Designing a Complex Curriculum – The Case of Innovation and Reform 1 – some basic assumptions

One of the specialist pathways which we offer on our MA International Education course is focused on the area of ‘Innovation and Reform’. With the seemingly constant shifts which are occurring in education systems throughout the world, both of these concepts seem relevant for study. This is especially the case for many of the students with whom we work who come from countries where new ideas about the role and content of education are being constantly discussed and developed.

As part of a regular review process we have decided that we want to focus on complexity theory as an organising perspective for this pathway as it offers new and different ways of thinking about education and change. This perceptual shift offers opportunities in both the content we cover and the way we understand and develop curriculum and pedagogy. The basis for using this approach is a discussion/debate we believe needs to be explored more explicitly within education, a debate concerning the nature of educative processes and the approaches needed to research them.

A distinction which is central to much of the policy generation and management of education, but which is rarely acknowledged or explicitly explored, is the conceptual difference between reductionism and holism. Reductionism is based on the notion that any system can be split into its constituent parts, parts which once identified can then be analysed and understood before being reassembled to reconstitute the whole. This approach leads to the identification of simple cause and effect relationships where particular inputs to a system are believed to lead to certain outputs. Education research becomes a process of identifying and characterising these cause and effect relationships. The end-point of this philosophy is the uncovering of a completely ‘knowable’ system which can then be manipulated with the use of simple predictive input-output processes. Such systems might be ‘simple’ – having a few variables which can be tracked and predicted, or ‘complicated’ where the only additional feature is a greater number of variables, and in both cases can be characterised as being ‘linear’.

Education has been increasingly managed and developed using these underlying assumptions under the guise of New Public Management. Schools are run through recourse to numeric data (the potential damaging effects of which I’ve previously discussed here), ‘improvement’ being the result of individual, atomistic interventions. Performance management becomes reliant to the belief that analysis of data can lead to the identification of specific interventions which are then related to simplistic outcome targets as if there is a clear one-to-one relationship at the heart of teaching and learning processes. More widely, some research funding bodies have taken a similar perspective. Approaches such as randomised controlled trials have become increasingly popular, the assumption being that single variables can be distilled out from the complexity of educational settings and then assessed for their impact on educational outcomes. All of these approaches assume a mechanistic (and perhaps even deterministic) view of the educative process.

Contrary to the reductionist view is that of holism, a perspective which stresses that both the constituent elements and the wealth of connections between them need to be taken into account to understand the system with any degree of depth. Here, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts and as such is not open to being disaggregated into constituent elements. This leads to a very different view of educational processes. There are a number of different traditions within this worldview, two of the most well-known being systems theory and complexity theory.

In developing a new approach to our Innovation and Reform specialist pathway we have decided to use a complexity lens as an alternative medium through which to consider and discuss the dynamics and processes of educational change. This is the first in a series of posts which begins to consider and develop some of our thinking as we plan and execute this new approach. What is at the core of the philosophy in developing this strand is the belief that we should not only use complexity theory as a framework for engaging with educational ideas, but that the very course itself should be planned and experienced through a complexity approach. Therefore, in considering these issues, posts which follow will consider:

  • some of the basic foundations of complexity theory;
  • a conceptual framework for structuring a complexity-driven pathway;
  • an exploration of learning through a complexity lens;
  • creating a positive tension between prescriptive and emergent learning (including a discussion of knowledge and understanding)
  • the foundations for an ‘emergent curriculum’;
  • how all of this can be used to develop a coherent and meaningful curriculum for international masters students.
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