Tony Gurr

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

In Curriculum, Our Schools, Our Universities on 21/03/2011 at 8:16 pm

The survey I asked you take yesterday was about the beliefs we (the “people”) hold on learning and curriculum.

But, I want you to go back to your “answers” not to see if you “passed” the quiz but to ask yourself a couple of additional questions:

1. How do you know you were telling the truth when you answered each question?

2. What “evidence” can you offer to demonstrate that you “walk-your-beliefs”?

3. How do you know that this “evidence” represents what you say it does?

And, you thought the survey gave you a headache!


Now, I am not challenging anybody’s integrity here. I just want us to be very clear – after all:

  • People are not always “conscious” of their own beliefs and it is these unconscious elements that actually determine how people think and feel – and “act“.
  • Human beings do not always tell the “truth” (sometimes for very good reason – have you seen the movie “The Invention of Lying” or answered your partner honestly when she asks “Do I look fat in this?”).

This is not my idea – honest, I promise, I swear to God!

Argyris and Schön (1974) introduced us to two concepts upon which I have based these questions – “espoused theory” and “theory-in-use”. They did this to try and explain the frequent inconsistencies and contractions between what we “say” and what we “do” as human beings. This was because they realised that very often “espoused theories” have very little to do with how people actually behave and also that we frequently are not aware of the way we think we act and the way we really act.

The seminal work of Argyris and Schön helps explain the paradox of human behaviour that is “we are all little fibbers” (at least some of the time).

We all have mental maps that we human beings use to plan, implement and review our actions – the thing is – it is these (often unconscious) mental maps that guide our actions rather than the “theories” (and stated beliefs) we explicitly espouse.


So, what about the mental maps of “institutions”?

Unless you are Sal Khan (and teach from your “bedroom wardrobe”) – you probably work in an institution.

Even Sal has left the “wardrobe” and “jumped into bed” with Bill Gates – creating (hopefully) an institution that will go from strength to strength.

So, where does an “institution” stand on these issues of beliefs, assumptions and values – on allthingscurriculum?

Just as institutions do not read blogs, they do not (as such) have beliefs – and we have to talk in terms of “culture”.

One of my favourite definitions of culture comes from Balogun and Hailey – culture, for them, is simply “the way we do things around here“.

Culture is the DNA of an institutionthank God we are now learning how to “play” with it!


The problem is that just as people “tell little fibs”, institutions do the same – and worse, they sometimes know they are doing this.

Schein (1986) drew on the distinction set up by Argyris and Schön to highlight how the stated values or polices of an organisation can be so different to the way people actually “do things” within the same organisation.

For example, how a school can openly claim that it draws strength from constructivist principles while its teachers “drill and kill” students with endless pages of exercises and assess them with high-stakes tests of discrete knowledge.

This could also be the reason why so many vision and mission statements look so similar while the organisations that write them operate in such different waysand why so many mission statements end up being little more than “wall decoration”.

We often cannot locate “truth” in espoused theory (and certainly not in the mission statements that we find on our walls and websites).

Institutions, if they really want to learn or improve, have to look for opportunities to reveal the “hidden” theory-in-use – to question how they “really do business”.

After all, meaningful effectiveness and improvement can be realised by developing greater congruence between what “we say we do” and what “we actually do” – same is true for people, too.

Reflection, dialogue and exploration of our underlying assumptions and beliefs, we could argue, is the key to closing the “gap” between “what we say” and “what we do” – and helps support the move to a true “culture of consciousness and learning”.


Hey, I almost forgot – we were in the middle of a “survey”!

Let’s go back to the next part of the survey we started yesterday – a few more questions:

Q12. Choose the BEST answer. The best “learning” institutions “do business” in the following way:

a)   create substantive change in individual learners

b)   engage learners in the learning process as full partners, assuming primary responsibility for their own choices

c)   create and offer as many options for learning as possible

d)   assist learners in forming and participating in collaborative and active learning activities

e)    define the roles of learning facilitators by the needs of the learners

f)    succeed only when improved and expanded learning can be documented for its learners

g)   create and nurture an organisational culture that is open and responsive to change and learning

h)    all of the above.


Q13.  Choose the BEST answer. The most effective “learning” institutions “do business” in the following way:

a)  have a “living” mission and “lived” educational philosophy (rather than wall decoration)

b)  exhibit an unshakeable focus on student learning in everything they do

c)  build environments adapted for educational enrichment (not the egos of administrators)

d)  establish clearly marked pathways to student success (and make sure students know about these)

e)  walk-their-talk in terms of having an improvement-oriented ethos

f)  develop shared responsibility for educational quality and student success across the whole institution

g)  all of the above.


Q14. Choose the BEST answer. A meaningful curriculum rEvolution has the best chance of success in an institution that “understands”:

a)   it is time for a “real shift” from teaching to learning.

b)   an effective curriculum requires the development of a set of graduate attributes (explicit skills, attitudes, and abilities) as well as knowledge.

c)   the other side of the effective curriculum coin is appropriate assessment procedures that focus on assessment-for-learning as well as assessment-of-learning.

d)  a curriculum rEvolution also requires a system for rewarding transformative teaching and learning facilitation, encouraging discussion of pedagogy and providing transformative learning opportunities for educators and academics (as a priority).

e)   curriculum renewal happens best within a supportive  institutional climate that fosters responsive collegiality.

f)   progress in curriculum renewal requires that we establish better linkages between quality improvement & learning.

g)  all of the above are needed!


Is this how your institution “does business”?


Of course, there is no “blueprint” for success in curriculum rEvolution and renewal – but these questions (and the ones from yesterday) should give you a better “map of the landscape” you are planning to enter and the type of “objections” you are likely to face…

It’s a journey worth making – and as we know:

The road of life twists and turns and no two directions are ever the same. 

Yet our lessons come from the journey, not the destination.

Don Williams, Jr.


These questions have been developed over many years and at the risk of forgetting some of the people who “learned” me, I would like to acknowledge the work of Terry O’Banion and the League for Innovation, the efforts of the Project DEEP team and George Kuh and (as ever) the faculty from Alverno College – the pioneers of the “curriculum perspective”.

A shout-out to my “peeps” – Barr and Tagg (my “paradigm guys”), Harvey and Newton (my “quality guys”), Peter Block (my “question guy”), Edward Schein (my “organisation” guy) and Carl Roger’s mother (what a wonderful woman)!

Also, to George Lucas – for making the “prequel trilogy” (even though it took him 16 years after the release of the trilogy’s final film). Not sure when I’ll get round to mine…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: