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Henderson, James G. and Kesson, Kathleen R. (2004). Curriculum Wisdom: Educational Decisions in Democratic Societies. Upper Saddle River, NJ and Columbus, OH: Merrill/Prentice Hall.

pp. iii + 228
$32.67 (paperback)   ISBN 0-13-111819-6

Reviewed by Laurel K. Chehayl
Kent State University

January 14, 2006

In the current educational environment in the United States, high stakes testing and accountability are paramount in prevailing legislation. It is almost common knowledge among U.S. educators and citizens alike that No Child Left Behind has in place a variety of tools to measure and evaluate students, teachers and schools across the country. Many politicians and educational legislators tout the virtues of these laws and are standing devoutly behind them. Perhaps consequently, much of the general citizenry also looks favorably upon No Child Left Behind and its concerted effort to standardize education. On the other hand, numerous educators across the country, many firmly dedicated to and immersed in student-centered reflective practice and democratic curriculum studies, do not. Inherent flaws in the institutionalized standardized curriculum supported by the legislation may concern them. James Henderson and Kathleen Kesson are two such educators. This review will examine their book, entitled Curriculum Wisdom Educational Decisions in Democratic Societies, in which Henderson and Kesson extrapolate their grounded observations and beliefs about current U.S. curricular decision-making and present a viable alternative to the reader for consideration. I will begin with an overview of the text and a summary of their seven modes of inquiry designed to scaffold curriculum inquiry. I will then examine the strengths and weaknesses of the book, and finally its potential uses for those engaged in contemporary curriculum decision-making.

In Curriculum Wisdom, James Henderson and Kathleen Kesson invite the reader on a journey of considerate reflection. They purport that the inherent purpose of curriculum decision making is to create for teachers and students a learning environment that embodies what the authors identify as the “democratic good life” (p. 12). After briefly examining the current condition of U.S. curriculum and curriculum-decision making, they offer a constructive alternate curriculum decision-making framework from what they identify as a “wisdom” orientation. They ground their work and the wisdom orientation in three foundational assumptions. Prefacing the book, the authors write

Curriculum workers who adopt a wisdom orientation are…challenging themselves

  • To consider the “good conduct” and “enduring values” implications and consequences of their decision;
  • To think about the relationship between educational means and ends; and
  • To engage in sophisticated practical reasoning (Henderson and Kesson, 22004, p. ix).

The authors first take a cursory yet critical look at the condition of predominantly institutionalized U.S. curriculum decision-making and pose for the reader cogent concerns about the challenges facing the democratic ideals of U.S. society. They concisely suggest to the reader that institutionalized curriculum decision making does not nurture or support democratic living in U.S. public schools. They also offer the reader a succinct definition of curriculum wisdom. “The concept curriculum wisdom”, Henderson and Kesson write, “…(is) a concise way to convey the subtle and complex challenges of approaching curriculum work as envisioning and enacting a good educational journey” (p. 4, emphasis in original). They lay emphasis on the charge for those who seek to engage in curriculum wisdom oriented decision making to remain focused on “envisioning” a democratic good life and “enacting” those significant visions. Too often, they observe, educators get lost in our often rigid and doctrinaire educational goals and objectives, losing sight of the significant and humane purpose of their work. Henderson and Kesson explain, “[e]nvisioning and enacting are incomplete without each other. When in play, they constitute ‘the Tao of curriculum wisdom’” (p. 47). The authors do not belabor the perceived weakness of institutionalized curriculum, but instead focus the attentions of the reader on the wisdom orientation they posit.

Further expanding on the definition of curriculum wisdom, Henderson and Kesson offer for their readers the “5C’s of wise curriculum judgments: collaboration, character, challenge, and calling” (p. 12). It is through these 5C’s, they posit, that curriculum decision makers can remain focused on securing the democratic good life for themselves and their students. They encourage curriculum decision-makers to rise to the considerable challenge of maintaining reflective self-awareness while thoughtfully and compassionately working together with diverse others. Through their explanation of the 5Cs, the authors provide for the reader a more clearly articulated examination of the multifaceted curriculum wisdom approach from an experiential point of view.

They expand upon the idea of curriculum wisdom as a way of life, or more personal approach to curriculum decision-making for the democratic good. The authors readily acknowledge that approaching curriculum from the wisdom perspective for the purpose of achieving democratic education is neither easily nor immediately mastered. Instead it is a considerable challenge. They write, “[b]ecause democracy is an interpretive term – because it has many meanings that are not anchored in any specific moral doctrine – the decision-making process must necessarily be multifaceted. Problem solvers must be playfully light on their feet,” (p. 12). Furthering their position, they cite for the reader several foundational curriculum ideas that are in keeping with this multifaceted playfulness. For example, they touch upon Pinar, Reynolds, Slattery and Taubman’s (1995) “complicated conversation” and Schwab’s (1978) “eclectic artistry”, to firmly under gird the notion that curriculum decision-making for the democratic good is an exercise in patience and deliberation.

