I have just read Renata Phelps’ article – Developing Online From Simplicity toward Complexity: Going with the Flow of Non-Linear Learning.
It is interesting from a variety of perspectives and has certainly made me think.
1. I don’t find all aspects of the article very clear. The development of a non-linear course structure is described. The author presents a non-linear curriculum as one that is not presented in a linear format, that can be accessed in a non-linear way by the learners and that is open to choice about how much and what is studied.
2. The article describes the development of a teacher training course – ICT in primary and secondary education. I don’t think enough is made of the fact that the context is ICT education, as I do think that when talking about non-linear learning, going with the flow and that the ‘curriculum becomes a process of development rather than body of knowledge to be covered and learned’, the context is important. I suspect that some subjects can have a more flexible curriculum and course structure than others. I’m not so sure how selective a trainee medic can be about curriculum.
3. The article doesn’t really evaluate the success of changing the curriculum from a linear to a more complexity-based model, other than to quote two positive remarks from students. In the 60s it was very fashionable to ‘go with the flow’ in school classrooms in the UK. I remember on being appointed to a new job and asking for the maths syllabus (so that I would have some idea of what we should cover in the term), being told by the headteacher that they didn’t teach in that way in his school – they followed the children’s interests, so if the children wanted to talk about birds’ nests all week, they could. The very strictly linear National Curriculum was introduced in the UK to combat the massive gaps that were becoming in apparent in children’s knowledge as a result of ‘going with the flow’ and ‘discussing birds’ nests for a week’ at the expense of time spent on the 3 Rs. My experience suggests that a curriculum is actually a good thing, so long as you don’t expect learners to learn in a linear way. You only have to observe young children learning mathematics to know that they don’t and won’t.
3. The article then equates learning objectives with domination, control, reductionism and an undermining of emergent learning. I have always thought about learning objectives as being about clarity of forward thinking and about knowing what to assess. I don’t see that learning objectives need to control or undermine emergent learning. Assessment isn’t mentioned in the article and that seems to me to be a big omission.
4. There is a lot in the article about ‘authentic’ and ‘problem-based’ learning that encourages reflective and self-directed learners. This is not new. Donald Schon’s book on the reflective practitioner was published at least 10 years before this article was written and my teaching colleagues have been discussing how to encourage learners to become independent, motivated, self-directed and reflective since the 60s and I’m sure previous generations of teachers have done the same.
So although any article which promotes this way of working is welcome, I don’t think the ideas presented in terms of learning are particularly new. However, it is interesting to think about to what extent you want your curriculum to be ‘flexible, open, disruptive, uncertain and unpredictable ….accepting …tension, anxiety and problem creating as the norm’.
I would be interested in knowing whether a course structure such as the one described in the article would work for a curriculum such as medicine.