Celebrating an Aokian Experience: A Curriculum Scholar Review for EDU 6102 by Sarah Olson

Celebrating an Aokian Experience: A Curriculum Scholar Review for EDU 6102 by Sarah Olson

Celebrating an Aokian Experience

On February 28, 2003, in an address to a crowd of curriculum theorists gathered to honour the intellectual achievements of world-renowned curriculum theorist Dr. Ted Tetsuo Aoki, William Pinar suggested that Aoki is “the man who taught us to ‘hear’ curriculum in a ‘new key’” (Pinar, 2003, 2).  Aoki has been writing about curriculum since the mid nineteen-seventies, “when some considered curriculum studies to be moribund… [and he] took up the challenge to reimagine what curriculum studies could become… He made room for curriculum to come alive in any learning opportunity” (Irwin, 2005, xxi).

Throughout his distinguished career, spanning several decades, Dr. Aoki has helped make room for culture and an exploration of lived experiences within the boundaries of curriculum theorizing.  Ted Aoki is said to be famously reserved about discussing his teaching style, although his renown is due in part certainly to these very capabilities.  He does not purport to have ‘answers’ to curriculum dilemmas, but is nevertheless viewed as a leader in the field because he recognizes which important questions, those at the heart of curriculum studies, require investigation (Carson, 2004).  He continues to inspire many teachers, curriculum studies students, and administrators through his poetic writing and moving speeches probing those important questions.

Who is Ted Aoki?

Aoki is a Japanese-Canadian from Vancouver, British Columbia.  Though he was raised in British Columbia and completed a Bachelor of Commerce at the University of British Columbia in 1941, his family was forcibly removed from coastal British Columbia and relocated to Southern Alberta in 1942 (Carson, 2004).  This relocation occurred during a time of mounting prejudice against Japanese-Canadians after the attacks on Pearl Harbour.  Years later, when he enrolled at the Calgary Normal School to pursue a Bachelor of Education degree, Aoki found himself once again discriminated against, as he was not allowed to live within the city limits while completing his degree (Carson, 2004).  These experiences of prejudice helped to shape the directionality of some of Aoki’s work which explores the role of culture in curriculum.

Ted Aoki worked in the public school system for a number of years and also completed a Master of Education degree at the University of Alberta in 1963.  A year later, in 1964, he was approached by the Chair of Secondary University of Alberta and was asked to take a professorship at the Faculty of Education.  Though he retired in 1985, much of his writing was published after his retirement (Carson, 2004) and a great number of his notable pieces centre on “the space between,” a philosophy which he uses to legitimize the tension between the curriculum-as-planned and the lived curriculum, and also between cultures.  A sign of the indelible mark he had made in the field of curriculum studies, Aoki was awarded honorary doctorate degrees from the University of Lethbridge (1988), the University of British Columbia (1991), the University of Alberta (1992), and the University of Western Ontario (1999).

An Evolving Body of Work

Though many would classify Aoki’s work in curriculum theory as phenomenological, Pinar (2003, 2) asserts that his oeuvre “cannot adequately be described as ‘phenomenological,’” because it smacks of not only phenomenology, but also of post-structuralism, multiculturalism, critical theory, and cultural criticism.  Though some budding curriculum scholars are acquainted with Aoki through the lens of ‘phenomenology’ or ‘hermeneutics’, Pinar reminds us that the depth and breadth of Aoki’s work cannot be so simply categorized.  His writing often contains notions which cannot necessarily be stripped out nor which are easy to distil.  But within his poetic musings lies a serious re/examiniation of the ‘space between’, where we might be enlightened to learn more about the notion of negotiating in between the curriculum-as-planned and lived curriculum, or understand how the feelings of existing in between cultural realms might inform our own (sensitive) practice as educators and curriculum theorists.

My perceptions of Aokian philosophy center on the importance of integrating critical cultural exploration into curriculum and of exploring the notion of a lived curriculum alongside planned curriculum.  I wonder, ‘how can I successfully integrate so many notions into one practice?’  If not a rigid recipe for success, then perhaps his work can at least offer food for thought – a kick in the right direction when it comes to theorizing about curriculum and provide help in rolling-out the curricular ball.

