Tony Gurr

Seriously…what is CURRICULUM…Seriously? [Part ONE of ???]

In Curriculum, The Paradigm Debate on 19/03/2011 at 1:30 pm

When I’m asked to “help out” on a curriculum project (and this doesn’t happen as much as it should), I usually start by asking people a couple of questions:

  • How do you and your teams “see” the concept of curriculum?
  • What are your beliefs about what type of “curriculum model” you (and your students) need?

At this point, I’m usually shown to the door!

 

It would appear that this “first lap” on the “racecourse” is often just too much work for many – our “answer-orientated” world just gets in the way of the improvement we so badly need in the area of curriculum renewal.

Sadly, the term curriculum has lost its original Latin meaning of “racecourse” and the implication that a curriculum represents a meaningful and purposeful progression to some predetermined “goal”.

Today, the term curriculum has come to mean little more than “…a basket of instructional bricks to be stacked in any order” (Tagg, 2003). Programmes of learning are seen as little more than a collection of “school subjects” and “courses” that are “delivered” and on which content is “covered”.

Its sister term, “assessment”, has come to mean the endless and atomistic tests required only, it would seem, for school reports or university transcripts.

You know the restlong live the “examocracy”!

 

One of my favourite “curriculum stories” comes from Willimon and Naylor (1995) – they presented their readers with a shocking “revelation” from a senior at the University of Michigan:

So you get here and they start asking you, “What do you think you want to major in?” “Have you thought about what courses you want to take?” And you get the impression that’s what it’s all about – courses, majors. So you take the courses. You get your card punched. You try a little this and a little that.

Then comes GRADUATION. And you wake up and you look at this bunch of courses and then it hits you: They don’t add up to anything. It’s just a bunch of courses. It doesn’t mean a thing!

Is this what students really believe “we” are about – yazıklaaaar olsun!

 

Willimon and Naylor’s “student” (one of our “customers” – and the most important “stakeholders” in education) was essentially passing judgment on the way most higher education institutions answer the two fundamental questions that need to be continually asked of any curriculum:

  • What should students be learning?
  • How do we know that learning is taking place?

Like many questions in education, these ones are so often ignored because they are so important.

Recent research and commentary on educational practices has showed us that even the most prestigious and well-resourced universities from around the globe have side-stepped such questions, knowing there are only arbitrary justifications for the departments, programmes and courses they offer students.

Harvard Professor and Dean of Harvard College, Harry Lewis, has thrown light on the reasons for this:

…universities have forgotten their larger educational role for college students. They succeed, better than ever, as creators and repositories of knowledge. But they have forgotten that the fundamental job of undergraduate education is to turn eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds into twenty-one- and twenty-two-year-olds, to help them grow up, to learn who they are, to search for a larger purpose for their lives, and to leave college as better human beings. (2006)

Lewis focuses most of his argument on the weaknesses of Harvard and directly challenges his own organisation for its weak and superficial grasp of the scope of its educational mission.

For Lewis, the curriculum is critical and lies at the heart of what an effective university does.

Harvard and most of the prestigious colleges in the US, he maintains, simply do not recognise this.

Are our schools any different?

Curriculum planning needs to begin where it ends – with the learning of individual students and with the learning of academics and educators about how this can best be realised.

 

The starting point for teaching staff  is not to follow the latest trends in curriculum renewal; it is to uncover our own beliefs and assumptions about learning, teaching and curriculum. It is this process of making explicit our assumptions about what students should be learning that has been missing from our attempts to develop effective curricula for learners.

The dominant understanding of the term curriculum in education has been strongly linked to that of syllabus. Curzon (1985) noted that many syllabus designers follow the traditional textbook approach of an “order of contents” or a logical approach to subject matter.

Although such understandings see curriculum as a body of knowledge to be transmitted (Smith, 2000), the link with the concept of syllabus has meant that more traditional conceptualisations curriculum have become synonymous with the idea of a “teaching plan”.

This type of understanding of what curriculum design is supposed to be about exposes many of the core assumptions behind the view of education inherent in this view; education is, put simply, the process by which this body of knowledge is delivered to students by the most “effective” methods that be devised.

As we have seen repeatedly teaching does not equal learning; and, the most effective methods we have designed are really not that “effective” at all.

Duh!

 

Where academics and educators equate curriculum with syllabus or teaching plans they are likely to limit their planning to a consideration of content. This, in turn, is likely to foster a fragmented view of this content, a mono-disciplinary view of education and a tendency to focus on decontextualised “just-in-case” teaching.

At the time we are all discussing 21st Century LEARNinghow many other 19th Century assumptions are holding us back?

 

I have one word for those of you interested in this area – “YETER”!

 

P.S: If you do not speak Turkish – pop over to Google Translate and put that word into the relevant “box”… then tell me if I am wrong! You might want to do he same with the phrase “yazıklar olsun”!

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