Book Review: ‘The Work of Lawrence Stenhouse: Curriculum, Pedagogy, and Educational Research’

Book Review: ‘The Work of Lawrence Stenhouse: Curriculum, Pedagogy, and Educational Research’, edited by John Elliott and Nigel Norris

London, Routledge, 2011. Pp. 163. Hb. £85.00.

Reviewed by Geoffrey Hinchliffe

In early September 1982, there was a packed meeting near Norwich, in memory of Lawrence Stenhouse who had recently died at the age of fifty-six.  He had been ill for some time.  In a short address, Barry MacDonald – a close colleague of Stenhouse at the University of East Anglia – said of him that he ‘was a weaver of dreams and seductive possibilities’, an intellectual, ‘one of the best who seldom left an argument by the same door he came in.’ Who could not be seduced to find out more about a man and his ideas characterised with such generous words? These words are recorded by Nigel Norris at the beginning of a brief intellectual biography of Stenhouse, which forms part of this wider study by a range of distinguished educational researchers and thinkers. The study is partly personal, with some reminiscences, but the greater part of it offers an exposition and discussion of Stenhouse’s ideas. It is largely uncritical, but none the worse for that. The aim of the book, published on the thirtieth anniversary of Stenhouse’s death, is to ensure that his ideas are kept alive and, hopefully, brought to a new audience. To encourage this, I hope that this book is released in paperback as soon as possible.

Lawrence Stenhouse, for those who don’t know, based his thinking on an epistemological thesis that emphasised the provisionality of knowledge and research. He believed, however, that this thesis had implications for teaching in so far as a curriculum is itself an object of enquiry that is tested in the classroom and seminar by both teachers and students. A curriculum is nothing more than a series of hypotheses that can be refined but never perfected. Consequently, Stenhouse stressed that education is a matter of process rather than the achievement of prescribed objectives: the aim of education is itself enshrined in the process of enquiry. Moreover – and this is crucial – he never believed that enquiry could only be conducted by the most able.  He held strongly to the view that young people of all abilities and backgrounds could be encouraged to think of their learning in terms of enquiry. Behind Stenhouse’s educational theory was a firm and generous democratic conviction that was thoroughly optimistic about what human beings could achieve. Moreover, he viewed this achievement not as the mere fulfilling of individual potential but as sharing in and participating in a democratic culture. What is striking about Stenhouse the person, however, is that he found the energy and purpose to try and make these ideas actually happen in the classroom. He was an intellectual all right, but one with strong pragmatic abilities as well.

Norris’s introductory piece is full of detail, having tracked down aspects of Stenhouse’s life that might otherwise be forgotten. Norris speculates that Stenhouse’s childhood may have been an influence on his work. He was born in Scotland in 1926, but brought up in Burnage Garden Village, just outside Manchester.  Burnage was a ‘model village’, whose physical design helped to promote a sense of community and whose tenants were joint owners of their properties.  He attended Manchester Grammar School and was much influenced by one of the history teachers there, who helped him to see and experience the seductive power of ideas. After teaching for a number of years, Stenhouse worked at Durham University in the mid-1950s before moving to Jordanhill College in Glasgow.  Then, in 1967, Stenhouse became Director of the Humanities Curriculum Project (HCP), which Elliott and Norris consider his ‘greatest achievement’ (p. 1). The HCP arose from two sources: an investigation by the Nuffield Foundation into school leavers, and a series of papers commissioned by the Schools Council[1] on subject teaching.

The HCP explored how standards in the humanities (broadly conceived) could be raised so as to improve the quality of the schooling experience for young people. The pedagogy promoted was one of enquiry, which explicitly aimed at encouraging ‘adolescents to work in a more adult way’ (p. 26), while at the same time changing the role of the teacher from one of instructor to one of co-investigator. The role of the teacher was not merely to facilitate learning to a prescribed outcome: the teacher herself would not know what the outcome of the enquiry would be. According to John Elliot’s account in this book, the HCP was structured around problems rather than topics: this aimed to avoid a list approach to subjects and to give the enquiry some focus. Learning packs were compiled by the HCP team, but teachers were not expected to be bound by them. The HCP was trialled in over 40 schools and for a time gained the attention of the national press. This arose from its attempt to address race relations through a strategy of enquiry in which the teacher herself remained neutral. The classroom procedure of the HCP is documented by Elliott on p. 88 of the book: teachers were advised not to use their authority as a platform for promoting their own views, but that they were, nonetheless, responsible for quality and standards in learning. Evidence suggested that the process did not give free rein to bigotry but, if anything, encouraged greater tolerance among pupils. Eventually though, this particular part of the project was quietly dropped in the face of widespread disquiet among teachers’ unions and others.

The central idea behind the HCP’s learning strategy was that the process should, as much as possible, replicate just what constitutes a democratic process: pupils were not to be merely instructed in the ingredients of such a process were but were encouraged to experience it directly through creative interaction. Stenhouse believed that the culture of a classroom affected the nature of the learning that happened there; so, for example, a classroom with a strongly instrumental culture would learn democratic values through instruction rather than enactment.

