Because a curricular approach is revolutionary as opposed to evolutionary, it is necessary that you think about organizational culture and organizational change processes before undertaking this journey. For many, this shift in approach requires the development of a learning-centric organization. An organization that moves beyond “exposure” through program attendance, and towards “learning” (Kerr & Tweedy, 2006).
A learning organization is “an organization that is continually expanding its capacity to create its future. For such an organization, it is not enough merely to survive. ‘Survival learning’ or what is more often terms ‘adaptive learning’ is important–indeed it is necessary. But for a learning organization, ‘adaptive learning’ must be joined by ‘generative learning,’ learning that enhances our capacity to create”(Senge, 2006, p. 14)
This is also a shift from a “doing”-focused culture towards one with greater intentionality. Therefore, how “residence life staff learn and perceive their efforts within an organization while creating learning-enhancing experiences for students” is just as important as what learning-enhancing experiences are created (Lichterman, 2016, p. 49). In short, the process is just as important as the product.
As you embark on a curricular journey, the following are five questions you should ask yourself to determine your readiness to take on the effort.
1. Do you have your core operational functions operating smoothly?
At the very start of your curricular journey, before you even begin writing an educational priority, make sure your department and your staff are in a good position to take on the planning and change process. One useful concept may be Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If the base of your operation is not sound, you shouldn’t (and probably can’t) focus on higher order and more complex efforts to promote student learning.
Applying Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to your organization, there are certain aspects of your division or department that are your core functions. These are likely student services and other administrative procedures that are necessary for the critical functions of the university and to serve students in their roles as students. Although these processes are likely never to be perfect, and their efficiencies and alignment may change over time, it is important to ensure these are functioning well before taking on the work of a curriculum. A curriculum cannot “fix” these problems. The focus of a curriculum is on student learning, and although it may impact your operational processes by making them more learning-centric, it does not address issues of efficiency and sound management. Ensuring that you are operationally, fiscally, and administratively sound (or at least moving towards improvement) will help set you up for greater success with a curriculum.
2. Do you have the leadership in place that is supportive of this change?
Because curricular change requires rethinking practice and has implications for assessment, measurement, resource allocation, staffing, and training and professional development, it is critical that leadership within your department and/or division is supportive of and understands what this change entails. Your curricular journey will take time, in most cases could take up to three years or more before the basics are fully in place. Having leadership that understands this, is patient, and helps keep you focused on your journey can be crucial. Furthermore, you will make mistakes, or receive assessment data that causes you to change course. Having leadership that perceives these as positive learning experiences can assure staff members that they are supported in their journey towards creating a culture of evidence that drives the curriculum.
Not all schools may have this supportive leadership in place. For example, if a department reports to someone who sees program attendance as the only and most important factor in determining success, a curriculum does not privilege these metrics. In these cases, one should work to educate leadership about the nature and importance of curriculum before beginning the journey. Using resources such as videos, books, and articles can help. Having someone in leadership attend the Institute on the Curricular Approach and/or bringing in an outside facilitator can also help. External voices sometimes carry more power than internal voices simply because of their positionality.
3. Do you have the right staff with the requisite skills and training to execute a curriculum successfully?
It is not enough to have the support of leadership when transitioning to a curriculum. Your professional staff and those involved in the implementation of a curriculum need to be bought-in and hired with, or trained for, the right skill sets in order to be successful. Some of these skill sets include knowledge and application of:
- Curriculum development (learning outcome development, lesson plan/facilitation guide construction)
- Assessment practices (from on-the ground to program review)
- Student development theory
- Pedagogical practices
Specifically, when beginning your journey, it is also critical that all staff be brought up to speed on the basics of the curricular approach. The Institute on the Curricular Approach is one such vehicle, although it may be cost prohibitive to send all of your staff members. This is why many campuses may opt to have an outside trainer come in and help provide a guidance. This ensures all of your staff members start out on an equal footing and with the same basic common knowledge. Consistent, all-encompassing training also increases the likelihood of staff buy-in and success with curricular roll out.
Training and professional development should not be a one-off event but a commitment throughout the entire year. This can include informal professional development practices such as brown bag discussions, common reads, and article shares. It can also be more formalized through how professional development funds are allocated, retreats are designed, and meeting times are allocated. Before jumping into a curricular approach, give thought to how you can invest your staff in the process.
“For example, a yearlong training and on-going development plan, for professional, graduate, and student staff should be designed to mirror the residential curriculum approach. Staff competencies, inclusive of competencies tailored to responsibilities and duties within a specific housing and residence life department, should influence outcomes for training and developments. The content of the residential curriculum should be integrated into all facets of onboarding and training as well as developments through the use of relevant literature and readings, pedagogy on teaching and learning techniques, and assessment practices to gauge learning.”(Lichterman, 2016, p. 334)
4. Is your staff ready for transition? Is a strong team and culture in place?
Beyond looking at your staff member skillsets and abilities, you should also review your overall staff culture and the strength of your team. Curriculum is a collaborative effort that requires staff to be involved in and engaged at all levels. If there is dissonance within your team, if the team doesn’t have a strong sense of collaboration, or if your culture is not oriented towards change and a focus on student learning, you may find a lot of difficulty moving forward.
Before you begin the curricular process, spend time focusing on strengthening your teamwork. This includes building trust, camaraderie, and a shared sense of purpose. With a strong base in place, staff will more readily take on the necessary rethink and change processes a curriculum requires. This will also further a shared sense of ownership over the curriculum. Curricula can be doomed to fail if lead by only one champion. Curriculum is not one person’s pet project but must be owned by the entire team. It requires the commitment of an entire team to reach for permanent change and longevity.
5. Do you have the bandwidth and time to dedicate to the curricular transition process?
Developing a curriculum takes time. Although a curriculum is never truly “finished,” it can take 2-3 years before the basics of the curriculum are in place and begin to take hold. With the busy schedules and day-to-day crises that impact student affairs professionals’ work, it can be hard to carve out the time to focus on longer term projects. When developing a curriculum for the first time, it is important to go in with a plan and to make the commitments necessary to see it through. Some strategies include:
- Doing an inventory of staff time. Are there certain practices that you may be able to give up? Might a reshuffling of duties free staff members up to focus more on other priorities?
- Setting aside a dedicated time to work on curriculum development. This could be at regular intervals throughout the year (2 hours once a month, 1 hour every week) and/or at designated full or half day retreat times that can allow for uninterrupted focus.
- