Estimated reading time: 9 minutes, 48 seconds

Curriculum theory, outcomes/objectives, and throwing the pasta out with the pasta water

Estimated reading time: 9 minutes, 48 seconds

This post is long overdue, but I keep hesitating to write it because it’s something I wrote an entire chapter about for my PhD thesis, and I am not sure a blogpost would do it justice. It’s something I can explain to my students (teachers themselves) in class in about 15 minutes or so, but i am trying here for a middle ground explanation of where I am coming from because curriculum theory explains well the underpinnings of a lot of my thinking about pedagogy, teaching, learning, and research about them.

Few educators I know actually talk about curriculum theory. When someone comes to design a syllabus, it’s either one centered around learning outcomes or one centered around content/modules. Few people explicitly talk about other approaches to curriculum. As a faculty developer, one of the things I sometimes do is help faculty clarify and sharpen their learning outcomes and connect their assessment criteria to those outcomes. I have seen people in the humanities struggle to write learning outcomes and resist it. I now understand why (more later).

(This post is partly triggered by a twitter discussion (summarized here) about whether technology is just a tool or a learning outcome, during which we sort of decided that digital literacy was a worth outcome to strive towards…)

The best brief example of an argument against technical/product approaches to curriculum is this one: you can break down reading skills, so that you teach people the shape of the letters, how to put them together into words, how to read them out loud. But you cannot teach “literacy” or “love of reading” that way. You lose the big picture when you fragment a broad goal into tiny measurable outcomes. It is more complex than that, and it is more than a cognitive skill. I don’t think that even every teacher would teach it the same way, and it takes passion, not just knowledge, to be able to do that (I think).

The very first time I taught, it was ESL and I had one day to prepare. Throughout the short (6 weeks or so) courses I was teaching, I found myself focusing on the process of learning, on the way we were learning in class, rather than on achieving specific outcomes (although obviously those were there). I also found myself absolutely stifled by some of the readings we were assigned to teach. Teaching adults an abridged version of The Secret Garden? Ugh (no offense).

My second teaching experience was one of teaching Professional Ethics at a private university in Egypt. I went in with certain expectations. All of them were shattered after the first hour of the class when a student came up to me and asked two questions:
1. What do you mean by “ethics”? (I had defined professional ethics but it had never occurred to me that they literally had never heard the word “ethics” in English before, and believe me the Arabic is not easy)
2. We didn’t understand most of what you said because you spoke completely in English.

Ahhh. There went all my high expectations for how this course was going to go, what kind of reading and writing to expect, what kind of research. I modified and adapted the course. The students had been unfamiliar with debate and discussion and critique, and I focused on developing those around themes related to professional ethics – completely ignoring the textbook I’d been given: it would not work for this group of students.

When I first started teaching other teachers, I used this excellent online workshop, the Cutting Edge Course Design tutorial. It was excellent for helping me think of the learning outcomes and design authentic assessments. And yet, partway through the course, one student said “ah, now I understand what you’re doing… It’s not about the content of the course, but about the process of learning and teaching that you’re modeling” and I thought, umm, yes. I had not articulated it to myself that way before, but it was what I had been doing all along in my teaching.

A transformative moment came to me when I was asked to give a workshop on curriculum design to a group of people doing informal education for youth, with purposes to transform consciousness (Freire style). I went in planning to talk about needs assessment, learning outcomes, authentic assessment. But after the first workshop where I had participants talk about their own “good” educational experiences, I started to figure out that the whole learning outcomes thing wasn’t going to work for this group. The kinds of things they were hoping to achieve were human development – they didn’t belong on a Bloom’s taxonomy (even if there was a new version of it that accounts for attitudes/values). I modified the workshop completely and centered it around participants sharing their own experiences and questioning why certain approaches were not working for some of them.

When I read about curriculum theory, everything fell into place. I was not a weirdo, I just had a more process-oriented approach to my teaching, rather than a product-oriented approach.

So basically: a content-approach to curriculum is one where the teacher (or some central body) chooses the content beforehand and develops syllabus around it. This is problematic because who chooses the content and based on what criteria? Any choice of content is an expression of power. Any exclusion of content means something. And all of this is done outside the actual classroom experience (you do not know in advance who your learners are and which content will matter to them or engage them or privilege some over others).