Reconceptualizing Curriculum Theory

Aoki’s work of reconceptualizing curriculum as a lived experience has been lauded by curriculum scholars as one of his greatest achievements.  In her preface to the collected works of Dr. Ted Aoki, Rita Irwin states that Aoki “opened our minds to reconceptualizing curriculum, moving us away from curriculum-as-plan to the lived curriculum” (Irwin, 2005, xxi).  In Toward Curriculum Inquiry in a New Key (1978), Aoki observes that “there is a growing interest among educators in theoretical studies that fall within the phenomenological attitude” (16).  He contends that using multiple perspectives, including a situational interpretive orientation, can help curriculum theorists “spur toward vitalized curriculum research praxis” (Aoki, 1978, 2).

In pursuing curriculum research as a phenomenological activity, Aoki suggests that we are better able to understand the experience of living curriculum.  Carson (2004, 2) has said that Aoki “simply and yet profoundly understood that to be a teacher is to live in uncomfortable space of tension between the curriculum-as-plan, and the curriculum-as-lived in actual schools and classrooms”.  Aoki (1993) describes this ‘tension in between’ curricula via an expansion of the understanding of multiplicity.

Though the concept of curriculum-as-planned is modernistic, dealing with educational outcomes and goals to be implemented by a teacher, there is no written guide for the actual process of implementation within a community of interpersonal beings (our students!).  A lived curriculum acknowledges the individual differences of those learning and “accommodates lived meanings, thereby legitimating thoughtful everyday narratives” (Aoki, 1993, 263). Thus, in a multiplicity model of curriculum, we can emerge from the space in between curriculum-as-planned and curriculum-as-lived to explore efficient ways to integrate both curricula: “the prosaic discourse of the external curriculum planners…[and] the poetic, phenomenological and hermeneutic discourse in which life is embodied” (1993, 261) both become important.

Aoki asks if teachers can re-attune as teachers, given an understanding of the multiplicity of curricula.  He believes that pedagogic leading is “not so much as asking the followers to follow because the leader always knows the way.  Rather… it is a responsible responding to students” (1993, 266).  In acknowledging students’ uniqueness and “giving legitimacy to the wisdom held in lived stories of people who dwell within the [curriculum] landscape,” (1993, 267) we as teachers can exist within the domains of the curriculum-as-planned and the lived curriculum, where we can bring to both knowledge and wisdom to our practice.  In making room for the lived experience for curriculum, we are making room for our students’ personalities and interests to take centre-stage, and allow their imprints on the curriculum to help shape its implementation.

Intertwining of Culture and Curriculum

Aoki’s work often centres on his own life writings and is deeply autobiographical.  For example, his experiences as an ‘other’ within Canadian society – having experienced prejudice in wartime and struggling to identify his own ‘place’ here as a Japanese-Canadian – have prompted him to focus on the hyphen “[w]hen speaking of his identity” (Carson, 2004, 2).  He has thus not only dwelt on the spaces in between curriculum-as-planned and curriculum-as-lived, but even “on the space between being Japanese and Canadian” (Carson, 2004, 2).  His scholarship within the realms of culture in curriculum has helped many teachers, including myself, to re-consider the homogenous Eurocentric nature of our curriculum documents and pedagogy and to consider the importance of experiencing ethnicity in curriculum.

Aoki views the ‘other’ community as a being different – not diverse.  Diversity, he feels, “produces, in its seemingly liberal openness and tolerance of other, a silent form that contains and constrains differences on the underside of diversity” (Aoki, 1999, 32).  In a speech about the clash between understanding the Pacific community as different rather than as diverse, Aoki looks to Bhabha, a  critical theorist, who suggests that a dominant society (read: Canada) will usually contend that “other cultures are fine, as long as we can locate them on our own grid” (as cited in Aoki, 1999, p. 32).  Instead of employing such an assimilative approach, it is important to move toward an integrative approach of curriculum design wherein cultures are explored, shared, and cherished with everyone in the classroom.  Aoki’s own response to this concept is to move towards an exploration of the spaces between cultures, which have a generative potential to create something new in curriculum.

