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.


Between Collaboration and Agency – developing pedagogic literacy

In the first post of this series I made the observation that ‘writing is a linear construct which is attempting to describe and explain a networked concept. Therefore, whilst we attempt to make links between ideas and posts, this cannot be exhaustive.’ I therefore thought it would be interesting not to focus on one of the levels of pedagogic literacy for this post, but to consider the tensions and links which exist in between two elements of the concept, the ‘individual’ and the ‘collaborative’. Shulman (1993) in identifying the presence of ‘pedagogic solitude’ calls for the development of communities of researcher-teachers who are willing to discuss, share and publish their work on pedagogy, resulting in his idea of ‘Teaching as Community Property’. But pedagogy at HE level is diverse, not only by discipline, but context and complexity.

The idea of developing dialogue and critically appraised pedagogic insights all within a community of pedagogues fit within the theoretical framework which Lave and Wenger (1991) call situated learning, central to the development of a Community of Practice (later to be developed further by Wenger (1998)). In Communities of Practice, mutual engagement, interaction and thinking together (Wenger 1998) are all important guiding concepts. These show themselves through mutual engagement in which collaboration is explained as ‘doing things together, talking, producing artifacts’ (Wenger, 2000: 227) to encourage and develop shared meaning which in turn can lead to a shared repertoire of pedagogy; here the social is the unit of analysis and the level at which learning is believed to occur.

Collaboration has become an increasingly popular tenet of professional development and learning. It has an obvious attraction as it gives, as Shulman suggests, a positive opportunity for sharing, critiquing and developing pedagogic ideas and approaches; it is at the heart of Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. But is all collaboration positive? Hargreaves and Fullan (2012) position and contextualise collaboration explicitly within their theory of Professional Capital. The case that they make is that if we are to enable the growth of critical, professional teachers then they need to develop their understanding and practice through three ‘channels’:

Professional Capital = Human Capital + Social Capital + Decisional Capital

Here, the growth of the individual (Human Capital) through the development of valuable knowledge and skills is seen as best achieved through collaboration (Social Capital) within a context where they can make authentic and meaningful judgements (Decisional Capital) to develop and innovate their shared practices. However, Hargreaves and Fullan do stress that there are different forms of collaboration some of which can be identified as negative, such as Balkanisation (where separate groups develop within the organisation who compete against each other) or Contrived Collegiality (where the work of groups is formal and driven from the centre) as these do not allow for professional growth and authentic development.

We therefore need to consider the tensions which may exist between the collaborative or social and the agency of the individual. We all bring unique perspectives, knowledge and experiences to pedagogic development and we need to ensure, within collaborative contexts, that the agency of practitioners is retained, each taking what they value from collaboration rather than feeling pressured to agree to a ‘group-approach’. Going back to the notion of situated and social learning developed by Lave and Wenger (1991), learning is regarded as a social construct. Individuals learn through group interaction. This emphasises learning as a change in identity over the generation of explicit ‘knowledge’. However, this focus on the social can lead to the danger of losing the agency of the individual, as Billett (2007: 59) states:

‘….. data from workplaces of different kinds, over time, consistently emphasises the importance of dualities that comprise both contributions or affordances of the workplace and the bases by which individuals elect to engage with what is afforded them and the relationships between them.’

The agency of the individual needs to be seen as relational to the group; the development of both is negotiated, leading to the need to understand both the life history of the individual and the nature of the negotiation. Even in developing collaborative approaches individuals will bring personal meanings and experience, and likewise will take away different lessons from the collaboration. Again, Billett (2007: 65) argues:

‘While a phenomenon may have some common meaning, its construal by individuals will be shaped by particular sets of values, subjectivities and the discourses to which they have access.’

In considering the development of pedagogic literacies, there is both personal and collaborative growth, but these occur in tension. In understanding the development of pedagogic literacy collaboration is important, but we must accept that individuals will take different lessons and insights from working together. Hence, all individuals will develop unique literacies. Learning and development exists neither solely within the individual or the group but within and between them.


Billett, S. (2007) Including the missing subject: placing the personal within the community. In Communities of Practice: Critical Perspectives, Hughes, J.; Jewson, N. & Unwin, L. (eds.), Abingdon: Routledge, 55-67.

Hargreaves, A. and Fullan, M. (2012) Professional Capital: Transforming Teaching in Every School. New York: Teachers’ College Press.

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning. Legitimate peripheral participation, Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press.

Shulman, L.S. (1993) ‘Teaching as Community Property: Putting an End to Pedagogical Solitude.’ Change, 25 (6), 6-7. (http://www.iub.edu/~tchsotl/part4/shulman%20community%20property.pdf)

Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wenger, E. (2000) Communities of Practice and Social Learning Systems. Organization 7(2), 225-246.