How’s the View? Four Lenses for Looking at Your Curriculum


While paging through a recent addition to our in-house library at the GMCTE by Blackmore and Kandiko, I encountered a reference that I find quite helpful for understanding why it is important to view curricula from different perspectives.   The work referenced is by Basil Bernstein who was a sociology of education scholar in the UK, until his passing in 2000.  Bernstein suggested that the curriculum can be viewed through four lenses.  I frame these first in the form of questions curriculum review committees can ask themselves and then add Bernstein’s terminology below.

Magnifying glasses

With respect to our curriculum….

  1. ….what do we say we will do?
    This is the “planned or intended curriculum” often most directly documented through course syllabi when taken together.
  2. …what do we do in practice?This is the “created or delivered curriculum” which is how intentions are translated into practice in the actual teaching of courses.
  3. …what do students get out of it?This is the “received or understood curriculum” and refers to the way the intended and delivered curriculum is understood, in the end, by the students.
  4. …what else are we doing?This is the “hidden or tacit curriculum” where additional knowledge, skills or values are conveyed, even though they are not formally or explicitly part of the curriculum.

Blackmore and Kandiko point out, and my experience would agree, that it is usually the first two questions that occupy curriculum committees with little to no attention to the last two.    To understand the full richness, rigour, and complexity of curricula we surely should try the view from each of these lenses.

Picture courtesy of MatthewH via Flickr with a Creative Commons license (AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved)

Bernstein, B. (1975).  Class, codes and control (Vol. 3):  Towards a theory of educational transmission.  London:  Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Bernstein, B. (2000).  Pedagogy, symbolic control and identity; Theory, research and critique.  New York:  Rowman and Littlefield.

Blackmore, P. & Kandiko, C. B. (Eds.) (2012).  Strategic Curriculum Change:  Global Trends in Universities.  Society for Research into Higher Education Series.  New York:  Routledge.

Curriculum Change in a Time of Transformation

This piece was previously published in the GMCTE publication Bridges.

As the University of Saskatchewan wrestles with program prioritization and all academic programs are thoroughly scrutinized, analysed, and criticized, there is a temptation to hunker down, do nothing, and wait for better times.  Academic units have just completed a major self-assessment of their core programs and naturally have put forward a strong case for continued support (and perhaps worked hard to justify the status quo).  It is risky to openly contemplate curricular change in an environment where admitting the need for change may risk resource loss or even program elimination.

Yet if the self-examination of academic programs has revealed some warts, redundancies, gaps, or misalignment, a tremendous opportunity is within reach.  In 2012 a major investment was made by the University of Saskatchewan in curricular innovation and experiential learning.  The University Learning Centre and Gwenna Moss Centre became the trustee of substantial central funds to support curricular renewal.  A $1.5 million fund for curriculum innovation and a slightly smaller fund for experiential learning projects was established – with the firm commitment to move every dollar into the academic units to support improvements to academic programs, enhancement of the student experience, and alignment with university areas of priority.  These funds span IP3, i.e. the years 2012-2016.

Many academic programs have received financial support through these funds; many more have utilized the curriculum design and instructional design help freely available from the Gwenna Moss Centre.  Many units have now established their desired program specific graduate attributes / program-level learning outcomes.  Some have not.  Many units have explored using the “Curriculum Alignment Tool” available through the Gwenna Moss Centre, to examine how individual courses contribute to their overall programs.  Some units have begun to explore, through surveys of their faculty, students, recent graduates, alumni, employers, and community stakeholders, what changes to their programs might be plausible and attractive.  If you haven’t, there’s no time better than now!

I want to add that consultations with our curriculum design specialists and instructional designers can be candid and confidential.  Units may feel vulnerable when taking an honest look at their programs during times of program prioritization, but an honest assessment with a neutral third-party can open exciting new possibilities.  The Gwenna Moss Centre is available to coach, facilitate, and even help to finance innovation ideas that will make academic programs and learning experiences richer for your students.

Find out more on our Curriculum Innovation Fund  or our Experiential Learning Fund web pages.

The Importance of Technology Integration Across a Program

At the recent EdMedia conference in Victoria, BC, I noted a recurring theme around the integration of learning technologies. Many people were talking about the ongoing issue of these technologies being used in a course here and there as opposed to being integrated across programs. There are a number of problems with this approach to learning technologies.

