• Author(s): Dr Holly Smith, Dr Colleen McKenna, Dr Jenny Marie, Dr Rosalind Duhs, Dr Phyllis Creme, Dr Jane Hughes
  • Title: Designing the Curriculum
  • Subject: HE - Education
  • Keywords: UKOER, UKPSF, OMAC, CPD4HE, curriculum, curriculum design, curriculum development, literacies, key skills, values, learning technologies
  • Language(s): English
  • Material type(s): Text, Presentation
  • File format(s): ZIP, HTML, PDF, DOC, PPT
  • File size: Various
  • Publish Date: 31 October 2011
  • Licence: CC-BY-NC-SA


Curriculum - Introduction

Any discussion of curriculum first requires a definition, and I take a very broad definition of curriculum as encompassing everything that makes up the educational experience on a course or programme. I believe that this has three main elements; the syllabus (the choice of topics, resources, examples or case studies); the processes (the teaching methods and learning activities); and the participants (the students and tutors on the programme). Much has been written about curriculum, but the overview in this introduction is to set the context for the activities and annotated reading list that follow.

The post-war development and of behavioural science, and the belief that there were technical solutions to every human problem, gave rise to ‘rational curriculum planning’ or ‘instructional design’. In the behaviourist paradigm, educationalists only need to specify sufficiently clearly and explicitly what learners will be able to do, to make assessment truly objective, and thus the specification of ‘learning objectives’ became very important. So for Tyler (1949) curriculum can be defined as:

  • learning objectives
  • content
  • methods
  • evaluation

Whereas curricula and courses are often described in terms of aims, or general statements of educational intent, learning objectives are more specific and concrete statements of what students are expected to learn. The term learning objectives has been largely superseded by the term 'learning outcomes' or what a learner can do as a result of learning. The difference between 'learning objectives' as pre-formulated goals and 'learning outcomes' as what one ends up with, at the end of some form of engagement is important as it does imply the possibility of unintended 'learning outcomes'. 

Bloom (1956) argued that there were cognitive (knowing), affective (feeling) and psychomotor (doing) domains for learning outcomes and developed a hierarchy for learning outcomes in the cognitive domain:

  • Knowledge
  • Comprehension
  • Application
  • Analysis
  • Synthesis
  • Evaluation

John Biggs draws on Bloom in developing his theory of constructive alignment and SOLO (Structure of Observed Learning Outcomes) taxonomy. Biggs argues that a well-designed curriculum aligns learning outcomes, learning activities and assessment so that what is assessed is exactly the stated learning outcomes, no more and no less. Biggs SOLO taxonomy classifies the assessment of student achievement according to a cognitive hierarchy in a similar way to Bloom.

Having some kind of systematic approach to planning educational experiences appears an uncontroversial good idea, but it can fail to acknowledge just how much learning is unplanned. A focus solely on the successful performance of skills by learners leads to an extremely narrow view of the curriculum, leaving aside values. Hussey & Smith (2002) provide an extended critique of this approach arguing that the claimed objectivity of learning outcomes is illusory as they take no account of the context in terms of the level of difficulty, the discipline or quality of performance.

In the social context of the 1960s and 1970s progressive educationalists began raising serious criticisms about the curriculum in compulsory state education. Authors such as Ivan Illich and Paul Willis questioned the role of education in reproducing social inequalities. From this Marxist critique a number of important ideas about curriculum were developed that challenged mainstream educational practices:

  • hidden curriculum
  • the planned curriculum and the received curriculum
  • formal and informal curriculum

Although these concepts were developed in relation to compulsory state education, I believe that they are no less important in HE. For example, in a lab class a demonstrator tells students that they have got the 'wrong' results and need to try again. Here there is a 'received curriculum' which is at odds with the 'planned curriculum' of the scientific method of hypothesis testing.

Similarly, when completing assessed coursework students generally understand that collaboration will be treated as plagiarism; there is a ‘hidden curriculum’ that co-operation is discouraged and only your solo efforts can count for assessment.

While a great deal has been written about curriculum there is less specific to higher education. Ronald Barnett is something of an exception to this, and has developed a model of the HE curriculum as an educational project forming identities. Barnett, Parry & Coate (2001) set out a model of the curriculum based on three domains: knowledge, action and self, and examines the balance and relationship between these domains in different disciplines.

It must be noted that in recent decades a form of 'rational curriculum planning' using ‘learning outcomes’ to define curricula has been adopted so completely by successive UK governments that it has become hegemonic within higher education institutions. The Dearing Report in 1997 set out a requirement for programme specification, and four domains for learning outcomes:

  1. Knowledge and understanding;
  2. Key skills (e.g. communication, numeracy, IT, learning to learn);
  3. Cognitive skills (e.g. ability in critical analysis;
  4. Subject-specific skills (e.g. laboratory skills, clinical skills)

Since when there has been virtually no official discussion of alternative approaches in UK HE. Through the Quality Assurance Agency Benchmark Statements in every discipline 'learning outcomes' have become embedded in validation and quality assurance processes of every HEI. Ramsden (2003), himself an advocate of the value of using aims and learning objectives to help academics focus on student learning, sets out three frequent problems with aims and objectives to be avoided:

  1. Restating syllabus topics as aims/learning objectives failing to engage with what the student should be able to do.
  2. Overly general aims/learning objectives as he argues that general aims (eg becoming more critical) only make sense in the context of specific disciplinary content.
  3. Aims/learning objectives restricted to that which can be behaviourally specifically measureable rather than what is important.

Given that ‘learning outcomes’ are unavoidable at present in UK HE Ramsden provides a constructive and practical way of using them to think about student learning. However, in approaching the activities here we should not forget other insights about curriculum provided by alternative approaches.

Bloom, B. (Ed) (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives. Handbook 1 cognitive domain. London: Longman.

Tyler, R. W. (1949). Basic Principles of Curriculum and Instruction. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

All other references are in the annotated bibliography


Creative Commons Licence
Designing the Curriculum by Dr Holly Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.
Based on a work at www.ucl.ac.uk.

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