Curriculum theories – notes from reading group

Thanks to Sarah Davies for setting us some fascinating reading!

Connected curriculum chapter 1 (notes from Chris Adams)

The connected curriculum is a piece of work by Dilly Fung from UCL. It is an explicit attempt to outline how departments in research-intensive universities can develop excellent teaching by integrating their research into it; the ‘connected’ part of the title is the link between research and teaching. At it’s heart is the idea that the predominant mode of learning for undergraduates should be active enquiry, but that rather than students discovering for themselves things which are well-established, they should be discovering things at the boundaries of what is known, just like researchers do.

It has six strands:

  • Students connect with researchers and with the institution’s research. Or, in other words, the research work of he department is explicitly built into the curriculum
  • A throughline of research activity is built into each programme. Properly design the curriculum so that research strands run though it, and it builds stepwise on what has come before.
  • Students make connections across subjects and out to the world. Interdisciplinarity! Real world relevance.
  • Students connect academic learning with workplace learning. Not only should we be teaching them transferable skills for a world of rapid technological change, but we need to tell them that too.
  • Students learn to produce outputs – assessments directed at an audience. Don’t just test them with exams
  • Students connect with each other, across phases and with alumni. This will create a sense of community and belonging.

This last point is then expanded upon. Fung posits that the curriculum is not just a list of what should be learned, but is the whole experience as lived by the student. Viewing the curriculum as a narrow set of learning outcomes does not product the kind of people that society needs, but is a consequence of the audit culture that pervades higher education nowadays. Not all audit is bad – the days when ‘academic freedom’ gave people tenure and the freedom to teach terribly and not do any research are disappearing, and peer-review is an integral part of the university system – but in order to address complex global challenges we need a values based curriculum ‘defined as the development of new understandings and practices, through dialogue and human relationships, which make an impact for good in the world.’

I liked it sufficiently to buy the whole book. It addresses a lot of issues that I see in my own department – the separation of research from teaching, and the over-reliance on exams, and the lack of community, for example.

Connected curriculum chapter 2 (notes from Suzi Wells)

As mentioned in chapter 1, the core proposition is that the curriculum should be ‘research-based’ – ie most student learning “should reflect the kinds of active, critical and analytic enquiry undertaken by researchers”.

Fung gives a this useful definition of what that means in practice. Students should:

  • Generate new knowledge through data gathering and analysis
  • Disseminate their findings
  • Refine their understanding through feedback on the dissemination

All of it seems fairly uncontroversial in theory and tends to reflect current practice, or at least what we aspire to in current practice. There’s some discussion of the differences in what research means to different disciplines, and how that filters through into assessment of students, and potentially some useful studies on just how effective this all is.

Fung mentions the Boyer Commission (US 1998) and its proposed academic bill of rights, including (for research intensive institutions): “expectation of and opportunity for work with talented senior researchers to help and guide the student’s efforts”. Given increasing student numbers, this is possibly a less realistic expectation to meaningfully meet than it once was.

There’s some useful discussion about what is needed to make research-based-teaching work.

I was particularly interested in the idea that providing opportunity for this form of learning isn’t everything. Socio-economic factors mean that students may have differing beliefs about their own agency. Fung cites Baxter-Magdola (2004) on the importance of students having ‘self-authorship’ which includes ‘belief in oneself as possessing the capacity to create new knowledge’ and ‘the ability to play a part within knowledge-building communities’. You can’t assume all students arrive with the same level of this, and this will affect their ability to participate.

This part of the chapter also talks about the importance of not just sending students off “into the unknown to fend for themselves” – imagine a forest of ivory towers – but to give them support & structure. Activities need to be framed within human interactions (including peer support).

Towards the end there is a nod to it being anglo-centric – African and Asian educational philosophy and practice may be different – but little detail is given.

How Emotion Matters in Four Key Relationships in Teaching and Learning in Higher Education” (notes from Roger Gardner)

This is a 2016 article by Kathleen Quinlan, who is now Director of the Centre for the Study of Higher Education and Reader in Higher Education at University of Kent, but was working at Oxford when this was written.

She writes that while historically there has been less focus on Bloom’s affective domain than the cognitive, recently interest in the relation of emotions to learning has been growing although it is still under-researched. The article comes out of a review of the existing literature and conversations with teachers at the National University of Singapore in August 2014.

The paper focusses on four relationships: students with the subject matter, teachers, their peers and what she calls “their developing selves”. For each section Quinlan includes a summary of implications for teaching practice, which provide some very useful suggestions, ranging from simple things such as encouraging students to introduce each other when starting activities to help foster peer relationships, to advocating further research and exploration into when it is appropriate and educationally beneficial for teachers to express emotions and when not.

Quinlan says “discussions about intangibles such as emotions and relationships are often sidelined”, but it now seems essential to prioritise this if we are to support student wellbeing, and this paper provides some helpful prompts and suggestions for reflection and developing our practice.  If you are short of time I recommend looking at the bullet point “implications for practice”.

What is “significant learning”? (notes from Chrysanthi Tseloudi)

In this piece, Dr. Fink talks about the Taxonomy of Significant Learning; a taxonomy that refers to new kinds of learning that go beyond the cognitive learning that Bloom’s taxonomy addresses. The taxonomy of significant learning – where significant learning occurs when there is a lasting change in the learner that is important in their life – is not hierarchical, but relational and interactive. It includes six categories of learning:

Foundational knowledge: the ability to remember and understand specific information as well as ideas and perspectives, providing the basis for other kinds of learning.

Application: learning to engage in a new kind of action (intellectual, physical, social, etc) and develop skills that allow the learner to act on other kinds of learning, making them useful.

Intergration: learning to see, understand, and make new connections between different things, people, ideas, realms of ideas or realms of life. This gives learners new (especially intellectual) power.

Human Dimension: learning about the human significance of things they are learning – understanding something about themselves or others, getting a new vision of who they want to become, understanding the social implications of things they have learned or how to better interact with others.

Caring: developing new feelings, interests, values and/ or caring more about something that before; caring about something feeds the learner’s energy to learn about it and make it a part of their lives.

Learning how to learn: learning about the learning process; how to learn more efficiently, how to learn about a specific method or in a specific way, which enables the learner to keep on learning in the future with increasing effectiveness.

The author notes that each kind of learning is related to the others and achieving one kind helps achieve the others. The more kinds of learning involved, the more significant is the learning that occurs – with the most significant kind being the one that encompasses all six categories of the taxonomy.

Education Principles: Designing learning and assessment in the digital age (notes from Naomi Beckett)

This short paper is part of a guide written by Jisc. It covers what Education Principles are and why they are such a vital characteristic of any strategy. Coming from someone unspecialised in this area it was an interesting read to understand how principles can bring staff together to engage and develop different education strategies. The guide talks about how principles can ‘provide a common language, and reference point for evaluating change’.

The paper talks about having a benchmark in which everyone can check their progress. I like this idea. So often projects become too big and the ideas and values are lost on what was first decided as a team. Having a set of principles is a way to bring everything back together and is a useful way to enable a wide variety of staff to engage with each other. The guide mentions how having these principles means there is a ‘common agreement on what is fundamentally important.’

Having these principles developed at the beginning of a project puts the important ideas and values into motion and is a place to look back to when problems arise. Principles should be action oriented, and not state the obvious. Developing them in this way allows for a range of staff members to bring in different ideas and think about how they want to communicate their own message.

I also followed up by reading ‘Why use assessment and feedback principles?’ from Strathclyde’s Re-Engineering Assessment Practices (REAP) project.

Suggested reading

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