As a wide-ranging descriptor, ‘reconceptual thought’ refers to a broad body of scholarship that focused on the reconceptualization of the curriculum studies field in the United States. Such endeavours, although characterized by differing philosophical perspectives and points of analyses, began proliferating during the mid-1960s, extending throughout and well beyond the 1970s. In great part, these undertakings arose in response to major assumptions and practices that had pertained, from the mid-nineteenth century on, within US curriculum studies writ large.

In particular, reconceptual thought worked to expand, extend and complexify a US curriculum field that, from its beginnings in the early decades of the twentieth century, had prioritized procedurally oriented practices. Reconceptual thought thus endeavoured to enlarge possibilities for the field and its work, which primarily had been conceived as the designating, designing, and developing of subject matter content that teachers then would implement within their K–12 classroom contexts.

Such dominant presumptions and emphases were understandable, of course, especially given historically situated events, forces, and mores that had shaped initial assumptions of these functions as imperative for the US curriculum field. For example, by the late 1800s and into the early decades of the twentieth century, swelling demands for and of universal public schooling coincided with the massive influx of immigrants seeking new lives in the United States. Such factors compelled a number of public school administrators to begin detailing their needs for managerial and supervisory perspectives in relation to the construction, implementation, and evaluation of what was generally considered to be ‘the curriculum’.

However, various concerns about that dominant orientation to curriculum studies periodically did surface throughout the US curriculum field’s formative decades. By the mid-twentieth century, certain key events and perspectives fueled direct confrontations with the field’s seemingly well established and agreed upon focus and modes of curriculum work. For example, the then-Soviet Union’s launching of Sputnik in 1957 compelled US government-supported, nationwide school reform efforts. But those reform attempts primarily employed perspectives provided by scholars outside of education, thus diminishing the importance of insights and areas of education expertise that would have been provided by curriculum specialists, teachers, and school administrators. As William F. Pinar (1978a), the individual perhaps most associated with initial impellings of reconceptual thought, noted: ‘Curricularists were used infrequently during this time, and then primarily as consultants. This bypass was a kind of deathblow to a field whose primary justification was its expertise in an area now dominated by cognate-field specialists’ (p. 6).

Soon after, social and cultural ferments spilled across the USA, including protests against the war in Vietnam as well as crucial concerns raised by those participating in the Civil Rights, Women’s, and Black Panthers’ movements, for example. These influenced, in a general sense, the acceleration of simmering worries about the reduced status and perspectives of the curriculum field in general. For example, critiques that emerged during these particular historical moments included those that bemoaned the a-historical and a-theoretical nature of the US curriculum field, leading to declarations of the field as moribund (Huebner 1976; Schwab 1970). Such stances reflected qualms that the a-historical and a-theoretical character of traditional curriculum development disabled teachers, in particular, from understanding the histories of their present circumstances (Kliebard 1986).

Thus inspired – although never fully abandoning those long-held assumptions and conceptions that held sway as the primary work of and within the curriculum studies field – those engaged in varied modes and emphases of reconceptual thought worked to generate an interdisciplinary academic field that could embrace expanded views of curriculum as both of and beyond schooling, per se. By the mid-1980s and beyond, reconceptual thought and its importance to the field was acknowledged by many – although certainly not by all – as generating influential inter- and cross-textual studies that especially incorporate historically and philosophically informed perspectives and analyses (Schubert 1986; Short 1991).

Hence, throughout early variations as well as in any and all extensions, elaborations, modifications, reverberations, and critiques generated since those 1970s initial efforts, no single or unitary version of reconceptual thought has been posited. Instead, such thought signaled multi-discursively situated academic efforts to understand curriculum as historically, politically, racially, gendered, autobiographically, biographically, aesthetically, theologically, institutionally, and internationally inflected ‘texts’. In addition, ‘understanding curriculum’ also could involve analyses and interpretations informed by phenomenological, postmodern, and poststructural perspectives and discourses (Pinar, Reynolds, Slattery, and Taubman 1995) as well as their hybrid, intersecting, overlapping, expansive, and/or juxtaposed discursive and material iterations (Pinar 2004; 2007; 2012).

These kinds of understandings involve attention to curriculum scholars’ theoretical stances, to historical and current influences on their thinking, and to future possibilities for extensions of their curriculum theorizing conceptualizations and practices. Such orientations, in contemporary iterations, include curriculum theorizing and inquiries informed by perspectives emanating from queer studies, decolonizing methodologies, indigenous theories of change, critical race theories, black curriculum orientations, eco-curricular studies, and posthuman studies, among many examples.

The key journal of the reconceptualization, JCT: Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, was founded in 1978, and in 1979 began its sponsorship of the annual Bergamo Conference on Curriculum Theorizing and Classroom Practice. Both have functioned continuously since their foundings, representing vast extensions and permutations of points of inquiry initiated by early versions of reconceptual thought.