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Curriculum Journal
Publication details, including instructions for authors and subscription information:
Principles for reflecting on the curriculum
Pierre Bourdieu

Online Publication Date: 01 December 1990

To cite this Article: Bourdieu, Pierre (1990) 'Principles for reflecting on the
curriculum', Curriculum Journal, 1:3, 307 - 314
To link to this article: DOI: 10.1080/0958517900010308


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Principles for reflecting on the



For over twenty years Pierre Bourdieu's work has had a major influence on the
sociology of education. The relationship between social structure and curricu-
lum has been of particular importance. Over the last two years he has advised the
French government on the planning and implementation of a national curricu-
lum reform. The paper printed in this edition of The Curriculum Journal
represents a first report prepared for the Minister of Education, Lionel Jospin. It
is a significant statement about the direction national reform can follow and
contrasts interestingly with the approach adopted in England and Wales and a
number of other countries in the 1980s.


At the end of 1988 a committee was formed by the Minister of Education,

chaired by Pierre Bourdieu and François Gros, with a brief to reflect on the
curriculum and to plan a revision of it, bearing in mind the importance of the
coherence and unity of knowledge. Other members included Pierre Baqué,
Pierre Bergé, Rene Blanchet, Jacques Bouveresse, Jean-Claude Chevallier,
Hubert Condamines, Didier Da Cunha Castelle, Jacques Derrida, Philippe
Joutard, Edmond Malinvaud, François Mathey.)
In the first instance the members of the committee resolved to formulate
principles which would guide them in their work. They were conscious and
aware of the practical implications and applications of these principles,
particularly as they related to pedagogical issues. They strove, therefore, to
establish principles on the basis of strict intellectual rigour derived from the

intrinsic logic of knowledge and from definable assumptions and questions. The
committee was not expected to intervene directly and rapidly in curriculum
design. They wished to delineate the main objectives for gradual change in the
compulsory curriculum. These changes would take time if they were to follow,
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or perhaps anticipate, the evolution of science and society.

Specialist working groups will later continue a deeper reflective process for
each of the main areas of knowledge. They will attempt to suggest, through
regular reports which will be completed in 1989, a number of precise
observations that draw out the implications of the principles proposed in this
paper. They will not define the ideal content of an ideal curriculum. The
proposals will, in the main, consider the restructuring of the division of
knowledge, a new definition of the transmission of knowledge, the elimination
of outdated or outmoded notions, and the introduction of new knowledge that
stems from research as well as economic, technical and social changes. These will
then be discussed at an international gathering of experts.
If, in the educational system, or elsewhere, it is essential to reflect on the notion
of change it is out of the question to contemplate abolishing the past. The
majority of innovations introduced in recent years were justified. Although
important to ensure that what is inherited from the past is not rejected outright it
is not always possible, at any one time and in any one area, to determine the
importance given to items that are 'out of date' as opposed to those that are still
'valid'. It is necessary to consider constantly a new balance which reflects the
influence of the past and the necessity of adaptation for the future.
The necessary abstract and generalized shape of the principles thus defined can
only be justified by the work to come. This work will need to be guided by the
rigour of these principles, while also testing them to determine and differentiate
the content.


Course content must be regularly reviewed so that new knowledge demanded by

scientific progress and changes in society (European unification being a prime
example) can be introduced. Any addition of knowledge must be compensated
for by a reduction elsewhere in the programme.
To reduce the breadth or difficulty of a part of the programme should not
lower the standard or level. On the contrary, if such a reduction is cautiously
achieved it should raise standards, provided the time required for study is
reduced and the work improved by substituting passive learning for active
reading - and here we refer to audio-visual as well as literary texts. A discussion
of practical approaches should give more room for creativity and imagination.
This implies, among other things, that the testing of learning and the evaluation
of achievements must be radically transformed. An evaluation of standards

reached should no longer be based on a heavy and haphazard examination.

Continuous assessment and an end-of-course examination focused on essential
knowledge should reflect the importance of putting into practice knowledge
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acquired in different contexts. This would, for example in the case of

experimental science, involve practical tests aimed at evaluating creativity, critical
abilities and the practical knowledge acquired.


