Miel, Alice (1906–1998)

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MIEL, ALICE (19061998)

A nationally prominent social educator, Alice Miel was also a curriculum development scholar and practitioner.


Miel, born on a small farm in rural Michigan, eventually studied to become a teacher during the height of the Progressive movement in education, which emerges as the strong undercurrent in Miel's life. Her formative years as an educator were spent at the University of Michigan and at Tappan Junior High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where she taught social studies and Latin in the early 1930s. There her benefited from an educational environment in which local school faculty and students could practice democratic skills of deliberation and decision-making. In particular, Miel's participation in collaborative curriculum development projects reflected her growing concern about the effects of the Great Depression on society and the schools. Incorporating the ideas of John Dewey, as well as those of leading progressive educators such as Harold Rugg, Ann Shumaker, and William Heard Kilpatrick, Miel and her colleagues demonstrated their conviction that the school curriculum must be modified to emphasize the study of contemporary social problems. Another early landmark experience for Miel was a 1936 study session at Ohio State University with Laura Zirbes, a prominent figure in the field of elementary education. Miel left this meeting with a commitment to understanding children, not just content, and to providing for their individual differences.

The "child-centered" Progressive education movement of the late 1930s had become the conventional wisdom in American educational thought and practice, and Miel moved into this company in the early years of her career in education, even as the Progressive movement began to fracture because of both internal divisions and external attacks. At this time of transition, the locus of Miel's story began to shift to Teachers College, Columbia University, where it would remain for the next three decades. Miel became the doctoral student of Hollis L. Caswell, then chair of the newly organized Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College. Caswell had already enhanced the visibility of the curriculum field, developed the idea of method in curriculum making, focused attention on the process by which a variety of people interacted in order to make curriculum, tried to reduce the gap between theory and practice by defining curriculum as actual experiences undergone by learners under the direction of the school, and provided a curriculum design that helped teachers to apply concepts from organized knowledge to the solution of social problems. Caswell helped Miel to formulate the problem of curriculum change as a social process for her dissertation, which was later published as Changing the Curriculum: A Social Process (1946). Miel went on to serve as a professor at Teachers College from 1944 through 1971; she chaired the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College from 1960 through 1967.

Miel became more deeply involved in Progressive ideas, even as the movement itself began to wane. Her career at Teachers College spanned the later years of the college's preeminence as the intellectual crossroads of the Progressive education movement. Her tenure there also spanned the movement's alleged decline and disarray in the 1950s as the main target of conservatives who attacked Progressive philosophy and demanded a return to the "basics" of schooling. In the 1960s, Miel's last decade at Teachers College, the national mood shifted again as Charles Silberman and other humanist educators decried conformity and rigidity in school curricula and wanted to return the focus of education to the needs of individual learners.

Miel made substantial efforts to promote democratic leadership and decision-making among educators and to enhance the capacity of schools for change and self-renewal. Her ideas and activities in this regard are instructive for current policymakers. Miel developed a knowledge base of factors that affect schools' capacity for change, established collaborative relationships with educational institutions and associations that shared the value underlying this goal, used cooperative action research to help school systems plan and implement research-based instructional innovations, worked to influence and involve a variety of community members in decisions affecting their schools, and developed exemplary models of school change in her curriculum development research.


Several significant themes emerge from Miel's body of work. First, Miel advocated the development of democratic behavior as the ultimate goal of schooling. More importantly, she was one of the first curriculum scholars to apply social learning theories and democratic principles and processes to various aspects of curriculum development and school administration. She emphasized that curricular change is a complex social process that involves an array of participants in individual schools and communities. Also, she strongly advocated that educators develop curriculum at the school level because of her belief that the teacher was the most important factor in curriculum change and that reform efforts would fail if they did not include the people who would have to carry them out. Through these ideas, Miel addressed the gap that long existed between educational theory and practice, implying that the involvement of various participants in the curriculum development process creates a relationship between theory and practice and allows that relationship to flourish.

