The Curriculum Problem

The rapid growth in the amount of knowledge students are expected to acquire, which has led to ever-expanding curricula, is not being fully addressed in many disciplines. Instructors are trying to pack more and more material into the same amount of time. For students, this is akin to attempting to drink water from a fire hydrant: knowledge is sprayed at them faster than they can absorb it.

drinking from fire hydrant

The first universities had a limited curriculum sanctioned by the catholic church. However, there was from the beginning a the notion of a “tree of knowledge” growing out with different branches, as illustrated by Scott B. Weingart on his website.

During the Age of Enlightenment, more secular influences led to the establishment of several distinct disciplines, which over time schismed into new branches. Empiricism and natural philosophy developed into natural science with three main branches: physics, biology and chemistry. As knowledge expanded, each again branched into many sub-disciplines, e.g. astrophysics and biochemistry. This trend accelerated in the twentieth century with entirely new disciplines emerging regularly. For example, computer science evolved from mathematics and first appeared as a degree program in the early 1950s. In a relatively short time it has developed many offshoots, including information technology, software engineering and web science.

In traditional curriculum design there is the notion of a core body of knowledge associated with each discipline, that is certain things that graduates should know and understand and be able to do. In the past, if an expert in a particular discipline did not have core knowledge they would not be able to function. Filling in gaps in knowledge would require the time-consuming task of visiting the library.

The growth in knowledge over the last century is seen in traditional outlets for dissemination–books and journals— and is now being dramatically boosted through the internet via blogs, web sites and online videos [1].  Previously, the world learned about discoveries mainly when they were published in a journal (assuming one had access to a local library) or at a conference. Today, collaboration and sharing among knowledge creators happens rapidly and on a global scale through the Internet.

In many disciplines, core knowledge is now a fast moving target. What is known is changing so rapidly that what was held to be core 10 years ago may now be out dated or wrong. At the same time, internet and mobile technology enables us to instantly obtain most available knowledge when needed, provided we have the skills to know how and where to look.

The challenge is to revise the notion of curriculum design, rebalancing it more toward cognitive skills and less toward memorization of a relatively fixed body of knowledge. A sense of tradition often plays a part here: I remember the medical and dental students at my college struggling to memorize Grey’s anatomy. I had the feeling that this was more like a tribal right of passage, rather than an essential component of being an effective physician.

The modern curriculum designer should distinguish “need to know” from “nice to know”. The skill of acquiring just-in-time knowledge using technology should be emphasized. A curriculum should focus on a deep understanding of enduring skills, concepts and principles. Content that is traditionally memorized needs ruthless editing.  This presents a problem as most contributors to curriculum design find it easier to add items than to remove them. The necessary culture change in curriculum design brought about by the Internet age may take some time to achieve.

[1]   The rate of growth in scientific publication and the decline in coverage provided by Science Citation Index  an article in the journal Scientometrics.

Leave a Reply