Blogs and ePortfolios can both be useful tools for students to assemble evidence of their learning, reflect and show their growth. When these are only used in a course or two throughout a students program, the blogs and ePortfolios are often incomplete, interrupted (if used in two courses at different points in a program), have less depth and the students see little value (the same is also true of non-electronic student portfolios).

It makes more sense to the students if these tools are used throughout their programs as opposed to the current smattering that many of them encounter. In addition to the reasons mentioned above, there are some significant advantages to programs making a concerted effort to use the same or similar technologies.

Students can see a greater connection between courses when their work and reflections on each course are collected into a cohesive volume. They may also find it easier to reference earlier materials when beginning work on a capstone project for a program.

Less time can be spent showing students how to use a type of technology, whether it’s a blogging or ePortfolio platform, clickers, wikis, Blackboard, etc. if courses across a program use the same types of technologies, something that will be seen as a benefit by both students and faculty.

A concerted integration of technologies throughout a program also creates an opportunity for instructors to support each other in the use of these tools in their teaching and learning (yes, instructors should be using many of these same tools for reflection, collaboration and growth).

If you’re interested in learning more about using learning technologies for teaching and learning at the U of S, please see our Web pages related to Educational Technology, register for the new Introduction to Learning Technologies course or contact us at the GMCTE for consultation. If you are looking for more technical assistance with learning technologies, please contact ICT.

The Academic Honesty Bonus: Another Advantage of an Aligned Curriculum

In my role as a Curriculum Development Specialist, I get to talk with faculty about their programs and the many reasons to examine and renew curricula in higher education.  In recent months, another advantage to an aligned curriculum has come to mind for me:  academic honesty.

I posit that the three following relationships hold generally true, and promote academic honesty among students.

  1. When faculty alert students to the progressive nature of the curriculum and convey to students how what they are learning now prepares them for, not only life after graduation but for future courses, students can better recognize the benefit of deep learning.   For example, students can come to understand that the course on legal foundations of the profession in 2nd year prepares them for for the policy paper they will need to write as part of their capstone course in 4th year.  Or, students can learn that locating and reviewing journal articles for the intro course helps them learn how to write a research paper in the advanced course.   Naming such connections can provide just the “learning hook” needed to focus students’ attention and make them less likely to cheat themselves via academic dishonesty.
  2. When faculty relieve unnecessary time pressures on students, students become less likely to use cheating as a coping mechanism.  I acknowledge here that working well under time pressure can be a skill we wish students to learn, but in the case it is not a priority learning outcome it can be easily avoided.  For example, if faculty of the three required courses can time their class projects to be due in three different weeks rather than all in the same week, students will be in a better position to devote the time required for higher quality work.   With less unnecessary time pressure students also become less likely to resort to cut-and-paste “shortcuts” or full-blown plagiarism.
  3. When faculty know what assessments their colleagues use, they can be sure to build on past assessment practices and ensure they are not asking students to do the very same thing they have done for other courses.  Repetitive assessments can tempt students to submit work done previously for another class.  For example, the student who has returned from practicum experience and is asked to write reflection after reflection for each post-practicum course the following term, can come to the conclusion that the faculty don’t talk to each other about their teaching and therefore would never discover the “re-submission” or, perhaps worse, believe that the faculty actually doesn’t care.

And, here’s where curriculum conversations win the day! Fortunately, it is typical in curriculum renewal conversations that faculty have the opportunity to learn about what their colleagues teach, the learning outcomes they aim for, the assessments they use, and when they assess.   Given such conversations, most groups will then proceed to align their teaching for optimal learning conditions, and get the added bonus of having created the conditions that support academic honesty.

New Bridges and Curriculum Renewal

On the opening day of Saskatoon’s new bridge, my son insisted that we check it out. I am so glad he did!!!  All the inconveniences of the past few years have come together so elegantly linking parts of the city that seemed so far apart before. What use to be at least a 30-minute drive is now a quick streamlined, pothole-free trip.