The second and most popular approach is the technical or product approach to curriculum (this term ‘technical’ btw, is based on Habermas’ knowledge constitutive interest – an interest in measurement and control). This approach centers on learning outcomes, making them explicit and measurable, then designing assessments to measure them. The problems with this approach are multiple, including:

1. Assumption of linearity: if we write these outcomes and design instruction to teach it, then assessment to assess it, then all teachers will be able to achieve these learning outcomes “in their students”. It ignores differences between learners’ starting points and alternative ways they can reach outcomes; but also, it unifies the outcomes for all learners in ways that leave little space for learners themselves to have any power in setting their own agendas about what they learn and how they learn it. By doing so, it also leave little space for recognizing and appreciating unplanned learning that is not written in. I believe most practicing teachers recognize that rigid planning of this kind does not actually work in practice. That learning and teaching are so much more complex, more messy than that;

2. Measurability: as the earlier example of literacy implies, some (most?) complex and valuable learning goals are not reducible into measurable components. Measurability seems to me to be an off-shoot of neoliberal approaches to education, focus on external accreditation, etc., and little to do with actual learning that takes place in classes or indeed outside school altogether. As Sidorikin suggests in Beyond Discourse, there is a “false belief that policy-making is the way to change education” (p. 2), whereas he believes many educational decisions need to be localized and contextualized, and that the purpose of schooling should be about helping children understand what it means to be human. How can you measure that? I remember once asking a less ambitious question: how to measure “lifelong learning” – I was not satisfied with the answer. I won’t share the details here or else the post will be too long, but I would love to hear other people’s thoughts on this one.

3. Removes power from hands of teacher and learners: by making concrete, discrete decisions about what will be learned in advance of learning encounters it ignores the differences, interests, capabilities of both teachers and learners. I modify my own plans about what to teach often just before a class, sometimes in the middle of the class to respond to students. You can call it spontaneous, just-in-time teaching, you can call it a process-oriented approach. But I cannot imagine teaching any other way, without being responsive to my learners. Very little in my mind is set in stone in advance of a course, or a particular class. I have some broad learning goals. I even plan around specific outcomes and assessments. I change them every time. I learn from one cohort, adapt my syllabus, then face a completely different cohort and realize that I myself am a different person (because of personal and political circumstances, because of my own reactions to the students) and I teach it differently again. The presence or absence of one student in my class can totally change the dynamic of a class. Does that not happen to you?

4. Pretends to be value-neural: like decisions about content, decisions about outcomes are an expression of certain values, and are expressions of power.

This post is long enough as it is, and I have barely scratched the surface. I should write a different blog post discussing alternatives to technical approaches to curriculum, all of which are “process-oriented” in some way and focus on teacher judgment and learners as the center of the learning experience, deciding their own goals and pathways. These approaches can take different approaches, such as praxis/critical (focusing on empowerment of learners and critique of status quo) or can be rhizomatic (which I perceive as having a postmodern twist) – but none of which assume linearity, all of which consider teachers/learners as the center of the learning experience, and none of which reduce something as important as learning into measurable outputs.

I am now reading the The Courage to Teach by Palmer in audio (so not an accurate quote here) and he talks about how things like teaching and healthcare that require “heart” are at risk of losing that “heart”, and this happens a lot at the policy-level discourse about education and healthcare. I was also struck by something Clarissa Bezerra had written in a recent blogpost (these are I think her words, but citing a Spanish educator (Larosa):

“Knowledge takes passion, takes suffering, takes vulnerability and being open to risk, to danger – of being changed by it”

No measurable learning outcome can capture that! But it describes the most delicious pain/pleasure feeling of when you are learning or teaching and feel you are on the cusp of something transformative…

Oh, and the pasta water thing in the title? I don’t like the expression ‘throw out the baby with the bath water’ because, really, what idiot would throw out the baby? But sometimes when I do try to get rid of the pasta water, depending on the tool I am using, I can lose some of the pasta. And besides, some of the water can sometimes be retained and added to the sauce.

So what am I saying here? I am saying that although I am passionately opposed to outcomes-oriented approaches to curriculum, I don’t completely ignore learning outcomes, they have their place. I put them in the syllabus, but they are just not supreme for me, lest I miss out on the more valuable learning that can and does take place in a real classroom. When I focus on them too much, I can lose some of the pasta, the important learning in the class. In redefining rigor in my fave article of all-time, Beyond Rigor, the authors say:

“A genuine process of inquiry invites unexpected outcomes β€” indeed, it does not assume outcomes other than a resolution to the inquiry (which may look a lot like the need for further inquiry).”

And this isn’t the end of this discussion, just the beginning… Thoughts?

18 thoughts on “Curriculum theory, outcomes/objectives, and throwing the pasta out with the pasta water

  1. Very interesting comments Maha. Thanks for the link to curriculum theory. This is worth a read. I have not been aware of taking context into account when thinking of how to structure a curriculum. People may see these different approaches as competing views or methods while they are probably more like alternatives that need to align with some other criterion.

