Connecting the dots in the new curriculum

A connect the dots image showing individual numbered dots that will transform into an image once the drawer connects them with a series of lines.
Connect the Dots (Waller, 2010) CC BY-SA 2.0 from flic.kr/p/7vjAJi

Curriculum is ambitious business. In designing it, we make a claim about what we ought to teach, and what our students ought to learn. That is to say, out of the sum total of human knowledge and skill, our curriculum design puts a stake in the ground and claims the particular: this skill, this knowledge, this way of thinking, this quality necessary to be a member of this discipline or a graduate of this institution. On paper alone, these are big claims, many of which prompt debate as to the role and function of a university or a degree.

Set in motion, the impact of curriculum can go further than its original institution, shaping and transforming how a discipline is taught. We talk about the Harvard Business School Case Method, and the Stanford “d.school” approach to design thinking. In this way, university curricula not only engages with research, but can lead how disciplinary knowledge manifests in the world. Done well, it can form an institutional vision that goes beyond university branding and consumer models of education. However, achieving this is hard, especially at scale.

In being both complex and aspirational, attempts to fundamentally alter curricula are all too often anticlimactic. Initial elevated visions of the future frequently result in little more than committee-focused paper shuffles, new brochures or digital content. This is because, changing curricula requires more than just the rewriting of learning outcomes and delegation of tasks to a large excel spreadsheet. Though these activities are relevant, they remain table stakes: basic entry points into the game. Translating vision into action requires more than this. In short, we need to go beyond fine tuning with words, forms and tick boxes, to re-engage with the core of curriculum that shapes the identity of each degree through rigor and creativity. Achieving this requires leadership at all levels —from the design stage to the classroom.

changing curricula requires more than just the rewriting of learning outcomes and delegation of tasks to a large excel spreadsheet […] though relevant, these are table stakes: basic entry points into the game.

The need for participation is both supported by empirical studies and reflective of the inherent nature of curriculum itself. Originating from the Latin currere (to run), a curriculum, like the current of a river or electrical circuit, sets out a distinct course and flow. Though curriculum design may provide the schematic for this, the lights only really ‘come on’ at the point of the student. In short, a curriculum design is only ever completed in use. What this means is that curriculum cannot be something only engaged with by a few. A new curriculum requires not only creative leadership but the nuanced interpretation of this vision by all parties. In short, it is a collaborative endeavour, and one which repeated studies have found to require both top-down and bottom-up approaches.

the lights only really ‘come on’ at the point of the student. In short, a curriculum design is only ever completed in use.

As the University of Sydney undergoes its most radical curriculum transformation in history, course and component coordinators will provide leadership for the distinctive shape of each discipline in a way that addresses the question: What does a degree in this discipline look like at Sydney? Though this vision will be informed by the disciplinary knowledge of unit coordinators, leadership is needed to facilitate dialogue while providing the macro perspective required to see ‘the wood for the trees’ and connect the dots between each individual unit.

All coordinators will be supported in their work by several tools and initiatives. The leaders of each course and their components such as majors and streams, will be invited to participate in a series of workshops by Educational Innovation that focus on ways to lead the new curriculum. Likewise, a similar series will be made available for all unit coordinators who will be engaging in embedding the new graduate qualities into their subject.

This professional development aligns to fit with new software that is designed to ease the administrative burden of curriculum mapping and reporting. As the curriculum becomes more complex and interdisciplinary, tools that bridge the disciplinary and departmental silos become ever more important. Through this collaboration and development, the new curriculum can come to life to define the University, the way we teach within it, and the way our students learn within and beyond it.

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