Education must give priority to all the areas which can lead to a way of thinking
which is endowed with a validity and applicability of a general nature as opposed
to areas where knowledge could be acquired just as efficiently (and sometimes
more pleasantly) through other means. It is important to ensure that education
does not leave unacceptable gaps which could endanger the success of pedagogic
objectives. Most notably, attention should be given to fundamental ways of
thinking or knowledge that are supposed to be taught by everyone and yet
may never be taught by anyone.
It is absolutely necessary to give priority to those areas where the objective is
to ensure that fundamental processes are thoughtfully and critically assimilated.
These processes — the deductive, the experimental, the historical as well as the
critical and reflective - should always be included. In order to redress the balance,
the uniqueness of the experimental thinking process should be made clearer. The
outcome will be a positive reassessment of qualitative reasoning, a clear
recognition of the temporary nature of explanatory models and an appraisal of
the need constantly to train for practical forms of research enquiry. It will also be
necessary to examine whether and how each main area of knowledge (and each of
the 'disciplines' within which they have been more or less adequately
interpreted) can contribute to the different thought processes. The logic and
traditions of certain specialisms might involve a re-examination of where they are
located in the curriculum.
An appropriate place should also be found for certain techniques that are given
tacit acknowledgement at the present time but are seldom transmitted methodi-
cally, for example the use of dictionaries, the use of abbreviations, the rhetoric of
communication, the setting up of a filming system, the creation of an index, the
use of a 'ficher signaletique' or of a data bank, the preparation of a manuscript,
the search for documents, the use of computer data, the reading of numerical or
graphical tables. If all pupils were given the technology of intellectual enquiry,
and if in general they were given rational ways of working (such as the art of
choosing between compulsory tasks or of spreading them over time), then an
important way of reducing inequalities based on cultural inheritance would have
been achieved.

Open, flexible and changeable programmes are a framework not a prison. There
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should be fewer and fewer constraints the more you go up the hierarchy of the
educationalprocess. Teachers need to collaborate in order to define and implement
programmes. There must be progression—vertical connections and coherence—and
horizontal connections within specialist areas and equally at the whole programme
level (for each class or year group).
The programme should not be dictatorial. It operates as a guide for teachers,
pupils and parents who need clear objectives and an understanding of the
requirements of the level of knowledge being considered. (Teachers could be asked
to talk to their pupils about this at the beginning of the school year.) This is why it
has to be seen alongside a review of underlying philosophy, the objectives sought,
the prerequisites and requirements necessary, and it should also include examples
of where it has been applied.
Objectives and content of different specialisms and at different levels must be
perceived and defined through their interconnections. Programmes must predict
explicitly the places where they repeat part of other programmes and this should
only occur where it is necessary to ensure that fundamental knowledge is acquired.
Although it can be useful to address the same question from different viewpoints
(for example, the law of perspective from the viewpoint of mathematics and the
history of art), we should strive to abolish, when it has been established that no
purpose is served, all undesirable overlaps and double usages. This would be true
both between successive levels of the same specialist areas and between different
subjects within one level.
In order to require and obtain progressive and coherent curriculum courses we
must predetermine, as accurately as possible, the level expected at the beginning
(avoiding systematically vague titles which can be interpreted loosely) and the level
to be reached at the end of the year in question. Programmes must be piloted to
ensure that they can be completed by the majority of pupils (to ensure success they
must be accompanied by indications of the study time required at each stage).
Every fundamental specialism must be taught through a process, planned over
years, which guides the learner from a simple initiation through to a mastery of the
thought processes and requirements which are unique to the specialism.
Coherence and complementarity between courses offered by different
specialist areas must be methodically investigated at each level and it will be
necessary to establish a committee for common courses (at each level) to ensure
coherence and avoid repetition.
While there would be no wish naively to copy foreign models it is possible that a
critical inspiration could be found in a methodical comparison of the curriculum
offered in other countries, notably within Europe. The comparison could provide
a means of bringing to light gaps and omissions and ought to permit the discarding
of remnants from an outdated historical tradition. Not only would this increase