Circle Drive South BridgeFor a curriculum consultant, the long-term planning of the bridge—100 years apparently—the vision, and the various stages from start to finish offers several lessons for large-scale curriculum construction and renewal:

  1. Have a clear purpose and vision. What is it that will be accomplished by this change? What is the preferred state that you hope to achieve with this reVISION or reNEWal?
  2. Hold up the vision and the purpose frequently and consistently. When energy or enthusiasms flag, return the vision and purpose.
  3. Know that there will be re-routing and bumpy roads while the curriculum is under construction. Again, revisit the vision and the reasons for the change.
  4. Design each stage of the change thoughtfully. Although stages may not be ideal, the increments are important in making the transition as smooth as possible.
  5. The City didn’t meet its proposed opening date but it did open. It may be the same for your curriculum revision project. With your eye firmly on the shared vision, know there will be messy stages, delays, and unanticipated glitches. Keep moving forward with the plan for the change. Celebrate and note progress often. Each new accomplishment gives an opportunity to revisit the vision and purpose.
  6. One person did not build the new bridge—it was a team effort. I would imagine that very few people who worked on the bridge at the various stages knew exactly how their part fit into the finished project. It may be the same for a curriculum revision project. An aspect of leadership in a large project is to pull together a skilled team to contribute their expertise as required at the various stages.
  7. Before we know it, this new bridge in Saskatoon will become ordinary and integrated into our ways of getting around. Be curious about how long it will take for the “new program” to become “normal” and then the “old program.”
  8. Curriculum renewal is cyclical. Eventually the new bridge will need repairs and maintenance. This is the same with any curriculum. Regular attention and maintenance can help keep the program current and vibrant.

Consider us as part of your curriculum building team. For more information contact:

Photo courtesy of Mark Welsh under a Creative Commons License

Embracing a National Leadership Role

It is an interesting exercise to reflect on a final message one might pass on to a campus community as dynamic and diverse as the U of S, and to my colleagues in the GMCTE for whom I have tremendous admiration and respect.  And while I leave a lengthier reflection for the pages of Bridges this coming September, I wanted to focus on one key area that I hope brings this campus community together across all academic units – an area that I look forward to watching (and trying to emulate) from across the country when I start my new role at Dalhousie University.  That area is curriculum innovation and renewal.

A few years ago, PCIP agreed to fund a very forward-looking and ambitious plan to encourage strategic curriculum innovation in academic programs as one of the focal points for the third integrated plan adopted by the campus community.  This is an area of increasing importance across the country (and, indeed, around the world) for a number of reasons, including changes in accreditation requirements in many disciplines and, more importantly, increased government oversight and demands for quality assurance.  Many of these reasons have forced universities across the country to engage in activities related to curriculum across all disciplines, ready or not.

The higher education literature talks about three main reasons (or drivers) for engaging in curriculum renewal, none of which are mutually exclusive. They are: quality assurance (often externally imposed processes to ensure a minimum standard across and between institutions), quality enhancement (usually intrinsically motivated to improve the experience and development of students across a program), and the scholarship of teaching and learning (usually in the form of an improved understanding of evidence-based teaching and learning practices that might inform individual courses in a program or courses across an entire program).

Due in part to the provincial context in which we find ourselves, however, the U of S has an advantage over a significant number of other institutions beginning to pay attention to their curriculum.  Other than those programs for whom there are ongoing accreditation processes required by their professions, the U of S does not have an externally imposed quality assurance framework that we must meet.  Even though innovation in academic programs is included in the integrated plan as an institutional priority, the potential is there for all programs (departments, colleges) engaging in curriculum renewal to do so in a manner where a genuine interest in enhancing their programs is the primary purpose.  And this interest hopefully stems from a realization that there are evidence-based teaching and learning practices that might be adopted to improve the student learning experience.

When coupled with support frameworks that have been put in place to aid programs in their activities that are the envy of most campuses in Canada (including curriculum and course development specialists in the GMCTE who are freely available to consult with academic units, funding support from the curriculum innovation fund and other funds that have been recently created on campus (such as the experiential learning, undergraduate research, and community engaged learning funds), database tools developed support curriculum mapping, and other initiatives on campus to support curriculum innovation – including a learning analytics project to try to understand more about our students, and participation in the Bayview Alliance), our institutional and provincial context has positioned the U of S to become a national leader in curriculum innovation and renewal.

