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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Offering a curriculum change evaluation tool

by Camille Kandiko Howson and Martyn Kingsbury

This blog offers an overview of a curriculum evaluation tool, part of a recently published article ‘Curriculum change as transformational learning’, in Teaching in Higher Education.

A decade ago, one of us led a strand of work exploring global best practice in whole-institution curriculum change, as part of a wider Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) project. The resulting book, Strategic Curriculum Change, identified that while huge amounts of time and money were spent doing large-scale curriculum change, as well as vast costs on the subsequent marketing of it, next to nothing was invested in evaluating it.

One of the main challenges is that while a curriculum change initiative starts off as a separate project, it eventually becomes business as usual. Such change efforts often come at a high political cost as well, with senior leaders often moving on and leaving the implementation to others. Many efforts never really get off the ground, instead lingering and taking on board new ideas, blending the old and the new. These may water down the original vision and drive for change, further hindering evaluation.

Evaluating change

We have recently had the opportunity to remedy this gap, through evaluating a whole-institution curriculum review project, part of a comprehensive nine-year investment plan to reposition teaching and learning within an institution. While it is easy to check the administrative side of a change effort (were boxes ticked, forms filled out), analysing the whether the ethos, purpose and guiding principles were adopted requires a much more nuanced approach.

We designed a multi-stage evaluation plan to explore to what extent were the principles of a Learning and Teaching Strategy embedded within new curriculum structures, as well as the impact on personal and disciplinary culture.

This output provides insight into the first stage of curriculum change – taking new ideas and pedagogical approaches and building them into the bricks and mortar of the educational experience and into the minds and practices of those delivering the curriculum. This approach allows for evaluating to what extent a change effort is just words on a slick new webpage, or whether there has been a transformation of the curriculum.

The review in context

The review is based in a highly devolved, mid-size urban research-intensive institution in the UK. The institutional change programme is based on four pillars:

1) Assessment Reform: A review of curricula with the objective of reducing over-assessment

2) Active Learning: An evidence-based transformation of pedagogy, to make teaching more discovery-based

3) Diversity and Inclusion: The fostering of an inclusive and diverse culture and sense of belonging

4) Digital and Technology Enhanced Learning: The development of online and digital tools to enhance curricula, pedagogy and community

We evaluated the degree of departmental engagement with the institution-wide curriculum review policy through a discourse analysis of three sources: 1) a public Learning and Teaching Strategy; 2) internal Curriculum Redesign Forms, the quality assurance process stating changes, rationale and engagement; and 3) external Programme Specifications, detailing the educational offer for prospective students.

The evaluation tool

We designed an evaluation rubric, and in the paper we cover two aspects of it. The first explores engagement with the four pillars of the Strategy in the Curriculum Redesign Forms, through the adoption of language, intent and application, resulting in 12 indicators. This allowed us to evaluate the degree to which words and meaning of the Strategy were embedded within the new curriculum structures of the departments.

We also explored the alignment of the Curriculum Redesign Forms and the Programme Specification, focusing on the sections on Programme Overview, the Learning Outcomes, the Learning and Teaching Approach and the Assessment Strategy. This led to another 16 indicators. This offered insight into the extent the internal changes had made it into the public ‘offering’ of the course.

These 28 indicators were judged on a scale of Absent, Vague, Implicit, Present, Explicit. Scores were assigned and each department in the institution was reviewed by the researchers. We found varying engagement across the pillars of the Strategy and the challenge of applying principles in practice. We identified three different patterns of engagement across departments, with ‘active’ departments integrating the aims of the Strategy with disciplinary knowledge and pedagogy, ‘engaged’ departments adopting much of intent of the strategy, and group of ‘passive’ departments with minimal engagement and a focus on structural changes.

We hope this research and evaluation tool help others conduct evaluation of curriculum change. We found this approach uncovered both structural and cultural change. This is just the start of our research on curriculum change, and we hope it kickstarts other curriculum change research and evaluation, whether at the institution, faculty or departmental level.

SRHE member Dr Camille Kandiko Howson is Associate Professor of Education in the Centre for Higher Education Research and Scholarship at Imperial College London. Follow Camille on Twitter @cbkandiko

SRHE member Professor Martyn Kingsbury is Director of the Centre for Higher Education Research and Scholarship at Imperial College London.


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Making knowledge more explicit in the English for Academic Purposes classroom

by Mark Brooke

This post is part of a series tied to a special issue of Teaching in Higher Education published in March 2019. This special issue aimed to spark a re-evaluation of what higher education needs to do to respond to the post-truth world, especially from the perspective of individual educators. The twelve papers, nine of which are accompanied by posts here on the SRHE blog, take different perspectives to explore the ways in which higher education is being challenged and the responses that it might make in terms of curriculum, pedagogy and professional practice.

In 2000, Moore (2000: 33) wrote that the ‘curriculum of the future should be the curriculum of knowledge’. He argued that knowledge should be accessible to all members of society and, in this way, education should promote social and educational justice. However, we find that the educational climate for such an objective is not wholly welcoming. In many university settings, academic language courses tend to be devoid of a theoretical approach to education that places the teacher in the role of linguistic expert. Indeed, courses prominently feature notions such as grammatical accuracy instruction based on isolated clauses at the lexico-grammatical level or independent self-directed learning and study habits. Unfortunately, in these cases, the focus of instruction may first be decontextualised as extracts, which oversimplifies the meanings in the texts; and second, a theory of language or knowledge may play a backseat role or even be entirely absent. As many researchers have pointed out, focusing on common errors in a de-contextualised way is probably not effective. Additionally, independent learning, although a useful process, is often given too much focus. This detracts from the time spent with a qualified tutor as knowledge provider, taking the onus away from what the teacher does. In the case of independent learning instruction, what is being foregrounded is ‘the social circumstances of knowers’ (Maton, 2014: 5), not knowledge.