    When we apply industrial training models (technical – product based approach) to K-12 education, we may have a misalignment. This isn’t a criticism of the curriculum design, but of the choice design. The design must be appropriate for the purpose. For example, ESL courses typically used a training model and of all models, this is probably the poorest choice for language learning.

    1. Hi Mark (I replied when I first read this but myreply got lost in the ether! Was saying your response makes sense (diff things work for diff contexts) but I think the diff approaches also come from diff worldviews of what it means to learn? Diff paradigms, even. Not mutually exclusive but with v diff fundamental beliefs. I could be wrong. Will tackle this in the next post

  2. Thanks for sharing Maha. A lot of it is over my head but the good news (if i can call it that) is that i should be starting an ME.d in “Curriculum and Instruction” from September and this read along with your links is great preparation. I am not sure what my course will be like as it is a local program but i will be sharing more of it when i get going. Perhaps you can recommend some reading for me when time permits.
    Thanks for linking to your Thesis as well. Will dip in and out as time permits. I believe this is further preparation for me as i gradually shift my focus more into core education issues.

    1. I am sorry I am writing posts that are not clear. I struggle to convert stuff I initially wrote about academically into accessible language within the short space of a blog post. Something I need to work on.
      To be honest, Len, a lot of people study edu and never get into curriculum theory. I just felt my teaching never fit the more traditional models that focused on content or outcomes so it resonated with me big time. The early link in the article is a really good one and written for people outside formal edu so should be a good summary and the refs offer further links. One of the refs, Kelly, is v accessible coz it is a textbook not an academic book. I read that one first before reading Stenhouse, Cornbleth and Grundy. For my thesis, I summarize all the views and arguments in chapter three.

      1. Hi Maha, your writing is fine. Please do not change your style. I read it again and the more i read, the more i’m taking away important pointers. I am already planning to get ‘difficult’ with the lecturers of the curriculum course but first i must come prepared. i will be reading more of the ‘Curriculum Theory’ stuff over the holidays.

        Personally i have a struggle with curriculum in this way – that i was brought up on the objectives approach but many times i have had to shift my focus during a class or a major part of a course. For example i am now teaching students from social sciences about database design. They are generally not interested so i have to adjust. It is a challenge especially when some external examiner will comb your exam paper in order to map objectives with outcomes.

        1. Exactly, Len. It’s that external person, the assumption that if your exam can be mapped to outcomes, ur doing the right thing. Whereas u might do that but have ur students not learn the essence of what ur teaching, because of the differences in their interest, skill, etc. And also because sthg like database design can be taught in a fragmented way that does not give students the big picture of why they are doing it, why certain things matter. I have noticed that non-computer scientists who attempt database design do it v poorly, which implies there is sthg right about the way I was taught it… Need to put my finger on what that is πŸ™‚ But I think (could be wrong) most teachers in their classes will find the objectives model not enough. Even people who are advocates for it. The process model (as I will explain in some other blogpost) has internal measures of quality (which of course are not unproblematic themselves. But also require a diff worldview to work with… More later and good luck with ur MEd πŸ™‚ h

  3. I now have a copy of your thesis to read. Thanks for that. I will revisit this post for the other references. I have some curriculum books i think – ebooks ie so have to check them out too.

  4. Maha, this is a very good comment – ” Any choice of content is an expression of power. Any exclusion of content means something. “.

    We are in the midst of a curriculum review process that entails examining two things: 1. our program structure and credit system (currently many of our programs have very large differences in the amounts of credits students must complete to graduate with a Bachelors), and 2. our actual curriculum (we were given some money to develop a more Low Carbon approach to science curriculum). This money is thru a loan from the World Bank that the Government will repay. Our Government has a Low Carbon Development Strategy (LCDS) and we are asked (told?) to realign our science programs to meet LCDS objectives.

    I am chairing the committee that’s addressing part 1 above. One of the things we observed is that every department thinks their amount of credit and curriculum structure is perfect as it is. And of course point 2 above speaks to the “expression of power” that you noted in your comment.

    Exclusion could mean many things: 1. that some staff may become redundant, 2. that some programs will become lighter, affect budgets and admin overheads, and so on.

    1. Glad this post seems to be helping you on so many diff levels! Agree with your analysis! Won’t respond in detail so I don’t end up making assumptions, as an “external” (we do it all the time, had to stop myself)

    2. Hi Leandlar,

      I think it is normal for instructors to resist changes to their curricula. There are a lot of reasons for this. Framing this as “compliance” with vaguely described demands of some outside authority may make this a little more palatable. I agree with Maha about the power inherent in any attempt to define through inclusion or exclusion. This is what makes the “praxis” model appealing, but also quite difficult to implement. At least the World Bank thing gives you some limits to work within. This could be turned to an advantage, but you’ll still need buy in from faculty.

