Curriculum Studies in Canada:

Intellectual Histories, Present Circumstances, Future Prospects

William F. Pinar

As an applied field located in a professional faculty, and one without a single parent discipline – psychology, history or philosophy, as in “foundational” studies of education – curriculum studies can seem somewhat scattered, even from the inside. Starting several decades ago, I began devoting part of my time to studying the intellectual histories and present circumstances of curriculum studies fields, interested to see if I could identify persisting preoccupations, threads of conceptual continuity and discontinuity. In addition to in-depth and abbreviated studies of the field in the United States[1], thanks to funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRCC), I gained glimpses of curriculum studies in Brazil[2], China[3], India[4], Mexico[5] and South Africa.[6] Additionally, I have edited the International Handbook of Curriculum Research.[7] Now I am studying curriculum studies in Canada, a SSHRCC funded project featuring research briefs, a public forum, and an online seminar series.[8] It is the rationale for this ongoing research project (CSinC) I summarize here

The CSinC Project is being undertaken in an era when the contours of Canadian identities are being challenged by Canada’s unique realities, among them ongoing efforts at justice for aboriginal peoples, the continuing influx of immigrants and refugees, and the complex relationship with the United States. Addressing such realities through the field of curriculum studies and the school curriculum is critical at this historical conjuncture given the complex and ever-changing intersection of local and global dynamics restructuring education. This proposal addresses this critical need for understanding curriculum, responsive to the vexed relations among schooling, nation building and identity development in order to cultivate more sophisticated understandings of what it means to be educated in Canada. 

My aspiration is to understand curriculum studies scholarship in Canada historically and through the regionally and culturally specific lenses of multi-nationality as specific sites of knowledge production and pedagogical engagement. Central to this study is the hypothesis that understanding the distinctiveness of Canadian curriculum studies can advance the field worldwide, enabling researchers to coordinate their efforts more effectively as they work separately in a culturally complex and politically fractured global village. This investigation aspires to provoke unprecedented understandings of Canadian curriculum through study of its intellectual histories and present circumstances, accenting its potentiality. With the CSinC research team, advised by the Project’s advisory board, we are (1) examining the confluence and divergence of historical movements and contemporary trends in the Canadian scholarship in curriculum studies; (2) synthesizing insights to intensify the impact and potential of the field both globally and locally; (3) producing knowledge that shows how the complex concept of Canada is refracted through Canadian curriculum studies scholarship; (4) supporting knowledge mobilization to create multi-layered intellectual exchange and ongoing dialogic encounter regarding the curricular implications of Canadian curriculum studies.

Research questions include: (1) Can Canadian curriculum studies scholarship be conceptualized as a complicated conversation concerning the past, present and future of the multi-national Canadian state? (2) What are the theoretical and methodological strategies that curriculum scholars across Canada have employed and employ now to understand what representations of Canada mean for school curriculum? (3) What implications do the unique particularities of the multivariate Canadian experience have for curriculum theorizing, development and teaching, and how might these support the intellectual advancement of the field? (4) What roles can Canadian curriculum studies scholarship play in the curriculum studies field worldwide given the increasing prominence of the discourses around knowledge economy, globalization, and the standardization of assessment?

Curriculum is the intellectual and organizational centerpiece of education. Curriculum studies is an interdisciplinary field committed to the study of educational experience, e.g. the interrelations among school subjects and the overall school program with society, history and culture. Understanding curriculum requires contextualization as well as theorization, simultaneously disciplinary and interdisciplinary undertaking, enacting a productive tension that can contribute to the intellectual advancement of the field.[9] Internationalization is a key concept in curriculum studies advancement, as it aspires to support ongoing conversations between and among scholars worldwide as they seek a deeper, richer, more fully nuanced understanding of curriculum in their own and in other countries. As a scholarly commitment, internationalization encourages in-depth intellectual exchanges conversationally and institutionally among scholars; each of the studies I have published features such exchanges as scholars in, say, South Africa explain to colleagues working elsewhere what is at stake in the curriculum studies field in South Africa. Clarification characterizes these efforts to understand the singularity of nationally-based fields of study that often share concepts but not their definitions, functions, and significance. This concept of internationalization acknowledges the continuing salience of the nation as a specific site of scholarly production and pedagogical engagement in curriculum studies, despite its retreat vis-à-vis economic globalization itself now under political stress, including in the U.S. and Europe. 