Chapter three is the logistical heart of approaching curriculum decision making from the wisdom orientation. Embedded in a holographic map, Henderson and Kesson introduce what they identify as the 7 modes of inquiry foundational to curriculum decision making from a wisdom orientation. The map pictured in the book, intended to convey the non-linear, recursive and hermeneutic wisdom approach to considering curriculum, unfortunately does not achieve its end. I believe the authors would have better served the reader had they simply omitted the figure of the map and instead allowed readers to imagine the image for ourselves. That aside, the text gives the reader a firm and clear grasp on the 7 modes of inquiry. In sum, the 7 modes include:

  • Techné: the concrete skills or abilities involved in creation;
  • Poesis: the meaningful and soulful characteristics of creation;
  • Praxis: the reflective interplay between knowledge and action;
  • Dialogos: the construction of understanding through various perspectives;
  • Phronesis: deliberative, moral and considerate decision making;
  • Polis: a fluid interplay between political and ethical issues; and
  • Theoria: rooted in the concept of “theory; envisioning possibilities and inquiring for the democratic good.

While this truncated explanation of the 7 modes of inquiry does not fully express their complexities and value, it does serve to provide a clear and concise picture of their distinct overarching purpose. They are intended to provide for the reader a guide to embark upon curriculum decision making from a wisdom orientation. By remaining conscious and considerate of these modes, or using them as a guide to evoke democratic curricular decisions, the reader may find his or her way to the wisdom orientation.

According to Henderson and Kesson, the 7 modes of inquiry are always present in every curriculum decision; it is their predominance that varies. In addition, the modes do no exist in isolation of one another. Again, even though the map may give some the impression that one cycles through the 7 modes during the decision making process, the modes are not intended to be perceived as situated in a linear fashion. They should not be taken as a step-by-step guide to decision making. The 7 modes of inquiry ebb and flow, fluidly dancing their way through the decision making process. The authors even confess that it may appear artificial to separate them. To this end, Henderson and Kesson state “…it is useful to have a deep understanding of the parts to better understand the whole, but now that we have separated these modes of inquiry out for analytical purposes, it is time to put them back together again” (p. 63). After this close examination, they proceed to give concrete suggestions for employing the 7 modes of inquiry to scaffold thinking and implementing a curriculum wisdom approach to curricular decision-making.

It is through the candid reflections of practitioners that the significance of the wisdom approach is elucidated. Curriculum Wisdom includes many authentic personal narratives written by teachers and administrators. The authors have also included three commentaries that examine curriculum wisdom from an international perspective.

Taking a wisdom approach to curriculum decision-making is, of course, to benefit the students in the classroom. The authors could have presented the effects of the wisdom orientation by describing hypothetical or intended outcomes. Instead, they wisely chose to demonstrate the potential of applying the wisdom orientation to curriculum decision-making through practitioners’ actual experience. Authentic and understandable, these reflections read like they could be written by at teacher or administrator in the reader’s hometown. They bring genuine and personable depth to the book with sincere practitioner language and thoughts. Additionally, Henderson and Kesson are fully cognizant of the fact that this approach to curriculum decision-making may not resonate with everyone. To this end, they candidly address that curriculum wisdom oriented decision-making may present challenges for practitioners. They not only elucidate these challenges, but also again scaffold them with real-life examples from curriculum decision-makers.

All in all, Curriculum Wisdom is relatively easy to understand. Entry into the prevailing ideas of the text is smooth; the authors clearly articulate their understanding of the contemporary institutionalized curriculum decision-making process. While a deep examination of the current state of curriculum decision-making by the authors in this text might have been excessively time consuming and redundant for many, it is important for the reader to have a relatively firm grasp of current institutionalized and standards based curricular decision making practices when making entrance to this text. Should a reader lack this understanding, the heart and purpose of the text may prove to be especially, albeit not completely, elusive.

Henderson and Kesson draw the reader in to Curriculum Wisdom with a defensible argument for their idea that the decision making process is in need of reexamination. The terminology throughout the book appears easily accessible to practitioners at every level, and the reflective narratives give the wisdom approach the authentic clarity most necessary for understanding. In addition, the authors take the time to deliberately and clearly explain concepts and words that may be unfamiliar to the reader. For example, to illustrate the shift from one curricular decision making orientation to another, the authors explain paradigmatic shifts. While I personally was already familiar with the notion of paradigm shifts, I found their explanation to be a useful review of the concept that was neither oversimplified nor condescending to the reader.