      1. I’d like to think of it differently. Rather than make recommendations then take them to faculty, then get buy-in, I’d switch it around: involve faculty in thinking what makes sense to modify and how they might want to do it. You won’t have to worry about buy-in since they’re already involved in the process of modifying the curriculum. Even you, Len, become an external body if you modify without involving them. That’s sort of the whole idea behind collaborative action research, which is really well explained in Carr and Kemmis’ book, “Becoming Critical” which also critiques the technical approach to edu research that makes no sense and has no use for teachers on the ground

        1. Yes. This should always be a collaborative effort. However, in my place people say “Why do you want to change anything. It’s just fine as it is.”

          As for collaboration, they see it as a way to rationalize work flow by dividing jobs up. Feedback is unwelcome criticism.

          If we ask how something can be improved, someone will understand that we are criticizing them or their work. We stick close to the workbooks and publishers’ scope and sequence. Just deliver content and don’t ask questions. This is very common in ESL.

          We have to be able to question and reflect without raising suspicion or provoking animosity.

  5. Thanks for the wishes. Be sure that i’d be running ideas by you and asking questions about Curriculum and Instruction as i get cracking πŸ™‚
    On the database design – i am sure there is a more sophisticated explanation but i think the nuances are better learned when you spend time thinking about it and studying details over and over. And remember computer scientists are all about data management. So i guess that. If you figure out what it is, tell me.

    What has troubled me mostly is how to deal with students and content when interests vary as in my case AND still maintain some of what is expected. I know of some colleagues who were/are constantly blasted for ‘deviating’ from the course outline.

    1. As if the course outline were mandated by some infallible higher power, one that was all-knowing of students’ abilities and interests and ways they could learn, as if all students are the same, and all teachers can reach them the same way…
      I am exaggerating of course, no teaching is truly like that. But to look at people’s obsessions with outlines/outcomes….

  6. Hi Maha,

    You’re right. The models outlined in the infed article do appear to represent different paradigms or world views. This makes is particularly difficult to move from the second one – product – to the third – process. Though in language and writing instruction, as you know, a superficial resemblance can be found with “process writing” and “process reading” and so on – it is still difficult to move into real process focused instruction.

    I have been doing this process thing for several years, and other colleagues have done the same – spontaneously it would seem – however, we get a lot of push back from colleagues who see us as “irresponsible” or refusing to be “accountable” for our teaching. They respond by attempting to impose a strictly “transmission” based curriculum on us, build entirely around delivery of a list of materials. They define this so closely that even they are unable to comply with it. This fails instructionally but succeeds in driving out “bad teachers” (those who think about what they are doing).

    The forth level, praxis, is what is done in my sons’ school. This is designed to create a kind of “model citizen” constructed along populist, democratic principles, so it has political socialization at it’s core – and this is quite traditional. Kids resist it as “scolding” and moralistic.

    So, I think that paradigms are relevant, but that distinctions may go a little deeper. Instructionism may be useful in early primary education and corporate training, praxis based curricula are well suited to adult and continuing education, professional development, and some post-grad level education. Other environments may be better suited to product or process based curricula.

    If we wanted to introduce curriculum theory into teacher ed, it would have to be under this type of rubric and not as an artifact of the culture wars.

    1. Nodding my head at what you’re saying here. As I will clarify in my next post, the process model relies heavily in our faith in the judgment of teachers as practitioners who understand their own context better than any outsider. you lose control when you do that, but you can potentially gain so much more learning, of you empower those teachers enough. Well, what about the lazy ones, some say? The ones who’ll slacken without the outcomes? It’s not the right question, because it was assuming that outcomes were actually producing good learning in he first place!
      (Am slightly confused about what they do at your son’s school, though… “Model citizen” and “moral scolding” sounds like indoctrination & some form of character education rather than praxis in the Freirean sense?)

  7. Hi Maha
    I enjoyed your post which is very much aligned to my own curiosity and passion about authentic curriculum design in Higher Education. I have found the work of Barnett and Coates (2005) particularly relevant especially the notion of preparing our students to operate in a world of “supercomplexity” and designing curriculum around the constructs of “knowing” “acting” and “being”. The design of curriculum to support “being” or “becoming” can be complex and is often overlooked as the experience of the lecturer in the professional/discipline context may be limited. You may also be interested in this article and the site it is located on

    1. Hi Trish, yes, I have read that book and like it very much because it speaks directly about curriculum issues in higher ed today and for the future, plus the supercomplexity angle (though I find it more obvious in other work of Barnett’s). I cited it quite often in my thesis and will probably do so when I continue this discussion of curriculum theory πŸ˜‰ You are one of v few ppl I know who have read that book (most ppl are more familiar with Barnett’s other work) mostly because I am at an American institution

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