Furthermore, Miel focused on the democratic social learning environment of children in schools. Miel believed that the school was democracy's proving ground because it had a large share of the responsibility for socializing the nation's young people into participation in democracy. Although some critics may have questioned whether democratic lessons could be gained from an institution that mandated participation, Miel viewed the school as society in microcosm, where people from many backgrounds learned about freedom and responsibility, individuality and cooperationall with an eye toward citizenship. Furthermore, throughout her own life, Miel continued to develop a keen sense of the historical context of social problems that, for her, raised acute concerns for the future of a democratic society: postwar reconstruction, the cold war and Red Scare, the social tensions between "haves" and "have nots," and the Watergate scandal. In particular, she was deeply affected by the state of race relations and civil rights in American society. Through these experiences, Miel sought to move beyond the outmoded notion of racial tolerance, which, for her, connoted "putting up" with people who were different, to a more active, broader notion of intercultural understanding and appreciation. In this area, one of Miel's research accomplishments during her tenure at Teachers College merits particular attention: her 1967 book with Edwin Kiester, The Shortchanged Children of Suburbia, an awardwinning study that has been characterized as a "groundbreaker" in its emphasis on what suburban schools were failing to teach about human differences and cultural diversity. Miel also sought to refute the claims of back-to-basics school reformers of the 1970s, arguing that the "basics" also extended to the "moral-ethical-social realm," and that they should be given a prominent place in the school curriculum. She returned to these themes in 1986 in the context of the "educational excellence" movement, manifested in reports such as A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform (1983). For Miel, the overarching responsibility in democracy was to know how democracy worked and how to maintain it through changing conditions.

Several factors likely limited the widespread acceptance of Miel's conceptions of social learning and social studies. First, Miel believed that social learning should be taught throughout the school day and not compartmentalized into one particular academic subject area. This view may have posed problems for teachers and curriculum workers, who increasingly tended to think in terms of discrete subject areas. Second, the circulation of Miel's ideas was restricted by the publication of her book More Than Social Studies (1957) during the conservative, subject-centered reform movements of the late 1950s. The book's publication unfortunately coincided with increasing public criticism of the perceived academic "softness" of American schools and growing demands that mathematics and science receive priority in education. The Sputnik -inspired National Defense Education Act (1958), linking federal support for schools with national policy objectives, ensured that social studies would be deemphasized and that traditional academic history likely would prevail in new federal guidelines for education. Third, Miel lacked affiliation with social studies traditionalists and was not considered an "expert" or specialist in any of the social sciences. Nor did Miel become deeply involved in the "new social studies" movements of the 1960s, particularly because they often resulted in written courses of study that she eschewedfor example, Man: A Course of Study (MACOS), which she criticized because of its lack of emphasis on modern man and his problems.

Finally, in terms of other accomplishments, Miel was one of the early presidents of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (19531954). In the 1970s, she became a guiding influence in the founding of the World Council on Curriculum and Instruction (WCCI). The establishment of the WCCI was a natural outgrowth of her interest in improved curricula for all children and her work with doctoral students from all over the world. One of the distinguishing features of her career was her advocacy of global understanding through cooperation in international educational activities. Through these activities, and through her supervision of more than 140 doctoral dissertations, Miel's influence was indeed widespread.

See also: Curriculum, School; Progressive Education; Zirbes, Laura.


Miel, Alice. 1946. Changing the Curriculum: A Social Process. New York: Appleton-Century.

Miel, Alice. 1981. "Social Studies for Understanding, Caring, Acting." In Strategies for Educational Change: Recognizing the Gifts and Talents of All Children, ed. Walter L. Marks and Raphael O. Nystrand. New York: Macmillan.

Miel, Alice, and Brogan, Peggy. 1957. More than Social Studies: A View of Social Learning in the Elementary School. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Miel, Alice, and Kiester, Edwin. 1967. The Shortchanged Children of Suburbia. New York: Institute of Human Relations Press, The American Jewish Committee.

Yeager, Elizabeth Anne. 1997. "Curriculum Change as a Social Process: An Historical Perspective on the Curriculum Ideas of Alice Miel." Journal of Curriculum and Supervision 13:3055.

Yeager, Elizabeth Anne. 1998. "Democracy, Social Studies, and Diversity in the Elementary School Classroom: The Progressive Ideas of Alice Miel." Theory and Research in Social Education 26:198225.

Yeager, Elizabeth Anne. 1999. "Alice Miel: Progressive Advocate of Democratic Social Learning for Children." In Bending the Future to Their Will: Civic Women, Social Education, and Democracy, ed. Margaret Smith Crocco and Orzo Luke Davis Jr. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

Elizabeth Anne Yeager