In his article Experiencing Ethnicity as a Japanese Canadian Teacher: Reflections on a Personal Curriculum (1983), Aoki explains how he can pull aspects from both his Japanese and his Canadian identities, or cultural understandings, to view the world through a lens which is reflective of both identities.  In learning to “see life within the fullness of a double or even a multiple vision” (Aoki, 1983, 334), teachers may come to see their world through multiple philosophies of living and learning, thereby enriching their classroom and perhaps coming to better address their students’ cultural identities.

Aoki’s understanding of the space between both Western reductionism and Eastern wisdom “as spaces of generative possibilities…where newness can flow” (Aoki, 1996, 7) entices me to explore this ‘and’ – the space between cultures – in order to determine what it might illuminate in terms of understanding concepts of Eastern wisdom and Western knowledge (Aoki, 1996) in my teaching practice.  In an increasingly multicultural landscape in Canada and across the world, I see that an understanding of others’ lived situations has implications for enhanced teaching practice where various cultures and worldviews are explored to help inform students’ understanding of the world around them.

Lasting Impressions

The works of Ted Aoki have helped to reconceptualize the field of curriculum studies as one that chooses cultural integration over assimilation, and lived experiences over prescribed plans.  My own perceptions of Aoki’s scholarship have helped me to push my understandings of the importance of phenomenological research in curriculum studies.  Pursuing curriculum studies as a phenomenological act can heighten one’s understanding of how curriculum is played out in and thus shed light into how one can navigate the spaces between curriculum-as-planned and curriculum-as-lived.  I think that this insight is instrumental in developing meaningful curricula.

If teaching is indeed so human an act as Aoki contends (Aoki, 1983), then curriculum ought to be more responsive to the nature and desires of those it guides.  It ought to be responsive to students and their lived stories, and also ought to be responsive to the cultural smorgasbord which exists in many Canadian classrooms.  Certainly, Aoki’s scholarship has resounded within the curriculum field for decades and has influenced curriculum scholarship in this country and abroad, helping to establish new curricular conceptions.


Aoki, T. T. (1999). In the midst of doubled imaginaries: the Pacific community as diversity and as difference. Interchange: a Quarterly Review of Education, 30(1), 27–38.

Aoki, T. T., (1996). Imaginaries of ‘East and West’: Slippery curricular signifiers in education. Constitutive Interplay midst Discourse of East and West: Modernity & Postmodernity Renderings in Adult & Continuing Education. Proceedings of the International Adult & Continuing Education Conference. Seoul: Korea. 195.

Aoki, T. T., (1993). Legitimating lived curriculum: Towards a curricular landscape of multiplicity, Journal of Curriculum and Supervision, 8(3). 255-268.

Aoki, T. T., (1983). Experiencing ethnicity as a Japanese Canadian teacher: Reflections on a personal curriculum. Curriculum Inquiry, 13(3). 321-335.

Aoki, T. T., (1978). Toward curriculum inquiry in a new key, Occasional Paper No.2, Curriculum Praxis, Publication Services, Faculty of Education, University of Alberta.

Bhabha, J. (1990). The third space: Interview with Homi Bhabha. In J. Rutherford (Ed.), Identity: Community, culture, difference. London: Lawrence and Wishart. 207-221.

Carson, T. (2004). Ted Aoki: Living in the question of teaching. The Orange: The University of Alberta Alumi Magazine, 6(2). Edmonton: Alberta.

Pinar, W. F. and Irwin, Rita L. (Eds.). (2005). Curriculum in a new key: The collected works of Ted T. Aoki. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Pinar, W. F. (2003). A lingering note: Comments on the collected works of Ted T. Aoki. Educational Insights, 8(2).

Irwin, R. L. (2005). Preface, In Curriculum in a new key: The collected works of Ted T. Aoki, William F. Pinar and Rita L. Irwin (Eds.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.