Curriculum Wisdom does, however, pose for the reader some distinct challenges. First, as stated earlier, the holographic map of the 7 modes of inquiry is difficult for the reader to envision in the way that the authors intend. Instead, my own thinking was ensnared as I attempted to understand the map itself instead of its significant and central purpose in the text. Frankly, though, I am hard-pressed to conceive of a viable alternative. For this reason I would suggest that a reader not struggle at length to grasp the map presented, and instead imagine or construct a map for his or her own use. To some readers, a map of the 7 modes of inquiry may serve little if any purpose.

Second, the wisdom orientation may be illusive to those practitioners who are unfamiliar with various existing approaches to curriculum decision-making and curriculum studies at large. While Henderson and Kesson make an effort to examine problems present in contemporary institutionalized curriculum decision-making practice, they do not fully explain to the reader what exactly that process entails. It is necessary upon entering the text to possess an at least cursory understanding of how curriculum decisions are made in U.S. public schools at large. Additionally, the authors have chose not to address other curriculum decision making points of reference that may serve as intermediaries between institutionalized curriculum and a wisdom orientation, such as constructivist best practice. It may be difficult for some readers to make the potentially significant conceptual leap from institutionalized curriculum as standards and benchmarks handed down from state departments of education to a wisdom orientation.

For these reasons, as an instructor of preservice teachers, I believe this book would not work well as a singular text in the undergraduate classroom. To engage preservice teachers in the Curriculum Wisdom text, it is first necessary to closely examine contemporary institutionalized curriculum decision-making, as well as other orientations. Before engaging in the wisdom orientation, preservice and practicing teachers, as well as other curriculum decision-makers, must have a relatively firm grasp of what curriculum decisions are and how they are made. With this exceptionally important scaffolding in place, however, there is great value to employing this book in the teacher preparatory classroom.

I firmly believe that Curriculum Wisdom is an invaluable asset to the current conversation of curriculum decision-making. I am in keeping with the authors’ opinion that institutionalized curriculum decision-making in the U.S. today is in desperate need of close examination and restructuring. In this book, Henderson and Kesson deliberately and clearly pose for the readers a viable alternative to contemporary institutionalized curriculum decision-making. They embed within their ideas the authentic and sincere voices of practitioners who have chosen to subscribe to the wisdom orientation and subsequently negotiated their curriculum decision making from that perspective. Much to their credit, Henderson and Kesson do not propose that the reader in any way disregard or disengage in today’s curriculum conversation. Nor does their wisdom orientation exclude or isolate individuals from that conversation. Instead, the authors thoughtfully invite all readers -- including but not limited to teachers, administrators, and legislators – to reconsider the way practitioners and others approach and consider important curriculum decisions in the U.S. Like the democratic decision making process they present to the reader, Henderson and Kesson have created a text is in all ways inclusive; Curriculum Wisdom addresses a broad spectrum of reasons that readers may engage in the wisdom orientation, as well as clear and supportive guidance to navigate that engagement. Furthermore, unlike some other books in the field that propose change in almost vehement battle cries, Curriculum Wisdom approaches reexamining contemporary curriculum practice one school at a time, or even at the individual level.

This book gives voice to a conversation that I believe has been quietly uttered in the minds of practitioners across the country that have felt the marginalization of their students by the institutionalized curriculum. Its distinct and significant purpose is to provide for the reader a viable alternative to passive acceptance of the contemporary institutionalized curriculum, and scaffold the journey to achieve that end. Once more accentuating that I think it is necessary for the reader to have or pursue the aforementioned background knowledge to authentically engage in the text, I believe this book may serve as a valuable tool in teacher preparatory undergraduate and graduate classrooms. I imagine it would be most useful to an instructor or facilitator that has the time and inclination to also support students as they examine the seminal writings that ground Curriculum Wisdom. While Henderson and Kesson cite many curriculum theorists to establish and support their position, the foundational work of Dewey, Schwab, and Kegan are significantly complementary. This book gives rise to the reality of theory; it constructs a working model for practitioners to bring valuable but at times logistically illusive theory to life in curriculum decision-making. Most importantly, Curriculum Wisdom is a firm and reasonable starting point for one teacher, a faculty or administrative body to begin a conversation on how to reorient their practice to a lifelong deliberative journey of democratic, wisdom oriented curriculum decision making.

About the Reviewer

Laurel K. Chehayl

Prior to engaging in her doctoral studies, Laurel Chehayl taught high school English and language arts, public speaking, drama, and journalism for six years. She is currently writing her dissertation, a qualitative study centered on how preservice secondary teachers consider urban schools and navigate an early urban field placement.

Copyright is retained by the first or sole author, who grants right of first publication to the Education Review.

Editors: Gene V Glass, Kate Corby, Gustavo Fischman

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