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Challenges in applying curriculum design theory in university settings

Kimberly Klassen, International Christian University, Tokyo Lisa R. Miller, Kansai Gaidai University, Osaka

In our article, ‘Curriculum Design from Theory to Practice: Preparing Japanese Students to Study Abroad Using Content-based Language Teaching’ (Miller, Klassen, & Hardy, 2020), we document the integration of general curriculum development theory with second language learning theories in a university setting. More specifically, we record our experiences redesigning a university language programme for low-intermediate Japanese learners of English who wish to study abroad in English speaking countries.

We used curriculum design theory to identify students’ learning needs, develop the learning objectives, and then identify the skills and content required to meet those objectives. We examined various data sources in order to determine where the students’ current abilities lay and what skills they needed to succeed while studying abroad. We also conducted an evaluation of the new curriculum using test scores, and student and faculty feedback.

There were several challenges using curriculum design theory in this educational setting, including administration mandates and changing student and faculty populations. Awareness of these challenges, and how we modified our approach, might help other teachers working on similar curriculum projects. The university setting is quite different from compulsory education contexts with regard to teacher autonomy; that is, faculty in universities tend to have more autonomy with regard to course content and pedagogy than teachers in a compulsory education context do. Therefore, we found that we needed to apply an adaptable approach to curriculum design (Heydon & Wang, 2006).

‘There were several challenges using curriculum design theory in this educational setting, including administration mandates and changing student and faculty populations. Awareness of these challenges, and how we modified our approach, might help other teachers working on similar curriculum projects.’

The project began with a needs analysis of the communication skills required to study abroad using multiple types of data: student surveys, standardised test scores, student enrolment patterns, students’ grades and faculty interviews. This data was examined for consistencies and discrepancies between the sources. Then, we examined several theories about combining language learning with learning in other disciplines to choose a clear and appropriate framework, content-based language teaching (CBLT). The framework allowed us to ensure that both content and language development goals would be covered in the curriculum. Based on the findings, we compiled course objectives for language learning and non-language disciplines and the sequence of the objectives. The curriculum was evaluated after being implemented for one year using standardised test score data, student course surveys and a faculty survey.

The needs analysis revealed that faculty perceptions of what sort of academic work would be required of students while studying abroad differed from what was actually required as reported by students. In addition, in order to preserve academic freedom and promote faculty support for the curriculum, the course objectives and sequence were specified through the activities while the method was left for faculty to decide. Similarly, faculty could choose from an approved list of topics and books. Evaluation of the curriculum revealed conflicting feedback: student surveys and test scores were positive while faculty interview feedback was mostly negative. For example, some teachers felt that the curriculum did not adequately prepare students for study abroad. However, movement of students and faculty in and of the programme made meaningful evaluation of the curriculum difficult. That is, students were able to leave the programme and join similar programmes within the same university; faculty were working on a contractual basis and had to leave the university after their contracts were finished.

Based on our experiences with this project, we note a few points for other teachers to consider before embarking on similar projects. First, using data from past cohorts of students to infer the learning needs of current students may not accurately reflect the current student population. Second, in university settings, an adaptable approach to curriculum design that balances accountability and academic freedom may be more effective than one that is entirely generated by either administrators or teachers. Third, lack of resources for training faculty in the new curriculum may have contributed to the mostly negative faculty feedback seen in this study, and this finding highlights the importance of training for new curriculum implementation. Lastly, particular learning theories come into vogue with administrators and educators at different times resulting in conflicting ideas about what is best for students. Our paper documents an attempt to bridge that divide.


This blog is based on the article ‘Curriculum Design from Theory to Practice: Preparing Japanese Students to Study Abroad Using Content-based Language Teaching by Lisa R. Miller, Kimberly Klassen and Jacques W. Hardy, published in the Curriculum Journal. It has been made free-to-view for those without a subscription for a limited period, courtesy of our publisher, Wiley.


References

Heydon, R. M., & Wang, P. (2006). Curricular ethics in early childhood education programming: A challenge to the Ontario kindergarten program. McGill Journal of Education, 41, 20–47.

Miller, L., Klassen, K., & Hardy, J. (2020). Curriculum design from theory to practice: Preparing Japanese students to study abroad using content-based language teaching. The Curriculum Journal. https://doi.org/10.1002/curj.68