Parsing knowledge: Courses, competencies, or whatever? (Part 1)

By | April 4, 2015
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The term “curriculum” has been around since the Middle Ages as a term to describe the set of offerings made available by an educational institution, at any level. Precisely prescribed sequences of educational events are a relatively new phenomenon in education, and are by no means practiced everywhere. Universities in the UK, for example, tend to have somewhat looser organization and structure. Even within the US, there is a wide variation in the degree to which curricula are defined specifically and enforced.

In a public school, college, or university, curricula are generally defined as the set of course offerings in a particular field. The organization of the body of knowledge into a set of time-delimited units called “courses” is itself not all that old. It really wasn’t until after about 1915 that the Carnegie Commission  came to define a course as a particular amount of time spent by a student on a particular topic that this mode of organizing learning became universal. The pervasiveness of the so-called “Carnegie Unit” as a way of structuring higher education (for elementary and secondary education for that matter) has led many to think that this is perhaps the only way that schools can function.

I have been convinced for many years now that the Carnegie Unit is just about the dumbest way possible to package student learning. It exists almost entirely for the convenience of the instructor and even more importantly, the institution – it’s a record-keeping and control device, nothing more. The Commission deliberately designed its method of organization to both follow and reinforce standardization. Essentially, educational systems were shoehorned into adopting a “factory model”, whose implicit and sometimes explicit agenda revolved around creating docile and compliant workers for the industrial society. That’s what Mr. Carnegie wanted, and it was his money that paid for the effort. And for quite a long time, it worked.

Although the unit and the concept of a course that underlies it now completely dominate the organizational fire education, they don’t necessarily track all that well with an effective educational process. The “course” has become so enshrined as the unit for parsing learning that it is hard today to think of what alternatives might exist. But the Carnegie Unit does little to meaningfully describe how or what students learn, and by emphasizing activity over content, it fails even in its basic mission of certifying useful chunks of student learning. In short, its disastrous consequences for education have been accumulating for a long time, and it is high time that we work out some useful alternatives.

The concept of a course acquires somewhat more value when it is placed within the concept of a curriculum – a set of courses linked in specific ways, such that each course provides background or introduces material included in subsequent courses. As a general rule, there is an introductory course taken by all those interested in the field. This is in turn followed by courses that develop themes from the introduction in various ways. There may be a single sequence, or the sequence may include multiple branches, each developing different parts of the intro. Usually, the later courses in the curriculum contain more complex and difficult material than the preceding courses.

There is no question that there is a significant sequential aspect to learning. Ideas build on ideas, and over time and with experience we learn about the content of the ideas and develop our skills for manipulating them. Different kinds of topics cumulate in different ways. Some kinds of learning explicitly require previous learning; for example, mastering algebra simply can’t take place unless you have a good grasp on basic arithmetic. Other kinds of topics may be facilitated by certain kinds of previous learning, but often it can be acquired in the process. When I took my first course in organizational psychology in my PhD program, I had never taken a course labeled as “psychology” in my academic career to that point. Although previous courses in psychology were in theory prerequisites for this particular course, I didn’t find any particular difficulty in rather quickly picking up those aspects of basic psychology that were needed. Then too, some people are more comfortable with picking up knowledge on the fly than others.

In our next installment we’ll consider how curricula can serve to alleviate some of the problems posed by a “course-based” educational structure. Stay tuned.