A process-based approach to curriculum planning


I recently read Peter Knight’s (2001) presentation of a process-based approach to curriculum planning and development.  A critic of outcomes-based approaches to higher education, he argues that complex learning can “not easily [be] reducible to precise statements” that  “grow like mould and become unwieldy” (p.373); and that these approaches run the risk of reducing creativity, innovation, and flexibility; threaten faculty autonomy; and, represent a ‘reductionists’ approach to learning.  Although I certainly don’t agree with all of Knight’s critiques, and firmly believe that learning outcomes provide an extraordinary framework for structuring and aligning curricula, Knight provides some excellent arguments for focusing intentionally on the quality of learning encounters and environments.  In fact, I think some of Knight’s suggestions help to support a holistic approach to curriculum development, which focuses on outcomes, processes, and the creation of quality learning environments and communities.

Knight states, “…that planning starts by imagining how to draw together the processes, encounters or engagements that make for good learning” (p. 375).  Disciplinary subject matter and context need to be thoughtfully considered, and “…key messages and learning encounters need to be planned to suffuse the programme” (p.376).  We should clearly define and articulate the signature pedagogies and learning environments which inherently support and promote a deep approach to learning within each programme. This approach begins, “…by asking what good learning, teaching and assessment encounters in the subject area are…” (p. 376).  Knight also argues for processes which support student development and progression through the intentional scaffolding of learning experiences.    He clearly articulates the need for the creation of collaborative learning communities, “…it is fair to say that good curriculum would plan for learning to take place through communities of practice in which groupwork and peer evaluation are normal, interpersonal contact is common and networks of engagement are extensive” (p.377).  A further criterion of curriculum coherence is a ‘coherence of feedback’, where formative feedback is provided to students throughout the program, “about their achievements and how to improve upon them” (p. 378).

This article provides a few key recommendations for effective curriculum planning:

1)      It is imperative for each programme to clearly articulate key messages related to how it supports student learning and success.

2)      Courses within a programme should be intentionally planned and aligned to support progression in the complexity of student learning and development.

3)      Students must be provided with continuous opportunities to receive formative feedback on their learning achievements and opportunities for improvement.

4)      Quality educational experiences should emphasize the creation of learning communities and environments which support collaborative peer development.

I could not agree more with these recommendations and personally believe that an outcomes-based approach only helps to provide an effective framework for organizing and structuring this vision for excellence in curriculum planning and design.

Knight, P.T. 2001. Complexity and curriculum: a process approach to curriculum-making. Teaching in Higher Education 6(3):369-381.