Tony Gurr

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

In Curriculum, Our Schools, Our Universities on 20/03/2011 at 6:23 am

Where were we?

Ahh, yes!

Curriculum planning processes that focus almost exclusively on content fail to fully expose learners to the processes used by “real people” and “professionals” to practice their craft and gain knowledge by carrying out tasks requiring higher order thinking.

Furthermore, this type of “curriculum thinking” inhibits collaboration with others to develop generic and discipline-specific strategies and fails to adequately consider orientations to problem solving and creative thinking, student dispositions towards learning and collaborative practices, and the need to understand and value multiple perspectives in decision-making.

OK – that’s cleared the air! At least, you know where I’m coming from!


Many educational institutions, recognising the weaknesses of such one-dimensional conceptual models of learning and curriculum, have turned their attention to outcomes-based approaches or learning objectives.

In doing so these institutions have worked to redefine curriculum by identifying and defining the learning outcomes they use to answer the key question of:

  • What should students be learning?

Sadly, many of these curriculum renewal initiatives have failed as the learning objectives or outcomes developed are, in fact, teaching objectives and are often cast in the language of curriculum planners (Watkins, 2003).

The culture of “alıntı, çalıntı and mış-gibi yapmak” (the Turkish translation for “borrowing, ripping off, and faking-it-till-you-make-it”) rears its “ugliest of heads” again!

 

Why is this?

Firstly, there exists a great deal of confusion about the terminology used to describe learning outcomes – this is because the language of curriculum development has become so amazingly complex and confusing.

The most commonly used term in the curriculum lexicon is “skill” and is often used to discuss the “learned capacity to carry out pre-determined results”.

Skills are often divided into domain-general and domain-specific skills and the  term “skill”, rightly or wrongly, has also been linked to Bloom’s well-known (but little-understood and over-used) taxonomy of learning.

“The taxonomy” was an attempt (within the behavioural paradigm) to classify forms and levels of learning – it’s amazing how few lecturers both to point this out to all their students (on undergraduate education programmes) in fact, I have my doubts whether these lecturers bother to point out that Bloom’s taxonomy covers three sets of skills (more accurately his “domains of learning”): Cognitive, Affective and Psychomotor.

Today, the notion of skills has become a catch-all phrase for all learned capacities from basic skills to interpersonal skills to academic skills and even to soft skills or “adaptability skills”.

Don’t we just love all those “sexy” words brought into education – on the back of “fads” and “the latest trends”!

 

But, it does not stop at the notion of “skills”.

The original use of the term “competence” was intended to convey a similar notion as aptitude or talent, as it was in Roman or Greek times.

During the 1980s, competence came to mean (in the UK) “the ability to do a particular activity to a prescribed standard” (Working Group on Vocational Qualifications, 1986) and a focus on what people can “do” rather than what they “know”.

As such, and as is the case in Australia, the term has been largely stripped of its social, moral and intellectual value and is mainly associated with “vocational training” – rather than “understanding” in a more cognitive senseSadly, the term is today associated with the more atomistic concept used to label particular events or episodes of “instruction” – or the jigsaw of “McLearning”!

One weakness of these two terms is that skill or competence do not effectively convey the importance of affective factors in the learning process. All too often, the terms skill or competence focus on “performance” or the product of learning – maybe the reason we, as educators, “practice” skills rather than design learning opportunities that really help students to “learn” these self-same skills.

As Watkins (2003) notes, “performance is not learning, though it may develop from learning”.

The literature also suggests that that a focus on performance can actually depress performance: learners end up with negative ideas about their competence, they seek help less, use fewer strategies, and become organised by the very judgements which “do them down”.

The bottom line is that – the weight of evidence is that a focus on learning can enhance performance (Watkins).

 

The term talent, often defined as a “personal gift”, has become increasingly popular with the accelerated use of the term “talent development” by business and HR gurus since the early-1990s.

Many organisations in the US and UK have now closed down their training departments, replacing them with talent development and career management units. Indeed, Buckingham’s (1999) best-selling management title was based on a critical argument that managers today need to redefine their roles and recreate themselves as “talent development specialists”.

This has recently started to find favour in educational circles – but goes back further!

Stephenson & Yorke (1998) have noted that thinkers in the UK have attempted to shift to the term capabilities to convey more recent educational thinking and promote the confluence of integrated competence and lifelong learning. However, this has not been adopted in an especially widespread manner. What is interesting with the terms talent and capability, interestingly, is the way that they bring together the concepts of skill, competence, knowledge and a process by which all can be developed through experience and performance.

