Why most curricula are wrong

POST STRUCTURALISMWritten by Dr J.P. Nel, MD of Mentornet (Pty) Ltd

The curriculum should serve as the blueprint for any learning programme, regardless of the level or type of qualification or part-qualification that it represents. It is frustrating to see how often curriculums are written just to please a quality assurance body or to create the impression that the learning institution offers professional education and training.

Any learning process has as elements theory and philosophy on the one side and procedures and processes on the other. Academic learning should focus more on theory and philosophy while occupational and vocational learning, which are actually the same thing, should focus more on procedures and processes. The mistake that especially higher education institutions, notably universities, make is to ignore or neglect procedures and processes.

Occupational curriculums, on the other hand, tend to ignore or neglect the necessity to link knowledge outcomes with practical outcomes and workplace outcomes. Some may refer to outcomes as learning objectives or modules.

Learning should always lead to improved performance in the workplace and the workplace requires competence. Ironically higher level tasks and basic level tasks often require practical competence only. High level tasks are sometimes too difficult for some workers to understand; consequently they are taught only procedures or steps. They perform the tasks in a particular sequence but do not understand why this is necessary. Low level tasks are easy to perform; therefore workers doing basic work are also only taught steps. Both groups, therefore, require practical competence only.

In between high and basic level tasks are the majority of tasks that require comprehension. Workers need to understand why tasks are performed in a particular order and way. Workers, therefore, require foundational competence, and this is where curriculum writers often err.

You should not have knowledge outcomes in a curriculum that are not linked to practical outcomes. Also, it is most unlikely that you will have practical outcomes with no theoretical foundation. That is why each and every knowledge outcome should be linked to a specific practical outcome and in the same order so that they can logically be grouped together when learning materials and practical exercises are developed and learning takes place.

Foundational competence, mostly achieved through a combination of theoretical and practical learning at a learning institution, serves as the foundation for the achievement of reflexive competence. Reflexive competence is achieved when what the individual learned is applied in the workplace. That is why workplace outcomes need to be aligned with theoretical and practical outcomes. Reflexive competence mostly requires practice and lots of time.

It would be unfair assessment practice to test learners against workplace outcomes that were not taught at the learning institution. You should never teach learners certain knowledge and skills (foundational competence) and then test them against other competencies at the workplace. Therefore, workplace outcomes, if they are specified in a curriculum, should also be aligned with knowledge and practical outcomes.

It is possible to have more than one practical outcome linked to just one theoretical outcome, and more than one workplace outcome linked to just one practical outcome. However, this should not be the result of shoddy design and should not complicate the work of the learning material developer. Stand-alone outcomes of any nature should not be included in a curriculum.

It is debatable if workplace outcomes should be specified in a curriculum, because reflexive competence is often integrated and on a relatively high level. It mostly takes rather long for most people to achieve reflexive competence. It also takes long before anybody can demonstrate reflexive competence, and the more an individual practices, the better she becomes at a task, for example doing surgery. Insistence on the achievement of reflexive competence as a precondition for certification can lead to inefficient learning. What happens in practice, however, is that the final assessment becomes a sham – learners are not properly tested, the learning institution is no longer involved in the assessment process for many possible reasons, many learners do not even attempt the final exam, and many more.

In closing, there should be a logical progression from practical competence to foundational competence to reflexive competence by offering learning aligned with knowledge outcomes, practical outcomes and workplace outcomes that are equal in number with knowledge, practical and workplace outcomes supporting one another towards the achievement of the purpose of the qualifications or part qualification. In my opinion formal learning to meet the requirements for certification should not include testing reflexive competence.


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