A think piece by Hugh Guthrie
For at least the last 30 years I haven’t seen the word ‘curriculum’ used much in the VET space. This followed moves to an industry-led approach where we just talked Training Packages, qualifications and units of competency.
The word seems to now be having somewhat of a resurgence, however. In fact, in the recently released review of TAFE SA, entitled Roadmap for the future for TAFE SA, it appears 12 times! I’ve seen it mentioned in other documents too!
As TAFE SA’s Roadmap suggests:
“There is increasing attention across tertiary education to designing curriculum specific to particular industries and occupations and changes being made to the National Training Packages and to university qualifications, and will be required for ongoing accreditation with professional bodies. This is likely to, and hopefully will, become wider practice over the next few years.”
It’ll be interesting to see where the Qualification Reform Group takes things, and how it talks about the translation of competencies/standards to qualifications and courses of study and then to the associated teaching and learning delivered ‘on the ground’. Well-designed curriculum, it’s suggested, could aid this translation process and bring educators back into the mix.
What’s a curriculum anyway?
Curriculum can be broadly defined as the totality of student experiences that occur in the educational process. However, it can take a number of forms such as:
- Explicit curriculum: that is, the subjects that will be taught, the identified “mission” of the VET provider, and the knowledge and skills that the provider expects successful students to acquire.
- Implicit curriculum: the lessons that arise from the culture of the provider and the behaviours, attitudes, and expectations that characterize that culture, that is: the unintended curriculum
- Hidden curriculum: this is the things students learn, ‘because of the way in which the provider’s work is planned and organized but, this is not an overt process. In fact, hidden curriculum, if its potential is realized, can actually benefit learners,
- Finally, there is the Excluded curriculum: that is, those topics or perspectives that are specifically excluded from the curriculum.
There are a number of other forms of ‘curriculum’ mentioned in the literature as well, but for the sake of brevity we won’t go into those here.
In the simplest terms, UNESCO describes ‘curriculum’ as the what, why, how and how well students should learn in systematic and intentional ways.
Extending these curriculum conceptions, Chen and her colleagues published a paper in 2021 in the International Journal for Research in Vocational Education and Training, entitled “International curriculum comparison in vocational education and training: a collaborative development of an analysis instrument.” It was an international comparative study concerned with VET curriculum issues, and with a competence-based focus. They described curriculum in terms of the ‘intended’, the ‘implemented’ and the ‘attained,’ drawing on work in the late 1970s by John Goodlad.
First, they note that the conception of competence can be tricky as the concept is diffuse, and there is no universally accepted definition of it. Thus, the term can be used in a large variety of the ways ranging from describing tasks and jobs to considering competence more broadly and including interpersonal attributes (e.g. social or organizational skills) and ethical values. (The UNESCO glossary talks about the nature of competence, and a paper published by NCVER (and entitled “Adding value to competency-based training”) looked at possible re-conceptions of the nature of competence in the Australian context.) So, one of the possible other approaches to thinking about what competence actually is vests conceptions of competence in the individual and describes the range of personal capabilities and attributes that they need both to work in the present and into the future, and be good lifelong learners and community minded human beings.
Getting back to curriculum concepts, Chen et al’s paper describes the ‘intended curriculum’ as:
“A set of formal documents which specify what the relevant national education authorities and society expect that students will learn … in terms of knowledge, understanding, skills, values, and attitudes to be acquired and developed, and how the outcomes of the teaching and learning process will be assessed. It is usually embodied in curriculum framework(s) and guides, syllabi, textbooks, teacher’s guides, content of tests and examinations, regulations, policies and other official documents …”
Broadly conceived, this would include what’s covered in Training Packages and the many resources and processes that hang off them.
However, the ‘art’ for educators is in conceiving the ‘implemented curriculum,’ which is seen as:
“The actual teaching and learning activities taking place in [the provider] through interaction between learners and teachers as well as among learners, e.g., how the intended curriculum is translated into practice and actually delivered.”
This might also be defined as the ‘curriculum in action’ or the ‘taught curriculum’ and working towards the third term Chen suggests above, the ‘attained curriculum’, which might be regarded as the experiential curriculum referring to the reactions and outcomes of the learners after receiving instruction.
In short, the intended curriculum should align with the implemented curriculum in order to achieve the goals of the curriculum through the attained curriculum.
Faithful but effective implementation can be tough
Thus, the implementation of the intended curriculum has always been an issue in Australia, because:
- If the ‘intended curriculum’ is defined very comprehensively and rigidly (as we know it is in Training Packages) there is not much ‘wriggle room’ for those working in providers to meet the immediate needs of local employers, learners and communities, much less address emerging needs. It’s a tricky thing to ensure that you don’t run afoul of regulatory sanctions too!
- Of practitioner capabilities, Hodge (2014), when looking at practitioner skills, clearly identified issues in their capabilities to turn the ‘intended’ into the ‘implemented’ and the ‘attained.’ It was widely believed that “by virtue of their expertise, [they were] well-placed to read, analyse and interpret units of competency that relate to their industry.” His research challenges this assumption, and he further suggests that “competency standards are themselves somehow a flawed means for representing occupations.”
Reintroducing curriculum concepts to Australian VET
A group of prominent and experienced VET researchers wants to look into how the intended can be better connected to the implemented and the attained through effective use of curriculum by providers across a selected range of occupational areas.
Hopefully this work will start in earnest sometime next year, but an OctoberVET event on 20 October, will help to kick the research process off and raise interest in this important topic.