Such a conception characterizes curriculum studies as a nationally distinctive field foregrounded in the emergence of a worldwide field, institutionalized in the International Association for the Advancement of Curriculum Studies[10] and it describes curriculum studies in Canada, a field comprised of scholars who have often immigrated from elsewhere, bringing with them traditions, concepts and commitments that ensure the Canadian field’s distinctively international character. I make a sharp distinction between internationalization and globalization. In its tendencies toward standardization, globalization threatens distinctive indigenous cultures and national histories as it privileges the economic as the primary prism through which curriculum questions are filtered. These globalizing phenomena and the anti-globalization nativist reactions they trigger, obvious recently in Germany, U.K. and the U.S., constitute the complex circumstances in which curriculum research and reform proceed in the present day. These phenomena are peculiarly and significantly if not uniquely visible in Canada: in its resistance to reactionary responses to the refugee crisis, its embrace of new immigrants, its efforts at truth and reconciliation with indigenous peoples, and its affirmation of its multi-nationality. Canada’s unique set of curricular challenges requires us to ponder what Canadian curriculum means in this complex and politically contentious moment: truth and reconciliation with the indigenous peoples, the influx of immigrants and refugees, and the national ambivalence over Canadian identity and controversies over Canadian history. Such complexities point to Canada’s distinctive salience for the worldwide curriculum studies field, emphasizing the need for understanding what is at stake in cross-cultural and international encounters among scholars as they participate in the worldwide field is now emerging. 

While Canadian researchers in the field of curriculum studies belong to a large and active scholarly community, there have been few efforts to document the overlapping of local and global knowledge in the intellectual histories and present circumstances of the Canadian field. Recent efforts to narrativize the field are focused on methodological collage or métissage, narrative inquiry, meditative inquiry, psychoanalysis, post-colonialism, LGBTQ2 concerns, and urgent issues of Indigeneity. As important as each of these sectors of scholarship and research is, what is needed next is positioning them panoramically in a historical chronology of Canadian curriculum studies scholarship. The unavailability of such a comprehensive compilation of scholarly resources in Canadian curriculum studies risks a myopic specialization as well as an ahistorical reiteration of ideas already elaborated, thereby slowing the intellectual progress and blunting the educational impact of the field. Moreover, the absence of such a synoptic and comprehensive study discourages curriculum studies specialists from communicating with colleagues outside one’s expertise, thus limiting the intellectual resources for the curriculum studies field in Canada. The CSinC Project aims to produce a detailed and nuanced synopsis of curriculum studies in Canada in order to contribute to its restructuring as more interrelated, for example, appropriately specialized but also historically and theoretically expansive. Such a long-term scholarly endeavor promises to produce the critical intellectual distance necessary for scholars and researchers to provide their various constituencies understanding of their present circumstances, including how these are perceived through the prism of the field’s intellectual histories.

