Curricula la la

Fresh from three plus days (and nights) of discussions about the curriculum architecture of the university, this post is a chance to gather my thoughts about understandings and assumptions of curricula in higher education. (Although I note that the plural form ‘curriculums’ seems to be increasingly in use across the university). About fourteen years ago, I was fortunate enough to be a research assistant for Sharon Fraser’s project exploring academics’ conceptions of curriculum (part of her second PhD!). A portion of this study was reported in the Fraser and Bosanquet (2006) paper ‘The curriculum? That’s just a unit outline, isn’t it?’  These are some of the things academics had to say about curriculum back then:

I probably think of the curriculum as a piece of paper, to be honest. I don’t think of it as the experience.
It is basically the content of the course, what you are going to be covering in the course and how you cover it and in what depth. It is basically like a course outline.
When I talk about curriculum in my department, most people think that I mean content, syllabus. They talk about a list of topics … And it’s very frustrating … The structure of the university … [is] very hung up on content … and the way degrees are structured … even timetable constraints … are real constraints on curriculum development.
The curriculum is … a dynamic process for me … something that emerges from the interactions of the students and the materials, and the readings they have done … The students learn a lot from each other … I don’t see curriculum as a structural thing.
I would never use the word curriculum, but I guess the reason I’m not interested is that I think it has a content notion attached to it … So unless the word curriculum can incorporate notions like a community of scholars then it is not a term that interests me.

Last year I was interviewed by Jason Lodge and Mollie Dollinger for their podcast Beyond the Lectern. This 45 minute unscripted conversation about curriculum was a chance to reflect out loud about how academics’ conceptions and experiences of curriculum have changed. In a nutshell: the term curriculum is in more widespread use than ten to fifteen years ago. My feeling is that a product notion of curriculum still dominates discussions in higher education. I wondered out loud whether modularised teaching and micro-credentialing were examples of curriculum as a product.

Using the example of graduate attributes, I talked about the challenges of curriculum as something that is trying to be both market-driven and a force for social reform. I talked about students as partners in the co-creation of curricula, and noted that sessional staff are often excluded from the creation of curricula. Universities do not always recognise the excellent curriculum work that is happening between teachers and students. I also talked about the balance between flexibility and quality assurance. (With some editing to make sense of my lack of preparation) I asked:

How high a tolerance do our institutions , our teachers and our students have for uncertainty? … How can the university enable [teachers and students learning together] to happen really well with the recognition that that is where … curriculum happens? It is very scary as a leader of learning and teaching to … hand over control to people in the classroom.

These words come back to haunt me as I take a more defined leadership role. Quoting them here is a way of reminding myself of the importance of relinquishing control and giving people space to play. Visiting Student Administration earlier today (the engine room of the university), I was delighted to see that they are taking inspiration from the Lego Academics and mapping the new university curriculum in lego.

Start of term.

— Lego Academics (@LegoAcademics) September 27, 2017

Dr Black questions the efficiency of the committee to evaluate the efficiency of department evaluation committees.

— Lego Academics (@LegoAcademics) April 29, 2016

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