Start with why, part one: taking a new approach to curriculum development

Graeme Knowles explains how his team have overturned the long-accepted curriculum development process to make the purpose of the programme and its learning outcomes the starting point rather than the end result

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13 Jan 2022
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Key Details

This video will cover:

00:41 How curriculum design has, historically, been managed

02:04 Problems arising from the long-accepted approach to developing curricula

03:27 Flipping the curriculum design process to start with “why?”


Hello, my name is Graeme Knowles from University of Warwick in the United Kingdom.

I’m going to, over two sessions, take you through some ideas that we have for improving our design of curricula. I’d like to start with Sinek’s golden circle as the initial start point. As you can see here, Sinek talks about why, how and what, for any organisational activity.

And if we map that across the curriculum design, the “why” really is our programme purpose, the “how” is the learning approaches that we’re going to employ, and the “what” is the content.

Historically, particularly in STEM subjects, and in engineering where I sit, we have started from the “what”. We have begun by asking our team of tutors what content should be in this programme. What do we need to put in there? And, of course, everyone has their own ideas about their own specialism.

And then we have a process of horse-trading and discussion and argument whereby we come to a final agreement about what the content of the programme is going to be.

The learning approaches then tend to be done in a fairly piecemeal fashion. So each individual tutor will decide how he or she is going to teach their part of the curriculum, their pedagogy, if you like. And they’re going to do that independently of everybody else.

So we don’t have an overarching learning approach typically; we have learning approaches for individual modules.

And then the “why” of the programme really only gets thought about very much when we have to think about marketing. How are we going to sell this? What’s the kind of excitement that we’re going to offer to our students?

And sometimes because we are marketing and we might use a little bit of hyperbole and get overexcited, then what we often find is that the links between the why and the how and the what is not very strong; students don’t always come expecting what they really get.

So, we have problems that are caused by that approach.

Problem number one is that we have an incoherent, or inconsistent at least, process and programme. So, students will notice that there is overlap, that some people are teaching things that have also been taught elsewhere; that there may be gaps or things they thought they might learn about that haven't been covered because nobody realises it’s not being covered outside their modules, so they don’t do it.

So they see that and start asking questions like: “Why am I doing this module? How does this assessment relate to my overall learning journey?” perhaps, and they get quite frustrated by that.

We also tend to have curriculum bloat because of this, because of course everyone wants to get as much of their part of the curriculum in as possible and to keep people happy we probably overfill the curriculum. And that leads automatically to additional assessments, because if it’s there, it has to be assessed. And the students are getting over assessed and the staff are having to mark more and more assessments, and that obviously doesn’t leave anybody very happy.

And, finally, because people are not committed to the process of the programme, they’ll commit to their own bit of the curriculum, but they don’t really understand how they fit in the rest of the curriculum. So they have no commitment to that as a whole.

So we thought, we need to flip this around and come in from a completely different direction.

So, as Sinek would suggest, we started with the “why”. Why are we creating this programme? What’s the benefit? What would it give to students? What it would give their companies? What may it even give to the wider world? And we asked that question right at the start, and the beauty of that question is you can’t really answer it inside the department.

You have to step outside and look at industry, and talk to professionals, and talk to alumni, and find out how they felt they were prepared for the real world, if you like. So, you have to actually get your head up and think a bit more broadly, which is really a powerful thing to do.

So, we’re going to get these people all in the same room, at the same time. What you’ll notice when that happens, the first thing they do is they start talking about content, because content is a comfortable place. It’s a place where we all feel like we have something to offer.

So we have to take them away from that content focus and focus them on the “why”.

One of the tools we would use for doing this, or the approach we use, is to give people the challenge of creating a tweet. Their course in a tweet, so 280 characters. How are you going to sell your course to students? To industry? To whoever you think is important?

And just a couple of examples here, from where we’re working a particular degree apprenticeship with WMG [Warwick Manufacturing Group]. The thing I would suggest to you that’s worth noticing here is that the language does not tend to be the language of education; it tends to be the language of the organisation and the language of the students, because it’s focused on the people who are being served by this degree, not the people who are creating it, not on us as academic experts.

Building on that, being in that kind of head space, we then focus on this thing called signature pedagogy. This is based around the work of Lucas and Hanson, amongst others over the years.

And what we ask our team, our industrialists and academics and students to do is to brainstorm the habits of the heart. What do the engineers need to believe? How do they see the world?

The habits of the head: how do they think about that world? How they interact with it intellectually?

And then the habits of the hand: what did they do? What are the actual things that these people, you know, actually generate? And we get the team to brainstorm all the things that fit into those categories.

And then the second session, I’m going to take you through how we make that into an effective curriculum. Thank you very much.

Graeme Knowles is a reader and head of education innovation in the Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG) at the University of Warwick.

Bill Lucas and Janet Hanson’s paper in LearnTechLib: “Thinking like an engineer: using engineering habits of mind and signature pedagogies to redesign engineering education

Lee S. Shulman’s feature: Pedagogies of Uncertainty

Simon Sinek’s “Start with the why” Ted Talk: How great leaders inspire action


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