As I interact with colleagues at universities across the country (which I have had the pleasure of doing many times in the past three and a half years), I have witnessed dramatic increases in the respect shown to this institution and to the work being undertaken in academic units across the campus in the area of curriculum development.  Indeed, curriculum innovation and renewal is one area, regardless of disciplines, where the entire U of S campus community has the potential and promise of national leadership, that is if you collectively choose to embrace it.

Postscript:  It has been a pleasure working with all of you at the University of Saskatchewan.  Thank you for your generosity over the years, and for providing incredible opportunities for me to grow as a scholar, leader, and champion for all things teaching and learning.  My new contact information at Dalhousie University is

Gather Data, Take a Timely Look, and Make Change

Recently, I read Fetterman, Deitz & Gesundheit’s 2010 article on using empowerment evaluation to renew a medical curriculum. The Stanford University School of Medicine engaged in a process of collecting data about their courses and providing that data back in a timely fashion to faculty and directors who engaged in reflection and discussion to create changes in courses, clerkships, and across the curriculum. Such discussions, timely feedback, and the facilitation by a curriculum evaluation person acting as critical friend were identified as key components of this process. The article provides details including how they addressed challenges for faculty such as balancing demands on time and sharing course and curriculum evaluations with colleagues to discuss strengths and weakness. The challenge of providing timely feedback within weeks rather than months was also identified and addressed (feasible with today’s computer number crunching and the personnel support for summarizing comments).

Punched cards

What struck me is the similarity between Stanford University School of Medicine’s process of empowerment evaluation and our University of Saskatchewan’s Curriculum Innovation and Renovation Cycle . Both draw on the strength of faculty members’ ability to examine data and draw on their experiences to make changes with facilitation support, and in doing so meet the principles of data-informed, faculty-driven, and developer-supported curriculum renewal process (Wolf, 2007).

The Benefits?
Improved teaching, improved student learning, improved evaluations, and a culture of evidence and reflection.

Is the Unexamined Program Really Worth Offering?

As we are being invited to take a vigorous look at the programs we are offering, I can’t help but wonder, haven’t we always been doing that? I mean, really, in this information age with new perspectives and burgeoning bags of “what we know” bursting at the seams on every possible topic, can we actually NOT be refreshing our program content annually at the very least? What was known last month is different than what we know this month! “Truth” is being regularly being rediscovered. Do you remember when the brontosaurus went the way of the dinosaur (so to speak) to be replaced by the new “truth” of the Apatosaurus or when we lost a planet or found another one?

Perspectives are shifting as we look around in our world and come to see that there are so many ways of knowing and interpreting that which we experience—not only do we have rose colored glasses but we also have fuchsia, chartreuse, pumpkin, and aquamarine! Given that we are from everywhere as a University community and going everywhere, how can we NOT be incorporating what we learn from our international colleagues (and I include students in “colleagues”)?

We have more information now than ever before about how our main interfacing tool, the brain, works. We can’t possibly be NOT adjusting how we teach given what we now know about how the brain learns, sorts, and bins incoming information.

This call to examine our programs is a huge opportunity to refresh, renew, and reinvigorate what we offer our students and our community. We don’t want to be passing along this tired old chestnut in the name of traditional, “it was good enough for me” when we know our programs could be even stronger, more relevant, and more engaging.

We all know what it feels like to be fired up and enthused about a new concept or being introduced to another way to view the world. We have all experienced the thrill of the ah-ha moment. We know what it feels like to be excited about learning and discovery.

Taking a look at your curriculum is like peering into a closet or pantry with curiosity and neutrality rather than with nostalgia, sentiment or apathy. “I wonder why we are doing this this way?” “Is this the best way?” “Do we still need this?”  “When was the last time anyone used this?” “Are we excited about our program and teaching?”—because if you aren’t no one else is going to be! Listen to new-comers who ask those questions rather than silencing them or telling them “this is how we do things here” when they ask “why.”

Embrace the chance to take your research lens to your curriculum with curiosity, inquisitiveness, neutrality, and genuine interest in what you might find. Be rigorous and thorough. Really want to know what the experience of your students is. Want to be the best you can be with what you’ve got. And then reach…

What is CAT 1.0?