Other chapters in the book are also full of interest. Richard Pring emphasises the links that Stenhouse made between education, experience, and culture: the thinking behind enquiry-based learning was to encourage the development of critical dispositions. Stenhouse was convinced that compulsory education had produced an ‘impoverished literacy’ (p. 55). To combat this he advocated that the ‘starting point should be the working group, not the individual’ (p. 55), based on the premise that education was founded on co-operation, not authoritarianism. Mary James explores in more detail Stenhouse’s thinking on the curriculum and makes the interesting point that Stenhouse was not opposed to outcomes as such, since all learning has an outcome; rather, he was opposed to a curriculum structured in terms of objectives. Interestingly, James points out that Stenhouse understood standards to be expressed in forms of knowledge and modes of experience (p. 73). His thinking cannot, therefore, be seen as expressing a pedagogy that disavowed the importance of subject matter. As this book makes clear, he was perfectly comfortable with Richard Peters’ views on education as a process and with Paul Hirst’s thesis on the forms of knowledge. He wished to go further, both building on these philosophical insights and bringing them to bear on a workable curriculum. As a reading of Stenhouse’s Culture and Education (1967) itself makes clear, he believed that the curriculum needs to be organised around culture so that knowledge in the form of subject matter is one of the building blocks in achieving this. Thus, Stenhouse could be interpreted as going beyond Hirst.

When the HCP was terminated in 1972, it was housed at the University of East Anglia, where Stenhouse settled for what turned out to be the remaining ten years of his life. In this time, he established the Centre for Applied Research into Education (CARE), which is still going strong. His particular interest in the use of case studies in educational research is discussed here by Ivor Goodson.  Stenhouse developed these ideas in respect of teaching history, but their generalisability was soon recognised. Goodson draws particular attention to Stenhouse’s belief that such studies must provide an evidence base capable of ‘public scrutiny’. It was key to Stenhouse that ‘no qualitatively based theorising in education should be regarded as acceptable unless its argument stands or falls on interpretation of accessible well cited sources, so that the interpretation it offers can be critically examined’ (quoted on p. 111). Goodson also notes that, in 1977, Stenhouse warned that case study could be subject to ‘ideological distortion’ in so far as it ‘ministers to educational decision making with regard to a specified programme’ (p. 112), words that turned out to be somewhat prescient.

Although all the chapters in this book are of huge interest, there is one that stands out for me.  The book includes Stenhouse’s inaugural lecture at the University of East Anglia, which is a real tour de force, combining as it does his views on the nature of knowledge, curriculum, and pedagogy. He starts by questioning the following thesis put forward by an American academic: ‘knowledge that can be taught no longer requires investigation whilst knowledge that still needs to be investigated cannot yet be taught.’  In arguing against this, Stenhouse summons Abelard (the lecture coincided with the nine hundredth anniversary of his birth), who emphasised the uncertainties in the search for knowledge, rather than ‘the parade of learning which we trust is ours’ (quoted on p. 122). Yet Stenhouse is far from disavowing the authority of the teacher; rather, the problem ‘is how to design a practicable pattern of teaching which maintains authority, leadership and the responsibility of the teacher, but does not carry the message that such authority is the warrant of knowledge’. He goes on to explain how an ‘educated use of instruction’ is provisional and speculative in temper, and to suggest that this speculative approach should not be confined to an elite (p. 131). In the final section he explores the meaning of action research – the view that teachers conduct research in the classroom, using that as their research laboratory. In support of this approach, Stenhouse suggests that ‘the teacher cannot learn by enquiry without undertaking that the pupils learn too’ (p. 133).

The book raises many questions, and I will identify three here. First, I would ask – though this shouldn’t deter anyone from reading this volume – why the book doesn’t offer an account of the outcome of the Humanities Curriculum Project. What did it achieve for the students and teachers who took part in it? Although the process of evaluation (which was one of the key features of the HCP) is discussed briefly, more could have been said on this. The second question concerns educational authority. For while Stenhouse and his associates appeared to have, as educational researchers, far more policy influence than researchers today, was there any real authority behind the HCP? While it was inspiring, salutary, and thoroughly worthwhile, it remained, in the end, a brave experiment. The final question I will raise is to ask, as many teachers and readers of this might: Would there not be many practicable difficulties that would prevent the realisation of the ideas enshrined in the HCP? For example, what could be called a ‘mixed pedagogy’ might have more success in a classroom that contained more formal instruction as one of its elements. Other doubts might be raised too about what the process of enquiry might achieve. The learning outcomes might be too porous to have a lasting impact (so it could be argued), so that while the process of learning might be stimulating and hugely enjoyable there might result a knowledge deficit in learners. One thing is certain: Stenhouse would have replied to these doubts with cogent and convincing answers.

The last section of the book contains a helpful chapter on Stenhouse’s legacy in respect of curriculum theory, pedagogical practice, and the role of the teacher. It is perhaps in curriculum theory that his main influence continues, since in Stenhouse’s hands a curriculum is no longer mere ‘content’, but a living entity that is actualised in the classroom through the interaction of teacher and students. Moreover, Stenhouse showed that, through conceiving the curriculum as a process, education cannot be abbreviated and packaged into objectives. To do so, from Stenhouse’s point of view, was to give not an effective education but an impoverished experience of learning.

In the end, one is struck by just how much Lawrence Stenhouse and his associates actually achieved in a relatively short space of time. They did not succeed in transforming the educational landscape as they wished: but they did, through that logic of speculation so ably set out by Stenhouse in his inaugural lecture, set alight a big, bright flame of hope that still shines today.

Correspondence: Geoffrey Hinchliffe, University of East Anglia, [email protected]


Stenhouse, L. (1967) Culture and Education, London, Nelson.

[1] The Schools Council itself had been formed in 1964 and was a national organisation, staffed by professional educators and serviced by civil servants with the aim of developing practice both in curriculum and pedagogy. It was abolished by the Thatcher Government.