15 November 2010

Models and theories of curriculum design

“When teachers are asked to develop a curriculum, part of the requirement is to formalize that undertaking by writing it in the form of a curriculum document. The format of that document is almost invariably a statement of the objectives, content, method, and assessment in that order. Such a presentation may predispose teachers to adopt this format as a model for curriculum development, and thereby use an objectives model in the development stage. There would certainly be few, if any, curriculum documents where the objectives are presented at the end, even though this sequence might be a reflection of how the curriculum was developed. So the obvious logic in presentation need not parallel the method of development.”
(Brady, 1995, p 85)

This week, I’ve been reviewing models of curriculum design, partly because I’m giving a paper at the ASCILITE conference in Sydney in a couple of weeks about the Bones Model which underpins my own practice, and partly because of the whole learning outcomes = standards thing that seems to underpin some of the paperwork doing the rounds (see TEQSA and the ALTC standards project).

Accepted models of curriculum design emerging from studies of school-based education last century, are classified as “product” (aka rational – Print, 1993 or objectives – Tyler, 1949), “interactive” (Taba, 1962), “cyclical” (Print, 1993), or “process” (Wheeler, 1967; Stenhouse, 1975, and Hawes, 1979). Biggs’ model of constructive alignment, written for the higher education sector, owes much to the work of these early school-based models.

The best known of these is probably the linear product model. The assumption underpinning this model is that there is an agreed body of knowledge that students need to learn. It starts with a statement of objectives, follows with descriptions of content and method (selection and organization of teaching and learning activities), and finishes with evaluation, which generally encompasses both assessment strategies and evaluation of the curriculum. In these models, objectives serve as the basis for devising subsequent elements, with evaluation (assessment) indicating the degree of achievement of those objectives. The focus is on teaching.

Tyler’s 1949 model, one of the earliest linear examples, is based on the four questions he poses:

1. What educational purposes should the institution seek to attain [objectives]?

2. What educational experiences are likely to attain these objectives [instructional strategies and content]?

3. How can these educational experiences be organized effectively [organization of learning experiences?

4. How can we determine whether these purposes are being attained [assessment and evaluation]?
His highly influential model was modified by Taba, who proposed a variation that recognized that while documenting the curriculum can be linear and logical, the process of design is a lot messier. Her interactive model adds the idea of a needs analysis, and reflects more accurately actual iterative design practice.

Figure 1: Taba’s Interaction Model (Brady, 1995, p 81)

The cyclical models from the next stage in the evolution of curriculum design are similar in many ways to the linear and interactive models that preceded them. They incorporate the same or similar elements – initial situation analysis, identification of aims and objectives, selection and organization of content, selection and organization of learning activities, followed by an assessment / evaluation process (Wheeler, 1967; Nicholls & Nicholls, 1978). All of these product models – linear, interactive, and cyclical – are efficient, logical and clear. They probably don’t reflect actual curriculum design practice for most teachers, but they serve as useful checklists and tools for documenting curriculum.

The process models that followed them (Print calls them “dynamic” models) are more interesting. In the student-centred process models, the teacher’s role is that of facilitator rather than content authority. These models assume curriculum design to be an ongoing process, dependent on emerging information and practice, shaped by the beliefs, experiences, theories and philosophies held by those planning the learning environment. These models go well beyond the core elements of objectives, content, method, and assessment / evaluation, although these are recognized as part of the process. Hawes, for instance, shows that designers draw on theories from psychology, teaching and learning, and epistemology in making decisions about content and process selection. There can be problems with classrooms designed along these lines. For example, it may be difficult to ensure consistency of content coverage from cohort to cohort, and the quality of learning is very dependent on the quality of teaching. Attempts to compensate for these aspects have contributed to the discovery learning and problem-solving movements.

Figure 2: Hawes’ Process Model (Brady, 1995, p 84)

Walker is even more general, listing beliefs, theories, conceptions, points of view and aims / objectives.

Figure 3: Walker’s Model (Print, 1993, p 75)

So how are the product / interaction / cyclical models different from the process / dynamic models? The product models are prescriptive, the process models descriptive. The role of assessment is different. The former have clear objectives and aligned assessment strategies (generally prepared before the start of classes) designed to test how well students have achieved the learning outcomes; the latter may have assessment strategies designed to find out what students have learnt, and a highly diluted focus on learning outcomes.

It’s pretty clear that Biggs’ notion of constructive alignment owes more to the former (objectives) model of design than the latter, as do the many models of Instructional (Systems) Design aligned with the ADDIE approach familiar to instructional designers and those who have worked in distance education (see Dick & Carey’s Systems Approach, Esseff & Esseff’s Instructional Development Learning System (IDLS), and Romiszowki’s Instructional Systems Design (ISD), among others).

More recently, there have been some efforts to develop new models for higher education. Bell & Lefoe, writing in the late 90s, identified a lack in the traditional instructional design models which had not previously provided for decisions about media and the provision of flexible access. They proposed an early flexible learning curriculum design model that addressed decisions about media use. This aspect of designing curriculum for flexible and online delivery has become increasingly important as tertiary institutions across the world have rolled out Learning Management Systems and started to use social networking tools. Irlbeck, Kays, Jones & Sims describe their Three-Phase Design (3PD) Model as emerging from the blurring of the distinction between online and distance education (Irlbeck, Kays, Jones & Sims, 2006). The 3PD model provides for a team-based approach to the design, development, and delivery of online courses and deals not only with the initial development of learning materials and online environments (Phase 1: Preparing functional requirements), but also ongoing review and revision phases (Phase 2: Evaluate, elaborate and enhance, and Phase 3: Maintain).

In spite of this work, and the long history of curriculum design theory, models of curriculum design are not widely known amongst Australian academics.

And yet, and yet … academics in Australian universities do design curriculum, and they seem to be having some reasonable success in teaching their disciplines with little or no knowledge about these theories of curriculum design.

How can this be?

Well, I’ll be pondering this at length and posting more on the topic soon.


Bell, M., & Lefoe, G. (1998). Curriculum design for flexible delivery – massaging the model. In ASCILITE '98 : flexibility the next wave? : proceedings of the 15th Annual Conference of the Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education, December 14th to December 16th, 1998.

Biggs, J. & Tang C. (2008). Teaching for quality learning at university. Sydney, McGraw-Hill.

Brady, L. (1995). Curriculum development, 5th edn. Sydney, Prentice-Hall.

Hawes, j. (1979). Models and muddles in school-based curriculum development. The Leader, 1.

Irlbeck, S., Kays, E., Jones, D. & Sims, R. (2006). The Phoenix Rising: emergent modes of instructional design. Distance Education, 27(2), August 2006, 171-185.

Nicholls, A & Nicholls, S. (1972). Developing a curriculum: a practical guide. London, Allen & Unwin.

Print, M. (1993). Curriculum development and design, 2nd edn. Sydney, Allen & Unwin.

Stenhouse, L. (1975). An introduction to Curriculum Research and Development. London, Heineman.

Taba, H. (1962). Curriculum development: theory and practice. New York, Harcourt, Brace, and World.

Tyler, R.W. (1949). Basic principles of curriculum and instruction. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press.

Walker, D. (1971). A naturalistic model for curriculum development, School Review, 80(1), 51-65.

Wheeler, D.K. (1967). Curriculum process. London, University of London Press.


Anonymous said...

this was so useful for my education assignment. thankyou so much

k3mi said...

What an excellent post! This was VERY informative! Thank you!