Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

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

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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 — 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?

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