If This Then That: a wider view of curriculum design

This piece is an exploration into the micro and macro levels of curriculum design, starting from a fundamental building block ‘If This, Then That’. These are small component parts that progress in a logical and linear fashion into a larger concept network that aims to embody the course ethos within an Arts University and then how this is situated in the wider Higher Education setting and society through the apparatus of the Manifesto. This is in particular reference to the new Music Composition & Technology BA/BSc at University for the Creative Arts, Farnham.


Published on 18th October 2018 | Written by J. Harry Whalley | Photo by Spencer Imbrock on Unsplash

ITTT: The micro-level

The website ifttt.com (If this then that) provides users with short scripts which allow them to connect one ‘widget’ to another. For example, IF it is raining tomorrow {this}, THEN text me a reminder to bring an umbrella {that}. This model of small units connected together through linear action can also clearly be seen at work when teaching.

E.g. IF {I’ve learnt multiplication} THEN {I can learn how to calculate the area of a triangle}.

In this simple example, it is evident that one concept is required to understand the other, and thus a line of new, more exciting or subtle concepts can be followed. In other words, an ‘ifttt’ curriculum is the most pragmatic and reduced series of dependences required to achieve specific aims and learning outcomes. Besides, the word curriculum is derived from the Latin “a course to run”.

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Figure 1: IFTTT

‘Ifttt’-style dependencies undoubtedly need to be thought of at all levels of curriculum design – it might be interesting to put the cart before the horse, but it will be hard to get anywhere. A.J. Romiszowski (1981:3-5) outlines a number of systems approaches to solve various problems ranging from noughts and crosses to large process problems. He argues that curriculum design can be thought of as a series of smaller problems to be solved. Using lessons from other instructional technologists, Romiszowski advocates a method of curriculum design that is aided by informed heuristics, guidelines and decision making schema. Therefore, curriculum design must make sure that all components of the course are taught in a logical order; always in relation to the ‘problem’ that needs to be solved or the goal of the tasks (including, but not exclusively the learning outcomes).

Integration across units – the macro level

An integrated approach – one that considers the contingencies within concurrently running units – will also include the possibility of spreading dependent concepts throughout lessons, lectures and workshops and also across units, such as in figure 2 below.

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Figure 2: an integrated approach

How might this manifest itself practically? Figure 3 shows a shared Google doc used by the Music Composition and Technology (MCT) course team. Each vertical unit has a single sentence overview of the primary aim within that week and the initials of the lecturer. This way the ordering of subject material can be seen, not only in relation to the outcomes of each particular unit, but also so that different units can reinforce and expand upon each other.

For example, the unit Studio Toolkit teaches many of the technical and foundational skills required to complete tasks in other units, writing music for screen for instance. With the shared Google doc lecturers know that these prerequisite skills will be covered elsewhere, and by whom. By further coinciding this experience with the critical theory studies unit examining the historical and cultural context, for example, it creates a series of concepts that follow and flow from one another.  This integrated approach has the potential to create context for the minutia and examples for the critical theory (context).

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Figure 3: organising the Music Composition and Technology curriculum

It is my contention that through these sorts of concept-interactions the curriculum can be elevated from the dangerously reductive ‘ifttt’, to a network that more fully embraces the nuances and the ethos of the course, a curriculum that is integrated between units and provides a wider context throughout.

How broad? Curriculum breadth in different Higher Education contexts

The linear nature of ‘ifttt’ design provides direction and focus (or a vector, with both speed and direction) that can be integrated across units to provide breadth. But, how does this breadth situate itself in the even wider environment of the particular Higher Education (HE) Institution in which it is taught? Consider the following three ‘categories’ of institution that might have a music course; Conservatoire, ‘Red Brick’ and Arts Universities.

Arguably, Conservatoires provide a very focused educational curriculum, which will allow students to follow a particular path or line of enquiry without distraction. Using the analogy of the river it is fast flowing but narrow – many students might even experience this as a series of rapids!  Naturally this will suite a student who has already decided how they wish progress, for example a violinist can spend their time on scales, repertoire or performance practice etc.  However, this naturally leads to a trade-off. In order to pursue the focused curriculum, the trade-off might exclude wider context, music of other cultures, music theory, technology or study of the music industry. It is worth considering that the focus in this style of education might lead by default to an ‘ifttt’ mode of education and tangents and the chance of interdisciplinary offshoots are likewise reduced.

In the ‘Red Bricks’, the music curriculum is more general and there are often new courses alongside a long-standing BA that expand the scope of the department or school. This could be read as a mechanism through which the institute can adapt to changing educational environments. However, there is sometimes a conflict between traditional components of the curriculum and a recognition that courses must remain current. The divergence between old and new has the potential to (and in my experience does) lead to a disconnected curriculum from the point of view of the student. The learning experience is more siloed as a result of historical decisions and Integration across units is very difficult to achieve.

Figure 4 below illustrates the trade-off of depth over breadth, you could imagine the area (i.e. amount of education) in the triangles are the same for each institution, but it is the ‘distribution of that education’ that is different.

