Ralph W. Tyler

The American educator/scholar Ralph W. Tyler (1902-1994) was closely associated with curriculum theory and development and educational assessment and evaluation. Many consider him to be the "father" of behavioral objectives, a concept he frequently used in asserting learning to be a process through which one attains new patterns of behavior.

Ralph Winfred Tyler was born April 22, 1902, in Chicago, Illinois, and soon thereafter (1904) moved to Nebraska. In 1921, at the age of 19, Tyler received the A.B. degree from Doane College in Crete, Nebraska, and began teaching high school in Pierre, South Dakota. He obtained the A.M. degree from the University of Nebraska (1923) while working there as assistant supervisor of sciences (1922-1927). In 1927 Tyler received the Ph.D. degree from the University of Chicago.

After serving as associate professor of education at the University of North Carolina (1927-1929), Tyler went to Ohio State University where he attained the rank of professor of education (1929-1938). It was around 1938 that he became nationally prominent due to his involvement in the Progressive Education related Eight Year Study (1933-1941), an investigation into secondary school curriculum requirements and their relationship to subsequent college success. In 1938 Tyler continued work on the Eight Year Study at the University of Chicago, where he was employed as chairman of the Department of Education (1938-1948), dean of social sciences (1948-1953), and university examiner (1938-1953). In 1953 Tyler became the first director of the Stanford, California-based Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, a position he held until his retirement in 1966.

Ralph Tyler's scholarly publications were many and spanned his entire career. Among his most useful works is Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction (1949), a course syllabus used by generations of college students as a basic reference for curriculum and instruction development. Basic Principles perhaps influenced more curriculum specialists than any other single work in the curriculum field. This syllabus, written in 1949 when Tyler was teaching at the University of Chicago, identifies four basic questions which have guided the development of untold curricula since the 1940s: 1) What are the school's educational purposes? 2) What educational experiences will likely attain these purposes? 3) How can the educational experiences be properly organized? 4) How can the curriculum be evaluated? An author of several other books, Tyler also wrote numerous articles appearing in yearbooks, encyclopedias, and periodicals.

When Tyler first went to Ohio State University in 1929 he was already formulating his ideas regarding the specification of educational objectives. While working with various departments at Ohio State in an effort to discover better instructional methods, he began to solidify his belief that true learning is a process which results in new patterns of behavior, behavior meaning a broad spectrum of human reactions that involve thinking and feeling as well as overt actions.

This reasoning reveals the cryptic distinction between learning specific bits and pieces of information and understanding the unifying concepts that underlie the information. Tyler stressed the need for educational objectives to go beyond mere memorization and regurgitation. Indeed, learning involves not just talking about subjects but a demonstration of what one can do with those subjects. A truly educated person, Tyler seems to say, has not only acquired certain factual information but has also modified his/her behavior patterns as a result. (Thus, many educators identify him with the concept of behavioral objectives.) These behavior patterns enable the educated person to adequately cope with many situations, not just those under which the learning took place. Tyler asserted that this is the process through which meaningful education occurs, his caveat being that one should not confuse "being educated" with simply "knowing facts"; the application of facts is education's primary raison d'etre.

Tyler's establishment of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences was one of his most noteworthy achievements. His ideas for the center at the time were very progressive and remained excellent examples for proposals regarding scholarly study into the 1980s. Scholars visiting the center were not confined by any set routine or schedule in regard to their research. They were free to collaborate with each other, schedule meetings and workshops, or simply do independent research.

Tyler's involvement with the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) project was another momentous achievement that had far reaching effects upon improved education in the United States. This long-term study provided extensive data about student achievement in school. Tyler also played a significant role in the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) and its "Fundamental Curriculum Decisions." (1983).

Throughout his career Ralph Tyler demonstrated boundless energy as he served either as a member or adviser to numerous research, governmental, and educational agencies. Included among these were the National Science Board, the Research and Development Panel of the U.S. Office of Education, the National Advisory Council on Disadvantaged Children, the Social Science Research Foundation, the Armed Forces Institute, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Service on many other educational agencies could be credited to Tyler, including his presidency of the National Academy of Education. His retirement in 1966 as director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences did not terminate his involvement in education, as he continued to serve as an adviser to both individuals and agencies. He died of cancer at the age of 91 in 1994.


Further Reading on Ralph W. Tyler

Ralph Tyler is listed in the Biographical Dictionary of American Educators (1978). At present no comprehensive biography is available. An excellent review of Tyler's publications may be found in his own book, Perspectives on American Education (1976); John Goodlad's introduction to this book contains a great deal of biographical information. Additional information can be found in D. W. Robinson, "A Talk with Ralph Tyler, " in Phi Delta Kappan 49 (October 1967) and in R.M.W. Travers, How Research Has Changed American Schools—A History From 1840 to the Present (1983).