Perry (1970) was one of the first educational thinkers to cite the need to consider the concept of learning processes “interwoven” with outcomes over time in order to take account of the development of the whole person.

His work contributed a great deal to the shift away from content or knowledge-driven conceptualisations of curriculum (pity more people have not “learned” him enough over the years).

Many educational “thinkers” still believe that terms like “acquisition of skill or competence” are limited in higher education because there remains, because of the very nature of higher learning itself, a dichotomy between “knowledge” and “skill” that needs to be bridged by curriculum planners in education.

DeCorte (1995) introduced the term aptitudes to discuss more complex learning and thinking in higher education.

However, and despite his excellent work, the term aptitudes has been affected by its over-use in psychological assessment processes and decontextualised testing.

Why am I having to use the word “however” so much in this post?

 

Anastasi (1983) was the first to introduce the term “developed abilities” and this term has gained a great deal of respect in educational circles because it does seem to communicate very well – with employers and professionals, too.

The term abilities is broader than that of skill and competence and suggests a more dynamic interaction of attitudes, strategies, behaviours and even beliefs. Alverno College has linked abilities to multiple intelligences and defined them as:

…complex combinations of motivations, dispositions, attitudes, values, strategies, behaviours, self-perceptions and knowledge of concepts and procedures (Mentkowski & Associates, 2000).

It remains, however, that many in education are reluctant to move away from notions of skill and knowledge because of the importance they attach to the fact that all learning outcomes must be capable of being validly assessed.

While this is true, it remains that effective performance is the result of the interaction of the components noted by Alverno – and rather than valuing what we measure, educators are recognising that we should work towards measuring what we value.

Many educational thinkers now believe that we can never validly assess learning per se but maintain that we must strive to measure what we say we produce as educators.

Mentkowski & Associates (2000) maintain that complex abilities must lie at the heart of educational practice and curriculum development processes; however, they accept that these complex abilities cannot be observed directly – they must be inferred from performance.

This suggests that assessment processes be designed to allow students to “do” something with what they “know” – and showcase their evolving abilities and talents over time.

This wider debate on terminology also hides a far more important discussion of how educators and curriculum teams embark on their task by defining what they want students to get from their programmes of study.

Many universities, teaching teams and individual faculty still draw on concepts from Bloom’s taxonomy as their main curriculum development methodology.

The cognitive domain, the most popular of Bloom’s three taxonomies focuses on six types of learning:

  • Knowledge (recall)
  • Comprehension
  • Application
  • Analysis
  • Synthesis
  • Evaluation

While there can be no doubt of the value of a model that has remained so influential for over 50 years, this framework fails to adequately take account of the “new types of learning” educators, employers and students are calling for (Fink, 2003).

Bloom’s taxonomy (or the updated version produced by Anderson and Krathwohl’s) simply does not fit with our interest in values, character and attitudes as learning outcomes, nor does it allow more detailed attention to the issues of learning to learn, interpersonal skills, ethics, or the ability to tolerate ambiguity and deal with change.

Recognition of this fact has led curriculum developers to focus on Bloom’s second domain of learning: the affective domain. The fact is that this is the least understood of the three domains and the new types of learning noted above go beyond both the affective and cognitive domains.

The good news is that more recent discussions of aptitudes and developed abilities offer much promise to educators.

 

A final noteworthy point relates to how educational institutions have traditionally developed systems around these concepts.

Sadly (there is another of “those” words), in most institutions curriculum renewal is rather simplistically seen as the process of writing a new curriculum or new teaching plan, rather than the opportunity to revitalise disciplines, programmes or courses and align what we say and what we do.

The better organised institutions know that organisational support for curriculum renewal is critical and many of them offer workshops or training in curriculum and course development. These programmes expose teachers to the various taxonomies and decision-making models designed to help teachers create effective courses.

The main flaw in this approach is that it is organised at the course level and fails to take account of the development of the whole-student across his or her “learning career”.

As a result, we often end up with a series of discrete courses that have been designed as teaching plans because content remains the central organising principle.

Such practices are little more than reorganising deckchairs on the Titanic – by organisations attempting to “tweak” their curriculum documentation rather than exploring their core purpose and assumptions about the nature of learning.

 

What do YOU want to be – “a deckchair attendant” or “an architect” re-imagineering the foundations of the future for our kids?

YOUR choice…

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