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Figure 4: the distribution of education

So, where does an Arts University fit in this picture? Firstly, there are differences in the ‘DNA’ of each institution. For instance, an Arts University might have an ‘art school’ sensibility [1]. An art school sensibility embraces individual expression, the cross-disciplinary nature of artistic practice and the intensity, complexity and rigour required to create meaningful artistic work. Through this lens it is clear that Arts Universities do not restrict the ambitions of students as is suggested by Figure 3, but instead can deliver an expanding rather than a narrowing of the educational space; providing students with the opportunity and challenge to find their own area of focus and their own artistic voice.  This is why arts universities must be broad in their aesthetic scope, ambitious in the potential of their students and have the educational breadth to allow for the (artistic) voice of the individual student. To take the analogy of the river again, this might be where the river meets the sea.

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Figure 5: the possible learning space

Figure 5 illustrates an alternative view of the three HE institutions. Instead of the shape representing the ‘course to run’, in this view it denotes the possible learning space, expanding outwards rather than narrowing inwards and embracing inter-disciplinarity which “does not stress delineations but linkages” (Jacobs, H. 1989, pp8).

For an example of how this expanded learning space looks in reality, imagine entering a Fine Art degree show with, say, 20 students’ work on the walls. The expectation at any Arts college or University would be that these twenty students will exhibit different and personal artworks. Work that embodies their creative skill, imagination, personality and interests and likely in a wide variety of medium. If we were to see instead twenty oil paintings of landscapes in the style of Turner, we would not think of this as a ‘successful’ fine art degree show.  In a nutshell, this is what it means to have a music course at an Arts University – the curriculum should at all points expand rather than contract the musical horizon of the students.  In my opinion too many music courses produce the sonic equivalent of identical paintings.

Broader still: the manifesto

No matter how hard politicians might try to sully the concept of a manifesto, its history in the development of artistic movements should not be underestimated (Baker, 2015). Within education, Adam Heidebrink-Bruno (2014) discusses how all aspects of a syllabus and surrounding policies build collectively towards a joint understanding of the pedagogic principals of the classroom.

“Syllabi that reflect the mundane, bureaucratic requirements of the University are at risk of setting an equally banal classroom atmosphere. […] a syllabus should be a manifesto that serves as a founding document detailing the rights of the students and the pedagogy of the classroom.” (Heidebrink-Bruno, 2014)

Personally, I see the manifesto as a tool to ‘zoom out’ yet again and place the curriculum not just within an institutional perspective, but a wider societal perspective. But what should a manifesto for a course include? In the tradition of the arts manifesto it should be an aspirational document, setting out a vision of a world that does not yet exist; but is possible.  In this ‘best of all possible worlds’, it is arguable how grounded in the reality of the constraints of the course it should be; money, time, technical resources, space, staffing etc. are all factors, but the real question at this meta-ifttt level is what should the ideal course strive to be? The foundation of the MCT manifesto is that:

“We embrace the true plurality of music composition in terms of the tools, styles and people involved in the invention of new music.”

or

“Music should be as various as people are!”

In order to achieve this aspiration, the curriculum must be wide enough to encompass diverse musical interests, stretch across genre, discipline and cultural boundaries. Effective curriculum design will take the ideological ethos and implement it through the pragmatic and systematic approaches. If the iterations of curriculum design do not expand beyond the unit boundary, then a wider approach can be missed. Likewise, if it does not expand beyond the course boundaries then interdisciplinary opportunities can be missed, and if it does not expand beyond the institutional boundaries then cultural change and currency may be lost.

Conclusion

An ‘ifttt’-style curriculum can be used to ensure that fundamental skills and concepts are learned by students in an integrated way, and can be used to build upon foundational skills not only upwards but also outwards. This breadth is then connected to the world ‘outside of the triangle’, that is to say the possible learning space extends outwards into a multi-disciplinary one and acknowledges and celebrates educational breadth as a ‘space’ that individuals can flourish.

[1] For the sake of clarity, this is something quite different to schools of art, such as impressionism, cubism etc., which do share a collective style.


harry-whalleyHarry Whalley leads UCA’s BA/BSc (Hons) Music Composition & Technology course and is an award-winning composer of contemporary classical, film and electroacoustic music. Harry’s works have been performed around the world and on BBC Radio 3 by music groups such as the Hebrides Ensemble, Artisan Trio, Red Note Ensemble, Vancouver Miniaturists Ensemble, Gildas Quartet, Edinburgh Quartet, Ron Davis and many others.


References

Baker, H. (2015) 10 game-changing art manifestos. [online] Royalacademy.org.uk. Available at: https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/ten-game-changing-manifestos (Accessed on 16 Oct. 2018).

Heidebrink-Bruno, A. (2014) Syllabus as Manifesto: A Critical Approach to Classroom Culture. Hybrid Pedagogy. Available at: https://hybridpedagogy.org/syllabus-manifesto-critical-approach-classroom-culture/ (Accessed on 16 Oct. 2018).

Jacobs, H. (1989) The growing need to inter-diciplinary curriculum design. In: Interdisciplinary curriculum. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. 8

Romiszowski, A.J. (1981) Instruction, Instructional Systems and the Systems Approach. In: Designing instructional systems: Decision making in course planning and curriculum design. London: Kogan Page Ltd. pp.3-5.

 

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