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Curriculum work and hermeneutics: A new paradigm for contemporary education?

Steven Hodge, Deputy Director of the Griffith Institute for Educational Research at Griffith University

Teachers’ curriculum work can be a controversial topic (see for example Priestley, 2011). It is a high-level concern for politicians, public commentators, parents and professional groups, and for those who determine, design and develop curriculum for nations, systems and schools. It is a daily reality for countless teachers and students. The great theoretical and practical complexity of the topic of curriculum can be effectively tamed by adopting an image of teachers’ curriculum work as essentially that of transmission. Transmission here makes intuitive sense in a society fundamentally structured by division of labour; it seems natural that curriculum would be debated by one group, elaborated by another, and applied by a third.

Education researchers have long objected to the transmission image and its implications (see for example Clandinin & Connelly, 1992), but the image itself has exhibited remarkable resilience. Theory of interpretation (or ‘hermeneutics’ – the formal study of reading and understanding texts and artefacts) offers another form of critique of the transmission image. Although unlikely to influence whatever societal patterns of thought underpin faith in it, hermeneutic theory at least helps us understand why it is that centralised curriculum intentions and reforms are very often frustrated in practice.

The prompt for tapping into hermeneutic theory is the observation that when teachers work with curriculum, they read, interpret and apply, thus selectively translating what is received into the plans, activities and resources of the classroom. Hermeneutics is quite an old area of study that first emerged in response to the challenge of finding the ‘true’ meaning of scriptures in contexts far removed from original sites of production. Interpreting laws also created questions that shaped hermeneutics. In these settings, contestation over the meaning of important texts produced theories of interpretation. Over time, these theories were found to be relevant to broader research topics, and in the 20th century, hermeneutics became a full-blown philosophical field concerned with human existence and social meaning-making.

In my recently published article, ‘Curriculum work and hermeneutics’, two major concepts of this body of knowledge are brought to bear on teachers’ work. The first is the ‘hermeneutic circle’ familiar to many qualitative researchers. The notion points to the great complexity, variation and indeterminateness of the process of finding the meaning of texts. In the light of this idea, when they read curriculum, teachers bring very substantial resources to the process that the theory labels ‘pre-understanding’. This is not a passive store but an active and richly informed ability grown through life and study. Through their pre-understanding, teachers already know much about a new curriculum text, often commencing with detailed foreknowledge of structures and content. As they read, some of these anticipations are confirmed, others perhaps are challenged. What results is a temporary ‘take’ on the text, a best reading for now. The hermeneutic circle idea suggests curriculum reading is complex, has no definite endpoint, and its results reveal as much about the teacher as it does about the text.

‘Through their pre-understanding, teachers already know much about a new curriculum text, often commencing with detailed foreknowledge of structures and content.’

Another disquieting idea from the hermeneutic corpus is that of the ‘autonomy of the text.’ Originally, hermeneutics was about revealing the true intentions of authors. However, developments in areas like semiotics suggested that once a text enters different cultural milieus, links with other texts, and is read in diverse times and places, it takes on a life of its own. The inherent ‘polysemy’ of words is activated as texts are taken up in new settings and related to new worlds. With respect to teachers’ work with curriculum, the implication is that the intentions of authorities are unlikely to be conveyed in a direct form through the texts of curriculum to the classroom. Rather, the particularity of teachers and students shape interpretation and disclose meanings specific to those temporal, geographic and cultural locales.

When brought to bear on curriculum work, these two hermeneutic concepts undermine the transmission idea. If the process of teachers’ reading involves something like the hermeneutic circle, then curriculum interpretation is a rich, complex and creative practice of finding and balancing meanings and needs, and that tells us much about the being of the teacher. And if the significance of curriculum documents is autonomous of their authors, then interpretation probably cannot reconstruct intentions. Rather, curriculum texts would proliferate rather than concentrate meanings, underwriting novel readings and applications.

The assumptions of the transmission image become untenable, raising interesting new vistas for researching teachers’ curriculum work. For policymakers, system administrators and school managers, the implication is that teachers need to be regarded as partners and collaborators who should be trusted to modify and reconstruct curriculum to suit the needs of real students and local communities. Curriculum itself needs to be understood as a shared, dynamic construction that is brought to life through teachers’ hermeneutic activity. A paradigm shift is signalled, but it is one that promises richer learning for students and more fulfilled teachers.

This blog post is based on the article ‘Curriculum work and hermeneutics’ published as part of the special issue guest edited by Steven Hodge, ‘Towards Curricular Entanglements: Extending, Complicating, and (Re)imagining Curriculum Work’, in the Curriculum Journal.


Clandinin, D. J., & Connelly, F. M. (1992). Teacher as curriculum maker. Handbook of research on curriculum (pp. 363–401). Macmillan Publishing Company.

Hodge, S. (2024). Curriculum work and hermeneutics. Curriculum Journal, 35(1), 6–19. 

Priestley, M. (2011). Schools, teachers, and curriculum change: A balancing act? Journal of Educational Change, 12(1), 1–23.