Curriculum design

Today I attended the University of Hull’s summer University Learning and Teaching symposium on ‘The Lost Art of Curriculum Design’.  Symposia and conferences often leave me feeling tired and cynical, so I’m delighted to report that this one has left me brimming with enthusiasm and a desire to implement and share ideas.

My university is planning a far-reaching process of curriculum overhaul.  One of the pieces of educational theory that figures in the process is that of ‘threshold concepts’.  It was good, then, to have Professor Ray Land – who, along with his colleague Jan Meyer, came up with the notion – present at the first speaker.  Land, with the help of a series of lovely images and metaphors, gave a vivid exposition and defense of threshold concepts and their potential power.  Such concepts are fundamental and transformative ideas which alter the perspective of those who obtain them, allowing them to think like, say, an historian, an economist, a literary scholar, and so on.  It has been suggested, for example, that ‘opportunity cost’ is a threshold concept within economics, and ‘signification’ is one for literary studies.

To make threshold concepts a key part of curriculum reform is a canny move in the respect that it appeals (in both senses) to the discipline-specific expertise of the teaching staff whose job it will be to teach the revised curricula.  They are the people best-placed to thrash out, as a subject team, what the fundamental and transformative concepts of their discipline are – what it means to think (in my case) like a film and television studies academic. (And a media and cultural studies academic… – threshold concepts, although they emphasise ‘disciplinarity’, are not an enemy to interdisciplinarity; Land has suggested that interdisciplinarity may be a threshold concept, and perhaps interdisciplinarity is a threshold concept within film studies.)  The process of thinking and discussion that this will entail will be positive in itself, as most reflection is, and is likely to have two salutary effects on the curriculum: it will probably become more focused on concepts rather than coverage, thus promoting deep learning and thinking, and it will become more joined-up, with individual module tutors having a heightened awareness of the programme as a whole.

Threshold concepts are powerful, but they are not everything.  To know that you want your students to attain these concepts is one thing.  Coming up with the learning activities, the broader learning environment and the modes of assessment that best facilitate the acquisition and the demonstration of the possession of such concepts is the real challenge.  Here, the work of scholars such as John Biggs, Noel Entwistle and Paul Ramsden, with their focus on ‘what the student does’ (the subtitle of Biggs and Tang’s seminal work), is absolutely essential.

A little coda: It is said time and again, and it is true, that teaching is not sufficiently recognised or incentivised in higher education.  Research, so the logic goes, is the key to career advancement.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: this is a real shame.  However, in my three years of being at Hull, I’ve found it to be a great place to teach, and to pursue professional development in teaching.  And although I recognise the following feeling as partly a function of my own particular personality, I nevertheless find it hard to understand how someone can start to reflect authentically on teaching and learning and not be seriously bitten by the bug.  Teaching is a large part of most of our professional lives.  Why would we not want to be as good at it as possible, and to approach it with the same thirst for knowledge, interest in what others are saying about it, and passionate enthusiasm as we do our research?  This (as Glenn Burgess, our PVC for learning and teaching, was kind of saying in his closing remarks) is surely the real meaning of that idea that is often paid lip service to: an integration of research and teaching (which can be ‘teaching what you research’, but should be so much more besides).  One of my colleagues (@DrAmyMDavis) is a Disney scholar, and she once told me that Walt Disney used to say that he was more interested in his theme parks than his films, because the former were always changing, whereas the latter, once completed, were relatively fixed.  If our books are our films (and our articles our shorts), then our modules and programmes are our theme parks: structured experiences which we offer to our students, and try to improve upon and update year after year.

I’ll end with a quote which Ray Land included in his presentation as a poetic way of thinking about threshold concepts (and really, the whole of learning, and of life):

I am a part of all that I have met;
Yet all experience is an arch wherethrough
Gleams that untravelled world, whose margin fades
For ever and for ever when I move.
(Tennyson, Ulysses. Full text available here.)

A lovely description of the ideal kind that Roy Heath of Princeton University saw his students as progressing towards during their time in higher education (from his 1964 book The Reasonable Adventurer, and quoted at length in Noel Entwistle’s 1998 book Styles of Learning and Teaching, which I have been reading today):

The principal characteristic of the Reasonable Adventurer is his ability to create his own opportunities for satisfaction.  He seems to have his psychological house in sufficient order to release him to attack the problems of everyday life with zest and originality.  And he seems to do so with an air of playfulness.

The A is characterised by six attributes: intellectuality, close friendships, independence in value judgements, tolerance of ambiguity, breadth of interests, and sense of humor. […]

In the pursuit of a problem A appears to experience an alternation of involvement and detachment.  The phase of involvement is an intensive and exciting period characterized by curiosity, a narrowing of attention towards some point of interest. […] This period of involvement is then followed by a period of detachment, an extensive phase, accompanied by a reduction of tension and a broadening range of perception. […] Here A settles back to reflect on the meaning of what was discovered during the involved stage.  Meaning presumes the existence of a web of thought, a pattern of ideas to which the “new” element can be related.  One imagines that this is the sort of mental operation that takes place in a stance often referred to as the critical attitude.