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Curriculum design

Ideas about learning and their implications

While there is no single, universally accepted theory of learning, most learning theorists would agree that students are not empty vessels who passively absorb information. Learning is a relation between students' prior knowledge, values, expectations and their environments. Learning involves active learner engagement of one form or another and  is always the learning of something - whether the 'something' be disciplinary concepts, social practices or ways of being a particular kind of person.

There are a number of current learning theories that might be of relevance to practice-oriented curricula and this section provides some very brief outlines of some with their implications. It does not attempt to include all theories that might be relevant or deal with the theoretical similarities or distinctions between these theories.

Constructivist theories maintain that learning involves the active construction of knowledge and that the development of new knowledge is influenced by prior knowledge and expectations. These theories vary in the extent to which learning is seen as individual or social. Approaches that have been influenced by constructivist ideas include active learning, problem-based learning, experiential learning and inquiry-based approaches.

Situated learning theorists (for example Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998) maintain that learning is situated in socio-cultural contexts. Learning is essentially a social process. Learning takes place through participation in activities within communities of practice and reification of ideas within these communities. In a practice-oriented educational context, situated learning ideas have obvious implications for the inclusion of authentic experiences of practice and work integrated learning but they also emphasise the social dimensions of learning and the need for collaboration and interaction.

Variation theory (Marton & Booth, 1997; Marton & Tsui, 2003; Marton & Pang, 2006) maintain that learning requires the experience of variation. For example, to learn to understand a threshold concept, learners need to experience (among other forms of variation) the variation between their prior understandings and disciplinary understandings of that concept. Implications of variation theory include the need for learners to experience variation in contexts of learning and application (Bowden et al, 2002), for example in developing information literacies students would need to experience variation in information sources and the information to be found in them, ways of searching, different contexts for seeking and making use of information and so on. It is not sufficient for teachers to simply present the relevant variation as this does not guarantee that students will experience it. Learning activities may need to be designed in ways that assist students to see as relevant and notice the aspects of variation that are important amongst all of the other aspects of complex environments. For example, engaging students with practice applications then with theories relevant to those applications may be more effective than the more usual approach of presenting decontextualised theories followed by applications. While variation theory is not explicitly a social theory of learning, other students are seen as important sources of variation with students learning from the different ideas, perspectives and problem-solving approaches of others.

Curriculum design consistent with current ideas about learning 

Students need opportunities to generate and test out ideas, to experience variation between their previous ideas and new ones, to learn in authentic contexts of practice, to learn collaboratively with others, to reflect on their learning and to have appropriate choice and control over their learning. To be consistent with these ideas, any technologies need to be able to support student as well as staff generation and sharing of content, student inquiry, collaboration and student documentation of and reflection on learning.

This does not mean that there is no place for lectures. Good lectures can motivate students, present overviews of key ideas or highlight differences in perspectives or provide opportunities for students to learn from lecturers’ practice experiences and practice-focused research. However, lectures need to engage students and students need to be able to discern and focus on the meaning of the ideas or concepts being presented. This is often not the case, particularly when lectures present large amounts of material with no or few opportunities for active engagement and reflection. Current ideas about learning imply that lectures could be less dominant as a mode of teaching, and that the lectures that are offered could afford more opportunities for active learning, interaction, inquiry and reflection. Podcasts or other recordings from lectures might be most useful for learning if they are edited, helping students to focus on key concepts or ideas, or if they are used to present material, such as stories of practice, that students cannot easily access from other sources (such as textbooks). Flexibility is important for meeting the needs of students with increasingly complex lives, but should be balanced with the need to engage students in experiences that are more likely to lead to desirable learning outcomes.