So what is “CAT” beyond our nickname for our Curriculum Alignment Tool? It is an online software for academic programs and instructors to fill in information about your courses, connect those courses within a program, and review what you are teaching your students.

Designed as one approach to gathering data about programs, CAT fits into the inventory stage of the curriculum renewal cycle (see Susan & Sheryl’s dynamic video or diagram ).  Focusing on an instructor’s approach to their course, CAT asks about instructional strategies, assessment methods and timing, course outcomes and connection with program outcomes. CAT is particularly good at displaying trends and allowing for instructors to link parts of their course including outcomes and assessments.

Why use CAT? For instructors, this tool is designed to provide an opportunity for articulating their teaching strategies and goals, showing links between their goals and how they assess and meet program goals, reflecting on their strategies, and contributing information about their courses to their program curriculum renewal process.

From the prospective of programs, CAT provides an existing online tool designed for curriculum inventory that easily summarizes strategies and assessments across selected courses, shows relationship between courses and the program outcomes, and exports a more detailed set of data for further analysis. Depending on the goals of the curriculum renewal process, data can be entered in for a single year or tracked longitudinally when exploring change across offerings is desired.

For more information and resources see the CAT Website.

Are Learning Outcomes Corrosive? Isn’t it About How You Frame Them?

Students in a Harvard Business School classroomA recent article in CAUT Bulletin (January 2013) by Frank Furedi discussed the corrosiveness of learning outcomes. As I read through the author’s comments and opinions, I returned to the same questions of: “Isn’t it about how you frame learning outcomes? Shouldn’t the conversations be about how learning outcomes contribute to the learning process? Shouldn’t we as educators be focused on student learning?”

I found the article to be very interesting, as I believe that each of the author’s arguments against learning outcomes may be flipped around to show the positive aspects.

The article lists four main consequences of learning outcomes:

First, that learning outcomes threaten to disrupt the conduct of the academic relationship between teacher and student.

Second, is that learning outcomes foster a climate that inhibits the capacity of students and teachers to deal with uncertainty.

The third argument is that they devalue the art of teaching. The art of teaching depends on exercising judgment based on experience.

The fourth consequence of learning outcomes is that it breeds a culture of cynicism and irresponsibility.

The above four arguments may be flipped or reframed to present the positive aspects of learning outcomes. For instance, for number one I would say that learning outcomes strengthen the academic student –teacher relationship by building a stronger connection, trust and student confidence. If students feel confidence and feel safe to make mistakes or experiment, then these qualities strengthen the academic relationship. Without learning outcomes or a map to see where the students are headed, they may feel lost and give up. Obviously, as in any relationship, there needs to be flexibility and common sense. Providing a pathway through learning outcomes allows for students to have an understanding of what is ahead and decide for themselves how to achieve the outcome.

As for learning outcomes inhibiting uncertainty, no, they do not. They help the student to see where they are headed but do not prevent obstacles from appearing or uncertainty from arising. Learning outcomes provide a goal to reach and help prepare students to reach that goal. Yet it is the student’s responsibility and motivation to decide how to reach that goal or to overcomes obstacles. Learning outcomes do not inhibit uncertainty, creativity or the art of teaching. They contribute to the art of teaching by allowing for creativity. Creativity is achieved through curiosity, a trusting environment and having the confidence to experiment. The art of teaching does not need to be lost by providing a pathway through the use of learning outcomes. It should be increased through the confidence to experiment and the motivation to learn new things. Utilizing learning outcomes does not mean that students are being funneled through a class with the sole purpose of the end result. Designing learning outcomes and a path that allows for deviation will enhance a class; not be corrosive.

The last argument that states learning outcomes breed a culture of cynicism and irresponsibility, can be flipped around as well; though of course it depends on the individual teacher and administration. If as a teacher you are unhappy with learning outcomes as you see them as an auditing tool and a sign of a lack of trust, then in most cases the teacher will be cynical about them. But if you reframe and see how learning outcomes are student centred and meant to increase the learning process; then as a teacher you may be more accepting. For me it comes down to doing what is best for the student. By focusing on the best teaching strategies and methods to achieve a learning outcome will enhance the learning process.

Photo by HBS1908 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons