What do we mean by pedagogy? (Part 4) Thinking about Curriculum 2

In my last post I suggested that the masters framework developed by the QAA for HE in Scotland (2013) offered a very useful basis for developing pedagogy. I also argued that curriculum needs to be more than a list of content, instead seeing the roles of emergence and process as crucial to the work of masters students and therefore in designing curricula. In developing this perspective on curriculum, how might a practical framework look?

priciples of curriculum design

This model is an attempt to capture the complexity and process orientation towards curriculum which is informed by the work of Knight (2001). This model starts from a position of seeing knowledge as a central element of any curriculum. Knowledge is the building blocks on which debate and argumentation are based. Therefore, it is a crucial element in constructing any curriculum. However, by itself it is not enough. Of equal importance is the structure which supports these building blocks – the explicit discussion of concepts. Threshold concepts (Meyer, Land and Baillie, 2010) have become a useful basis for developing the overarching framework for a course, and indeed modules (whilst accepting that in any given module threshold concepts for many may remain liminal). At masters level there is every chance that students will move from a core area of knowledge to pursue and specialise in particular spheres within a module. The explicit use of threshold concepts allows this process to occur within a coherent, wider ‘field’ of study; whilst individuals may begin to investigate different subject areas and contexts the concepts ensure a level of coherence and allow a common point of contact for discussion and engagement with the work of others. The use of an explicit conceptual framework also gives a general scheme for the process of learning to operate within. In this sense, the interplay of a conceptual schema (boundary settings) with individual investigation and growth (freedom) is in keeping with Davis and Sumara’s (2006) identification of factors necessary for emergence in their work on complexity theory.

If knowledge and concepts are engaged with alone however, then there is a deficit in the applied/practical use of the emerging learning. Hence, application is also important as this is where schema, a developing knowledge base and understanding are utilised and ‘tested’.

It is at the intersection of the three dimensions of knowledge, concepts and application where curriculum as process (Knight, 2001; Stenhouse, 1975) can be made real. Together, they give the possibility for emerging understanding (here used in the way I’ve interpreted Van Camp (2014) to emphasise the connection of ideas and knowledge in networks) and application based on engagement with knowledge, concepts and their application. It is in this emerging interpenetration (Byrne and Callaghan, 2014) of these systems that both new insights and new knowledge can emerge. But at this level, this is a personal journey for each student with different contexts, interests and applications driving learning. Hence, curriculum as product (Stenhouse, 1975) makes little sense as the possible outcomes are hugely diverse whilst still operating within a loose framework and from common starting points (For an example of how this model for curriculum has been used in our work so far see an earlier post & our research methods pedagogy website)

As suggested in earlier posts, to understand and develop curricula where diversity and process are key, we need to have a clear understanding of the role of assessment in aiding the emergent process model, but as I’ll also reflect upon in future posts, interpenetration has major ramifications for the way we understand learning and teaching; to reiterate, to suggest that pedagogy can be the study of teaching alone makes little sense.


Byrne, D. & Callaghan, G. (2014) Complexity Theory and the Social Sciences: The state of the art. Abingdon: Routledge.

Davis, B. & Sumara, D. (2006) Complexity and Education: Inquiries into Learning, Teaching, and Research. New York: Routledge.

Knight, P.T. (2001) ‘Complexity and Curriculum: A process approach to curriculum-making.’ Teaching in Higher Education, 6(3), 369-381.

Meyer, J.H.F., Land, R. and Baillie, C. (2010) Threshold Concepts and Transformational Learning, (eds), Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.

Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (2013) What is mastersness? Discussion Paper. Retrieved from: http://www.enhancementthemes.ac.uk/docs/report/what-is-mastersness.pdf [Last accessed 5/7/15]

Stenhouse, L. (1975) An Introduction to Curriculum Research and Development. London: Heinemann.

Van Camp, W. (2014) ‘Explaining understanding (or understanding explanation).’ European Journal of Philosophy of Science, 4(1): 95-114.

What do we mean by pedagogy? (Part 3) Thinking about curriculum

Curriculum is a large and complex area for study and reflection. It is the vision of education made concrete, but as such, Schiro (2013) argues that this leads to conflicting visions about what curriculum should contain or focus upon. I would argue that if curriculum is merely characterised as a list of knowledge (and possibly skills), then it has become a poor representation of a very complex set of ideas and processes. Definitions and classifications of ‘curriculum’ are numerous, but as Stenhouse (1975:1) comments,

‘Definitions of the word curriculum do not solve curricular problems; but they do suggest perspectives from which to view them.’

Curriculum can be seen as a prescribed list of knowledge and indeed there has been a resurgence in characterising curriculum in this way in some jurisdictions and in some phases of education. However, a list of content can atrophy the notion of curriculum to being that of an ‘epistemic shopping list’. This then endangers the distilling out of any notion of curriculum as action or as vehicle for agency. This may still be possible – in the right hands – but may just as easily become a prescriptive list of ‘stuff to get through’, especially if linked to narrow conceptualisations of assessment. It also makes the links between curriculum, teaching, assessment and learning potentially far weaker.

In constructing a curriculum at masters level, a consideration of the wider educational context is crucial. A report by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAAHE, 2013), What is mastersness? gives a strong indication of some of the core features of masters level study. They characterise the main ‘facets of mastersness’ as (for an explanation of how I understand the link between knowledge, understanding, concepts and skills see here):

  • Complexity: emergent understanding by the students of the provisionality of knowledge, and the interplay and integration of knowledge, skills and application with an allied mastering of conceptual complexity. Due to the nature of masters level study there should also be an emerging ability to deal with the complexity of the learning process involved in study at this level.
  • Abstraction: the emerging ability to extract knowledge and meaning from study to use in synthesising new meanings in new and applied contexts.
  • Depth: emerging use of knowledge in new contexts and in new ways, based on development of more in-depth and interdisciplinary knowledge and understanding. This also relates to an increasing capacity to reflect on knowledge and understanding in new contexts.
  • Research: the development and emergence of greater skills and capacity in research and enquiry. This includes a wider knowledge and understanding of research perspectives and methodologies beyond the narrow confines of disciplinary or undergraduate approaches, greater autonomy in initiating research foci/agendas and maturing of the resultant methodological approaches, and carrying out more critical and in-depth analyses and interpretations.
  • Autonomy: the core of this feature of masters level study is the need for learner responsibility in their own learning. This includes ability to self-organise, to identify and conceptualise problems and to locate and acquire/abstract knowledge to consider and engage with those problems.
  • Unpredictability: the understanding that knowledge is often provisional and linked to real world problems which are often complex and ‘messy’. Therefore, students need to learn to use knowledge creativity and critically to deal with real-world unpredictability.
  • Professionalism: reflection on and emergence of ethical attitudes, values and behaviour as part of professional development. Also, this is crucial in relation to the process of research itself.

These facets are important in considering the shape and approach of a curriculum at masters level, and are also central to the link between curriculum and teaching, learning and assessment. What the report makes clear is that the emphasis across the facets will contrast between different disciplines, courses, and indeed between individual students as the diversity of prior learning and experiences as students enter masters level means that they will all be on personal and often very different trajectories, even if following the same course.

As I’ve suggested in a previous post, many of the features outlined above are in keeping with the notion of an emergent curriculum (Osberg and Biesta, 2008). By providing some structure and knowledge input as the basis for individual exploration and discovery, students can begin to shape their learning and studies in ways which suit them and which also begins to aid the emergence of autonomy, research, unpredictability etc. This also moves the notion of curriculum far beyond a list of things to be learned (which often, ultimately reduce to knowledge transfer), and one which encompasses much wider educational goals.

In this characterisation curriculum becomes indivisible with teaching, learning and assessment as it includes not only consideration of what is to be taught, but also how and why. Therefore, any conceptualisation of teaching which lacks reference to curriculum is risking an impoverished understanding and discussion of how they relate as emergent and interpenetrating concepts. As suggested in an earlier post, consideration of assessment is likewise tied to these discussions. To separate out is to unravel a complex framework of ideas which have little meaning apart.


Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (2013) What is mastersness? Discussion Paper. Retrieved from: http://www.enhancementthemes.ac.uk/docs/report/what-is-mastersness.pdf [Last accessed 5/7/15]

Osberg, D. &Biesta, G. (2008) ‘the emergent curriculum: navigating complex course between unguided learning and planned enculturation.’ Journal of Curriculum Studies, 40(3): 313-328.

Schiro, M.S. (2013) Curriculum Theory: Conflicting Visions and Enduring Concerns. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Stenhouse, L. (1975) An Introduction to Curriculum Research and Development. London: Heinemann.

Thinking About Action Research and Time

In researching pedagogy, one of the methodological approaches I favour is action research. In some quarters action research is out of favour. It is seen as being too ‘local’, too ‘small scale’, and has little to say in the rush towards finding pedagogic ‘solutions’, the bread and butter of the ‘what works’ movement. But perhaps one of the main perceived problems with action research is its potential for bias, and a lack of structured evidence. These criticisms may be correct – in some instances, but why? I wonder to what degree time and the perception of time in education might be responsible for this.

Action research was initially popularised on the back of the work of Kurt Lewin. As a result of his work, the often summarised ‘process’ of action research became identified by the diagram below:


This diagram can give those wanting a quick fix of research an oversimplified notion of what is involved in action research. It has the potential for a very powerful methodology, but if taken at face value can lead to a seriously atrophied version of the process. Here, the cycle can be read as one focusing on a teacher, or teachers, reflecting on their practice, deciding what deficit might exist, planning for change and then enacting that change before reflecting on how successful they thought it was. But there is no explicit consideration here of the data capture which might be used, the degree of claim to be made at the far end of a cycle of research, or whether the focus chosen was based on personal bias or wider evidence. If it is taken as a personal or group-based reflective process, it becomes a ‘quick’ process. Reflection, planning, acting and observing can become a quick process and can give the impression of moving forward at a rapid rate. This is the illusion of action research as ‘rapid innovation’. However, it also panders to the current vogue in education for making rapid shifts, showing accelerated change with equally certain proclamations of success. But I would argue that true transformation and change is paradoxically a slow, measured process, but one which is also to a great extent contextualised.

I think action research has a huge potential utility in bringing positive change and for acting as a basis for informed discussion of pedagogic practice and change. However, to act as a useful and nuanced tool it is important that action research is approached in the same way as any other research methodology – with care and time. All too often it is seen as a ‘soft’ and ‘easy’ option, something that can be utilised as long as Lewin’s cycle above is followed at face value. I think one useful step we could take in moving action research forward is to abandon Lewin’s cycle within popular accounts and discussion, and replace it with the cycle developed by Andy Townsend (2010). The diagram below is a summary graphic of my interpretation of his framework:


This cycle begins with a consideration of an area for work, with further discussion to refine that idea to one that can become the focus of a piece of research. Importantly, a reconnaissance stage is included. This stage is intended to explore the chosen issue further, do others see the same problem as the person/people who are conducting the research? Does some form of baseline data help characterise the issue in the context in which it is being explored? In discussion with some Chinese ELT tutors, we even discussed the idea of looking at larger-scale quantitative data from within and beyond the organisation involved. This stage helps us to begin to gain a more in-depth and critical understanding of the context we wish to explore and intervene in – but it takes time. Having reflected on the initial focus in relation to this reconnaissance data, we can develop a more focused and meaningful action, or if we find that our initial ideas were misplaced, we might go back to redefining an initial focus, starting the process over. The cycle then involves an intervention, and from this to a reflection and evaluation of the change involved. The evaluation is important as it emphasises the need to include in the planning for action phase a coherent and meaningful framework for data collection. If a coherent data collection framework is developed, this also leads to the need for a coherent data analysis/interpretation framework from which reflection and evaluation has more critical meaning and offers more well-founded insights for future work.

This alternative way of understanding action research makes the need for a deeper and more critical approach much more explicit. But the essential feature for me is the need for a greater amount of time. It is reflective throughout, critical and considered. It makes explicit the need for a data collection framework which extends well beyond ‘reflecting on practice’, and a proper consideration of data interrogation. This model of action research is a slower process; in recently submitted projects as part of a PGCert in action research, students only completed one or two cycles of action research over the course of an academic year. However, the insights they gained were based explicitly in the data they had collected, and also recognised the contextual and nuanced messages their research could offer. By making the complexity of action research more explicit, and by repositioning it as a slower, data-based process the insights we gain may actually lead to more rapid and meaningful change and innovation.


Townsend, A., 2010. Action Research. In: Hartas, D, ed., Educational Research and Inquiry: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches. Continuum. 131-145.

Also, read the following as a great introduction to action research:

Townsend, A, 2013. Action research: the challenges of understanding and changing practice Maidenhead : Open University Press.