University of Chicago, Ralph W. Tyler graduated with a Ph.D. in 1927. Approximately ten years later, he went on to fill a prominent position on the Eight Year Study as the Director of Research for the Evaluation Staff. In this position, Tyler initially formulated his approach to education research which was grounded in the belief that successful teaching and learning techniques can be determined as a result of scientific study. By applying such methods during the Eight Year Study, Tyler soon determined that evaluation of student behaviors proved to be a highly appropriate means for determining educational success or failure. In Appraising and Recording Student Progress, Tyler wrote:

Any device which provides valid evidence regarding the progress of students toward educational objectives is appropriate...The selection of evaluation techniques should be made in terms of the appropriateness of that technique for the kind of behavior to be appraised (Tyler, cited in Pinar, p. 136).

Here we see the beginnings of Tyler's thoughts on the relevance of behavioral objectives to the teaching process. In other words, Tyler came to believe that any learning objective needed to be determined via student behavior in the classroom. In time, such objectives would mark the cornerstone of curriculum decision-making and teaching strategies for the American public schools.

A decade after completing his work with the Eight Year Study, Tyler was prepared to formalize his thoughts on educational research and behavioral objectives with the publication of Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction. In this short text that was originally the syllabus for one of his courses at the University of Chicago, Tyler expanded upon concepts he began to formulate during the Eight Year Study. Specifically, this work focused on the administrative aspects of the curriculum and called for the application of four basic principles in the development of any curricular project. These four basic principles include:

1. Defining appropriate learning objectives.
2. Establishing useful learning experiences.
3. Organizing learning experiences to have a maximum cumulative effect.
4. Evaluating the curriculum and revising those aspects that did not prove to be effective.

As a result of the basic principles, the role of the curricularist and teacher shifted to that of scientist. In the development of any curriculum using the Tyler method, hypotheses are to be established in direct relation to the expected learning outcomes for students. As the curriculum is enacted, teachers and curricularists become scientific observers, determining whether or not their curricular hypotheses are in fact demonstrated by student behavior. Following the application of the curriculum, educators return to the curricular plans to make any adjustments so as to ensure the proper outcomes in the classroom. In this case, students do not participate on any level in the planning or implementation of their education; rather, they solely assume the role of object of study.

Tyler's basic principle were widely welcomed in classrooms and curriculum texts across the United States in 1949. Their functionality was well received and teachers generally appreciated the ease with which they could be applied to the daily work curriculum planning. It would be nearly thirty years, in fact, before any significant criticism were waged against Tyler's work. And by that time, his approaches were so entrenched in classroom practice that radical critiques of his approaches left few marked changes in the implementation of curriculum in the public schools.


Pinar, W., Reynolds, W., Slattery, P., and Taubman, P. (Eds.) (1995). Understanding Curriculum. New York: Peter Lang.

Prepared by Alison Kreider (UCLA)

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