In contrast, the main goal of our research is to provide knowledge to students in the form of analytical lenses to enable them to deconstruct and judge information effectively. What we strive to do is move away from educational ‘knowledge blindness’ (Maton, 2014). Legitimation Code Theory (LCT) as a sociological framework has guided our educational practices to do this. The basic premise of Legitimation Code Theory (LCT) is that knowledge is power. LCT is a toolkit for analysing socio-cultural practices and uncovering what constitutes the ‘rules of the game’ that provide the means to that power. Ultimately, the goal is to develop a gaze or ‘a mode of thinking, acting and being’ (Dong et al, 2015: 8) through the explanatory power of the codes. In this research we seek to develop our students’ critical gaze. We achieve this by applying the dimensions of specialisation (including cosmologies) and semantics.

Specialisation determines principles of privilege in fields of practice. Practices that emphasise epistemic relation and downplay actors’ dispositions view specialised knowledge as the basis of achievement (ER+). We believe a curriculum should primarily be built on ER+. Practices that emphasise social relations, and downplay epistemic relations, are represented by the knower codes (SR+). Independent learning is an example of this, which has often been given too much focus in our field. Knower codes can be explored in greater depth through the use of the concept of ‘axiological cosmologies’. Maton (2013) defines cosmologies as ‘constitutive features of social fields that underlie the way social actors and practices are differentially characterised and valued’ (p 152). In identifying how clusters are formed, we can help students to understand the means by which experts and authors attempt to persuade the reader to align with a position on a particular issue. ‘Semantics’ is a dimension from LCT that ‘conceives social fields of practice as semantic structures whose organizing principles are conceptualized as semantic codes’ (Maton, 2014: 2). Using Semantics, it is possible to explore the relations that exist between knowledge structures and, in particular for this purpose, how to apply a critical lens to a social phenomenon or text to analyse it. 

We conducted research between 2015 and 2017 at the Centre for English Language Communication at the National University of Singapore. Our findings, from three parallel case studies within the broad framework of English for Academic Purposes (EAP), provide results from classroom-based action research working with semantics, specialisation and axiological cosmologies from Legitimation Code Theory. Each case study is outlined, explaining how these LCT dimensions have guided practice in the teaching of English for academic writing. Specifically, LCT has been applied in the development of our students’ critical dispositions by teaching them how to apply critical lenses to analyse texts and to make informed judgements. The first case study explores semantics as a strategy for teaching how to use lenses for the theoretical framework section of an IMRaD (Introduction, Methods, Research and Discussion) research paper in the social sciences. The second is set in a standalone EAP module and describes the use of a systemic-functional linguistics-informed pedagogical tool as a lens to analyse academic discourse so learners can better understand the meanings including the assumptions, unsupported claims, or biases in texts. The third regards the embedding of LCT approaches for students engaged in writing hortatory blogs in a unit entitled Public Writing and Communication. Students are taught to explore ‘axiological cosmologies’ to understand how evaluative meanings form patterns of clusters that enable the writer to create a persuasive expository text.

References

Dong, A, Maton, K and Carvalho L, (2015) The structuring of design knowledge The Routledge Companion to Design Research, pp38-49 London: Routledge.

Maton, K (2008) ‘Knowledge-building: how can we create powerful and influential ideas?’ Paper presented at Disciplinarity, Knowledge and Language: An International Symposium Sydney: University of Sydney

Maton, K (2013) Knowledge and knowers: Towards a realist sociology of education Routledge: London

Maton, K (2014) ‘Building powerful knowledge: the significance of semantic waves’ in Barrett, B and Rata, E (eds) (2014) Knowledge and the future of the curriculum, pp181–197 London: Palgrave Macmillan, Palgrave Studies in Excellence and Equity in Global Education.

Moore, R (2000) ‘For knowledge: tradition, progressivism and progress in education – reconstructing the curriculum debate’ Cambridge Journal of Education 30(1): 17–36

Mark Brooke is Senior Lecturer at the Centre for English Language Communication at the National University of Singapore. He specialises in research and teaching in two fields: English for Academic Purposes and the Sociology of Sport. He can be found on Google Scholar, Facebook and LinkedIn.The full article by Mark Brooke, Laetitia Monbec and Namala Tilakaratna (all National University of Singapore), ‘The analytical lens: developing undergraduate students’ critical dispositions in undergraduate EAP writing courses’, is in Teaching in Higher Education 24(3): 428-443

Ian Kinchin


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Teaching and Learning: “I pitch, you catch”.

By Ian Kinchin

Sometimes I wonder what I am doing here“.

A sentiment that can be heard from time to time in the corridors of academia. Young and enthusiastic academics are often drawn to a working life in universities because they are passionate about their subject, they love to teach, or they enjoy the cut and thrust of intellectual debate and the possibility of moving the frontiers of knowledge. I rarely hear anyone say that they came into the role because they love sitting on committees or they are fascinated by the implementation of regulations. You see where I am going here. Many of the  distractions of academic life are necessary, but they can be overwhelming, and sometimes they seem to suck the energy away from the things we enjoy doing – such as teaching.

Recently reading some sections of a book by Fanghanel (2012), there are some sections which resonate strongly with conversations that I have been having recently with colleagues on teaching development programmes. Continue reading