The CSinC Project is grounded on the premise that the formation of curriculum studies is mediated through historicity and subjectivity, informed by the field’s intellectual histories, reconfigured by its present circumstances. The theoretical structure of this study reflects upon five themes: 1) historical, 2) contextual, 3) citational, 4) analytic, and 5) international. First, I draw on Katherine Fierlbeck’s The Development of Political Thought in Canada as an exemplary model, underscoring the importance of not only studying the history of ideas but also their sometimes elusive relation to events in the public sphere. To draw upon Fierlbeck’s work, I will provide a detailed synopsis and examination of publications, emphasizing citations from these, in order to emphasize the immediacy and singularity of scholarly while documenting the distinctive character of curriculum studies as a complicated conversation among colleagues past and present, with teachers, about events, policies and prospects for the future, concerned for children in the present. Second, while I depict curriculum studies in Canada historically, I will also identify concerns that cut across specific eras, echoing the subtitle of George Tompkins’ study of A Common Countenance: Stability and Change in the Canadian Curriculum. Tompkins’ canonical but out-of-print study will be invaluable in understanding the complex history of curriculum development from the beginning of settlement in early French and English Canada to 1980. Third, to punctuate the schematic panorama of the synoptic method, enabling understanding of particular iterations of ideas, places, and policies, I draw on practices of orality as theorized by Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan and echoing affirmations of orality among Indigenous peoples. Fourth, to highlight silenced voices and uncovering forgotten Canadian histories, I draw upon theoretical efforts in the academic field of Canadian Studies to identify overlooked themes and narratives. Finally, to position curriculum studies in the present time, I will examine associated research outside Canada by drawing on theoretical studies characteristic of the broad field of international studies.

The CSinC Project is the first synoptic study to systematically chronicle curriculum studies scholarship in Canada. This research is positioned to document and support cutting-edge scholarly work that emphasizes historical consciousness, present circumstances, and multiple versions of past and contemporary Canadian lived experience, specifically as these are represented in curriculum studies. This research will advance current curriculum studies and its ongoing significance for what it means to be educated – what knowledge is of most worth – in Canada. The outcomes of the research project will substantially increase the coherence of the field for scholars working within Canada as it increases the visibility of the Canadian field for scholars working outside Canada, emphasizing for all scholars the unique history and present of the Canadian curriculum studies landscape.

The CSinC Project’s practical contribution can be twofold. First, research briefs allow individual scholars and public-school professionals to identify conceptual resources to rethink Canadian curriculum in local as well as national and international settings. Second, creative and engaging knowledge mobilization activities – an online public forum, an online seminar series – encourage the scholars and teaching professionals to supplement their understanding of curriculum beyond daily experience and formal academic programs, thereby promoting an ongoing intellectual engagement with the academic field and daily practice that can help enact curriculum as a complicated conversation in which not only disciplinary specialists but scholars outside faculties of education as well as the general public are invited to participate.

Research Method

         To enable a comprehensive understanding of curriculum studies in Canada, I will employ synoptic research method, a hybrid version of established interpretive methods. As articulated in The Synoptic Text Today and other Essays: Curriculum Development after the Reconceptualization[11], I formulated and demonstrated the concept of synoptic text, that is summarizing recent and relevant research in the academic disciplines toward the subjective and social reconstruction of the public sphere that is the public-school classroom. In the context of this proposed research, such a reconceptualization of curriculum development enables scholars and teachers to engage in dialogue through the curriculum concerning Canadian intellectual histories and present circumstances. Synoptic research method is appropriate here because the research questions require a thorough understanding of the historical and contemporary issues being addressed in Canadian curriculum studies. Other benefits of the synoptic method include: (1) by documenting and analyzing the field’s intellectual history, I can chronicle the succession of concepts, ideas and practices internal to the field; (2) by examining the widening circles of contextualization, I can situate these concepts in national as well as international events, movements, and policies; (3) by drawing on practices of orality among indigenous and other first and settler peoples, I can articulate reverberating iterations of ideas, experiences, and places; (4) by narrativizing singular voices, ideas, events and policies into thematic continuities and discontinuities, I can make meaning of what is particular, irreducible, unrepeatable as well as what seems thematic and shared; (5) by associating the histories, contextual elements, cited voices, and thematic configurations in the Canadian field with histories and concepts in fields outside Canada, I can demonstrate the complexity of the field and point to future projects and prospects worldwide for curriculum studies scholars working in Canada.

