April 10 2019

What might a practice-based curriculum look like?

In response to David Boud’s blog Practice-based learning – starting with practice, Professor Carol Costley outlines her ideas for a truly practice-based curriculum.

A curriculum which takes for granted that lecture courses are the centrepiece is hardly practice-based. Activities in which students are involved in meaningful and substantial tasks must be the focus and this means engaging in practice rather than hearing about practice.

This would involve a whole curriculum approach, with some components taking place in external settings and some on-campus, but all having a strong practice focus and linked to an overall purpose. Courses would need to be coherent and balanced from an individual perspective and have learning outcomes, processes and assessment criteria suitable for the appropriate university level and the nature of the qualification.

There would be structures that enabled agreement about what the learner would do, the support the university and often an employer or other stakeholder would provide and the types of evidence to be produced for assessment. Such a curriculum may be described as post-disciplinary. It would be designed for outcomes such as those that meet the top 10 skills as set out by the World Economic Forum (Gray, 2016).

Components of the curriculum could include:

  • enquiry-based activities with substantive tasks involving working with others
  • reflection and reflexivity on practice
  • simulations and role play
  • part-individual and part-group activities
  • negotiation around learning contracts or agreements
  • recognition of previous learning; to gain credit or the starting-point for reflecting on practice
  • a portfolio of work accompanied by an evaluative narrative
  • course-based and peer-group activities
  • assessments that portray what students can do.

It would be unlikely for there to be the polarity between theory-based and practice-based course modules that is common in existing professional curricula. Such a dichotomy is a heritage from an earlier separation between academic and vocational courses that it would be inappropriate to reify (Boud, 2012).

Moving to a facilitative model

A distinct practice-led pedagogical approach is where the roles of tutors move from teacher/ supervisor to facilitator/mentor/ coach and expert resource. The more recent roles may include guiding and helping learners to:

  • become active in identifying their needs and aspirations and managing the learning process
  • develop abilities of critical reflection and enquiry
  • identify and work with issues concerning workplace values and ethics
  • make effective use of workplace resources
  • develop and use academic skills in the workplace
  • provide specialist expertise
  • inspire and encourage.

Students would be equipped with tools and strategies to interrogate and reflect on practice. They would be partners in the design and development of these tools and strategies to ensure that they met their own needs and those of different practice settings in which they would need to operate. (Boud, 2012).

Assessing active learning

A practice-based curriculum is typically issue-led and driven by learner activities, not formal inputs. In that sense, assessing learners’ progress may be described as assessing ‘map-makers’ rather than confirming their proficiency as ‘map-readers’ i.e. their expertise in propositional knowledge. The focus is typically on learners’ reasoning and critical reflection, how they develop their capability as practitioners and how they make critical judgements in the work context. 

The technicalities of this are commonly supported through generic level statements and criteria at the relevant academic level. It may involve individual learning outcomes and sometimes assessment criteria that are negotiated as part of a learning agreement. A programmatic approach to active practice-based assessment is required. Assessment should reflect the kinds of social, cultural and contextual knowledge and abilities that are used in the workplace (Lester and Costley 2010).

Assessments take whatever form is needed for the outcomes being demonstrated and thus may not necessarily be writing in the conventional form of essays, or responses to tests. Assessment is likely to involve peers and include some elements of self-assessment.

Boud, D. (2012). Problematising practice-based education. In Higgs, J., Barnett, R., Billett, S., Hutchings, M. and Trede, F. (eds.) Practice-Based Education: Perspectives and Strategies, Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, 55-69.

Lester, S. and Costley, C. (2010) ‘Work-based learning at higher education level:  value, practice and critique’  Studies in Higher Education  Vol 35 No. 5, 561-575

This blog was originally published on INSPIRE – Promoting excellence in Learning and Teaching, driven by Middlesex Senior Fellows of HEA with contributions welcomed from all Middlesex staff.

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