the compatibility of the French with other European systems, it would also
reduce any disadvantage faced against eventual competitors. It would as well lead
to a conscious and explicit redirection of established programmes.
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A critical review of the compulsory curriculum must always reconcile two
variables, compulsoriness and transmittability. On the one hand the acquisition of
an area of knowledge or of a thought process is more or less indispensable for
scientific or social reasons at certain levels; on the other hand, its transmission is
more or less difficult depending on the ability that the children have to assimilate
and the training of the teachers involved.
This principle should lead to the exclusion of any premature transmission of
knowledge. It should lead to the mobilization of all the necessary resources (for
example, in terms of time allocated and teaching methods) to ensure efficient
transmission and assimilation of the areas of knowledge deemed to be essential
(to have a better idea of the real transmittability, at a given level of a knowledge
area or thought process, we should take account of research that would evaluate
mastery of the knowledge taught in different specialisms to pupils of different
levels of attainment and from different social strata). The eventual transformation
of the content of courses and the final modifications to a course should be
established after a trial run in a real situation. This should be done in
collaboration with teachers who have received appropriate training. The
demands for adaptation by teachers should be supported through sabbaticals and
through long secondments which would allow them to prepare for new thinking
processes and areas of knowledge. They should acquire new qualifications in the
process of developing these new approaches.
On a more general note, new systems would have to be erected with the
objective of drawing together and analysing the reactions and reflections of
teachers who would be asked to criticize and suggest improvements (the minitel
system could be useful for that purpose). A permanent search for methodical and
practical teaching research which would bring teachers together and directly
involve them in innovation would be put in place.


In order to improve the effectiveness of knowledge transmission through a

diversification of teaching methods {while at the same time taking account of the
real rather than theoretical knowledge that has to be assimilated) it will be
necessary to disinguish between specialisms as well as within specialisms what is

compulsory and what is optional. Teachers responsible for different specialisms

would come together to develop collective and group learning through, for
example, enquiry or field work approaches.
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The increase in knowledge renders invalid the concept of encyclopaedism. It is

impossible to teach all the specialisms or the whole of a specialist area - besides
which, new specialisms appear which connect fundamental science and technical
application (information technology is within each subject as well as existing as a
subject in its own right). These areas would not be merely added to the curriculum.
Sooner or later the divisions of the curriculum will need redefinition.
It is necessary to substitute for the actual, encyclopaedic, additive and
compartmentalized teaching a system of defined compulsory and optional
subjects, directly adapted to the intellectual orientation of the pupils and planned
to ensure the assimilation of essential knowledge. Alongside this would be a range
of optional and interdisciplinary areas allowing the teachers to take the initiative.
This diversification of pedagogical structures, and of the status of different areas,
will take account of the specific nature of each 'discipline'. This represents a move
away from the mere totalling-up of subjects which, as practised, is one of the major
obstacles to any real transformation of the curriculum. The redefinition would
create alternative theoretical and practical applications, compulsory and optional
courses, individual and group learning (and individualized programmes for
pupils). This would have the effect of reducing the number of hours on pupils'
timetables without increasing the number of classes allocated to each teacher. It
would increase teacher autonomy since, within each de&nedprogramme of study,
they would organize their own study plan before the beginning of the school year.
It should also lead to a more flexible and intensive use of apparatus and buildings
(the relevant authority - department or commune - should involve teachers in the
building or renovation of schools to ensure that education takes place in a setting
which is adapted for quality and need.
Group and multidisciplinary activities would best fit into the afternoon. This is
the case, for example, in the teaching of languages where the study of discourse,
oral and written, and the image are brought together. Language is at the junction of
anumber of specialisms,presupposingthat good use is made of technical materials,
leads to relationships with outside partners (artists, the media, industries, etc.)
necessitating practical as well as analytical activity.


Concern to reinforce the coherence of teaching should lead to the enhancement of

team teaching, that brings together teachers from different disciplines. It should
lead to a rethinking of the divisions within disciplines and a re-examination of
certain historical regroupings. It might succeed, although always gradually, in
bringing closer together the different areas created in the evolution ofscience.