To compose an intellectual history, analyze present circumstances, and forecast future prospects of curriculum studies in Canada, I draw upon my theorization of intellectual advancement through disciplinarity, the two structures of which are “verticality” and “horizontality.”[12] Verticality denotes the historical and intellectual topography of a discipline; horizontality refers to analyses of present circumstances, both in terms of the present conceptual state of the field, as well as relevant social, cultural, political, and institutional issues that influence scholarship. Attending to the verticality and horizontality of the Canadian curriculum studies scholarship allows both panoramic portrayals of scholarship over time and within specific periods, as well as localized, detailed, magnified examinations of pivotal pieces. Moreover, such a research design signifies both the theoretical framework and the methodological structure of this project. In particular, it focuses on points of intersection between vertical modes of historical knowledge and consciousness within the field and horizontal flows of synergistic dialogue between local intellectual trends and global influences. It enables me to study the internal and external circumstances of the field in relation to the past and present economic, political, educational, and sociocultural circumstances. Such research can become a nexus for formulating connections that traverse nodes of conceptual entanglement, disclosing patterns that point to strategic recommendations I will make to the field of Canadian curriculum studies.

No study of the scale I am proposing has been undertaken in Canada. The proposed project includes extensive citation of associated curriculum studies research, including research undertaken by specialists in other fields (but with obvious implications for curriculum studies) and in other countries. Present circumstances constitute not only the current state of the field and the institutional, regional and national arrangements that structure it, the phrase also includes research conducted in other countries on other continents. Canada’s long-standing commitment to international peace-keeping and humanitarian aid, its welcoming of refugees and immigrants, as well as its failures to live up to its ideals, are, I hypothesize, reflected in several sectors of the field. That reflection could be magnified by the explicit association of curriculum studies in Canada with curriculum studies in Brazil, China, India, Mexico, South Africa, and the United States (as well as other countries). Therefore, in order to provide a comprehensive and detailed intellectual history of the field, intensive synoptic content study and analysis are required. Data sources include every issue of relevant journals, especially the Journal of the Canadian Association for Curriculum Studies (2003-current), Curriculum Inquiry (and its predecessor Curriculum Theory Network: 1976-current), the Canadian Journal of Education (1991-current), as well as articles in other journals, chapters in books and handbooks authored by curriculum studies scholars working in Canada.

Data analysis will take place through an ongoing process of data summarization, thematic coding, critical discourse analysis, and content and document analysis in order to provide a synoptic documentation and reconstruction of Canadian intellectual histories and present circumstances, accented by internal debates concerning national identity and linked to external perceptions and knowledge of the field. My analysis will attend to the content of the narratives, the specificities of national history and culture, and what these portend for a Canadian curriculum of the future.


Pinar, William F. 2006. The Synoptic Text Today and other essays: Curriculum Development after the Reconceptualization. New York: Peter Lang.

Pinar, William F. 2007. Intellectual Advancement through Disciplinarity: Verticality and Horizontality in Curriculum Studies. Rotterdam and Taipei: Sense Publishers.

Pinar, William F. Ed. 2010. Curriculum Studies in South Africa: Intellectual Histories, Present Circumstances. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pinar, William F. Ed. 2011a. Curriculum Studies in Brazil: Intellectual Histories, Present Circumstances. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pinar, William F. Ed.  2011b. Curriculum Studies in Mexico: Intellectual Histories, Present Circumstances. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pinar, William F. Ed.  2013. Curriculum Studies in the United States: Intellectual Histories, Present Circumstances. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pinar, William F. Ed. 2014a. Curriculum Studies in China: Intellectual Histories, Present Circumstances. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pinar, William F. Ed. 2014b. The International Handbook of Curriculum Research. (2nd edition.) New York: Routledge.

Pinar, William F. Ed. 2015. Curriculum Studies in India: Intellectual Histories, Present Circumstances. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Pinar, William F., William Reynolds, Patrick Slattery and Peter Taubman. 1995. Understanding Curriculum. New York: Peter Lang.

[1] Pinar et al. 1995. The abbreviated study is Pinar 2013.

[2] 2011a.

[3] 2014a.

[4] 2015.,

[5] 2011b.

[6] 2010.

[7] 2014b.


[9] Pinar 2007.


[11] Pinar 2006.

[12] 2007.