01 July 2010

The Bones Model: the basics of curriculum design

In the last couple of years, I've been working with university teachers, usually when they are in the process of designing or re-designing courses. By courses, I mean the bits that make up a university degree - units or subjects.

I found myself sketching the same diagram over and over again to illustrate the relationships that ought to exist between the key elements in any curriculum: course content, program aims and objectives, course learning outcomes, teaching and learning activities, assessment, and graduate attributes (or, if you prefer, capabilities and qualities).

Those of you familiar with John Biggs' work will see immediately that my sketch didn't arrive in my mind out of thin air - it draws on the diagram on page 59 of the third edition of his book. More recently, it occurred to me that I needed to include evaluation. So here's an extract from a short paper I put together recently, outlining some of the thinking behind the model ...


Biggs and Tang discuss two kinds of knowledge (declarative and functioning) in detail. Declarative knowledge, they tell us, is propositional knowledge: knowing about or knowing what. "Such content knowledge accrues from research, not from personal experience. It is public knowledge ... verifiable, replicable, and logically consistent". Functioning knowledge, on the other hand, is "based on the idea of performances of various kinds, underpinned by understanding". (Biggs & Tang, 2007, p 72) These concepts were key to the development of the Bones Model, as was Biggs' notion of alignment. Biggs describes reflecting on the success of his initial experimentation with portfolio assessment, and deciding that "it was because the learning activities addressed in the intended outcomes were mirrored in both the teaching/learning activities the students undertook and in the assessment tasks" (Biggs & Tang, 2007, p 52). Many academics, schooled by their research training to focus first on declarative knowledge, put the content of a new or revised course at the heart of their approach to curriculum design. Educational designers, on the other hand, are more likely to focus on the changes engendered in students as a result of the learning experience they have undergone. That is, changes in the way students view the world, improvements to their skills and expertise, or alterations in their behaviour. Both aspects of curriculum design are important.

Figure 1: The Bones Model: the essentials of curriculum design

The strength of the Bones Model is that the educational designer starting a new project is able to open the conversation with any aspect of curriculum design. A teaching academic is able to focus first on the issue of most immediate concern and move into a discussion that cycles through the other elements of the Model. Links between the different aspects can be clearly explained, and the designer can bring to the conversation research relevant to any aspect of curriculum design, at the most appropriate moment. If, for instance, it appeared likely that the academic concerned were trying to cover too much content, the designer could introduce a discussion about threshold concepts (Meyer & Land, 2006). If the discussion focused first on educational technologies and learning activities, the designer could, for example, elicit the academic's intentions for formative assessment strategies and recommend the most appropriate technology for the planned teaching and learning activity. If the conversation were about a new course to be introduced to an existing program, the designer and the academic are able to focus on the ways in which the new course assists students to achieve program goals and objectives and contributes to the maturation of graduate capabilities. With the Bones Model providing a touchstone for the conversation, both designer and academic continually assess the course from the perspectives of integration and alignment through successive iterations of development.

Working with the Bones Model, the curriculum design team addresses a range of questions.

Course Content: What information needs to be covered in the course? What are the sources of this information, e.g. published and grey research, review literature, websites, audio-visual material? How can the information be most authentic, e.g. case studies, current research findings from lecturer or colleagues, real-life projects?

Program Aims, Goals, Objectives: Program learning outcomes provide the touchstone for all course learning outcomes, especially for core courses. These are the goals for the whole Program. How do Program Aims mesh with the Australian Qualifications Framework descriptors?

Course-level Intended Learning Outcomes: "On satisfying the requirements for this course, students will be able to …" How do course-level learning outcomes link to graduate capabilities and qualities? How do Course-level Intended Learning Outcomes mesh with the locally-developed Discipline-specific Core Learning Outcomes and ALTC Threshold Learning Outcomes?

Teaching & Learning Activities: Where and when will students be learning? What learning activities, processes and events will be most effective and efficient in giving students the necessary learning experiences to absorb the course content, apply their newly-acquired declarative knowledge, complete activities that demonstrate their functioning knowledge, and achieve the course outcomes? These are the learning activities that occur throughout the semester: group activities, field trips, laboratory work, online learning activities, etc.

Assessment: What kinds of assessment will provide authentic measures of how well the student has achieved the course learning outcomes? What kinds of assessment will demonstrate that students are able to apply declarative knowledge in completing activities that test functioning knowledge? What are the relevant marking criteria and how do these reflect commonly understood standards – for program, course, discipline, profession, College or Faculty, and university?

Graduate Attributes, Capabilities, Qualities: What will graduates be like? What will they be able to do? What skills and expertise will they be able to list on their résumé?

Evaluation: How and when will the program / course be reviewed or evaluated? What will it be judged against? What moderation processes are in place? When is feedback sought from students? How do student comments inform the evolution of the curriculum?

Those using the Bones Model are not locked into a rigid linear process with a fixed starting point; rather, the Model facilitates an authentic iterative process while ensuring that all elements of curriculum design are addressed.

Meyer, J. H. F., and Land, R. (2006). Overcoming barriers to student understanding: Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge. RoutledgeFalmer: London.

Biggs, J., & Tang, C. (2007). Teaching for quality learning at university, 3rd edn. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Veness, D. (2010). 'As simple as possible': the bones of curriculum design. 2010 ASCILITE conference - curriculum, technology & and transformation for an unknown future. 5-8 December 2010, Brighton Beach, Sydney, Australia. Retrieved 17 February 2012 from http://ascilite.org.au/conferences/sydney10/Ascilite%20conference%20proceedings%202010/Veness-concise.pdf.



Anonymous said...

G'day Deborah,

I like the idea of having a flexible starting point and the potential for the process being iterative. I've seen some examples where the rigid linear process can be problematic with the academics.

Of course, I also think harnessing that flexibility effectively in a real situation would require skill and experience. Figuring out how to build that skill, how to provide guidance is a problem I'm struggling with.


Thanadda Boonla-or said...

Thank you so much. It's really good.