Everything should be done to encourage teachers to co-ordinate their actions

through workshops aimed at exchanging information on content and teaching
method. These would also give them the means (in adapted buildings and with
new equipment, etc.) to enrich, diversify and broaden their teaching and leave
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behind, in the context of team teaching, the strict frontiers of their discipline. (It
would be desirable to have certain teachers who have a formal proportion of
hours allotted to them for the co-ordination and organization of meetings, the
printing of documents, communicating with colleagues, etc.).
Teaching sessions calling on teachers of two (or more) different specialisms,
put together because of their affinity, should have the same status as other lessons
(each hour taught in that way would, in practical terms, have to be acknowledged
as one hour teaching for each teacher). These sessions would be targeted at
groups of pupils assembled on the basis of criteria different from those currently
used. These could be on the basis of attainment, or common interest, or a
particular theme. An allocation of hours, whose use would be freely and annually
determined by the teachers involved, might officially be put aside for that
purpose. All means — enriched and modernized libraries, audio-visual techniques
and so forth—would be mobilized to reinforce the attraction and efficiency of the
approach. The care taken to rethink and surmount the 'frontier' between the
disciplines and corresponding teaching units should not be to the detriment of
the identity of fundamental subject teaching. It should, rather, bring out the
coherence and problematic areas of the thinking process which is the character-
istic of each specialism.


The search for coherence should be accompanied by a search for balance and
integration between the different specialisms and, as a consequence, between
different forms of excellence. It would be especially important to reconcile the
universalism which is inherent in scientific thought and the relativism taught
through the historical sciences and it should reflect the plurality of lifestyles and
cultural traditions.
Everything should be done to reduce the conflict between theory and
technical, between formal and concrete, between pure and applied. Practical
features of the curriculum should be reintegrated within fundamental teaching
areas. The need to balance the room given to what we shall call, for the sake of
convenience, the 'conceptual', the 'sensitive' and the 'corporal' is obvious at all
levels, particularly in the early years. The weight given to technical requirements
and to theoretical requirements will be determined according to criteria which
are unique to each level of the programme. They will therefore take account of
career interests, the pupils' power of abstraction and the time they will be
entering working life.

Modern education should in no way sacrifice the history of languages and

literature, of culture and religion, of philosophy and science. It must, rather,
reassess itself and work ceaselessly towards these histories in an increasingly
subtle and critical manner. For this very reason it must not be based on a
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representation given by those who reduce 'humanism' to a fixed image of

'humanities'. The teaching of languages can, and must, provide the opportunity
to learn logic, just as much as the teaching of physics or biology. The teaching of
mathematics or physics, as much as the teaching of philosophy or history, can
and must prepare the learner for the history of ideas in science or technology
(provided, of course, the teachers are trained accordingly).
On a more general note, access to scientific methods derives from the
acquisition of elementary logic and ways of thought - in other words, techniques
or cognitive tools which are totally indispensable in promoting rigorous and
reflective reasoning. The opposition between art and science which continues to
dominate the organization of schooling and the mentality of teachers, pupils and
pupils' parents can and must be surmounted. The curriculum should be capable
of addressing simultaneously science and the history of science or epistemology.
It should also promote art and literature, and aesthetic reflection and forms of
logic that these subjects can develop. Finally, it will be necessary to teach not only
a mastery of language and literature, philosophy and science, but also the active
process of logical procedures and rhetoric that engagement with these subjects
requires. The apparent abstractness of these areas could be removed if common
programmes were developed where the teacher of mathematics (or physics) and
teachers of language or philosophy made clear that general competencies were
required in the reading of scientific texts, technical briefs or approaches to
argument and discourse. A similar effort should be made to articulate thinking
processes which are part of the natural human sciences, to inculcate the rational,
critical-thinking mode which all sciences teach, and to ensure that these are based
on historical and cultural roots which reflect the range of scientific and cultural
knowledge. In this way the pupil should develop a comprehensive respect for
diversity in time and space and for civilization, lifestyles and cultural traditions.
The National Council for developing all aspects of the curriculum and school
programmes will be expected to put into practice all the principles outlined
above. Membership will be on a personal basis rather than through represen-
tation of teachers, institutions or associations. The National Council will operate
on a permanent basis (which presupposes that members will be freed from a
proportion of their other duties) for a period of five years. Changes will only be
introduced every five years, with the jurisdiction of the National Council
embracing all trends and types of education.

Editor's note. The Curriculum Association is grateful to Professor Bourdieu for

permission to publish this paper and to Martine Moon for the task of translation.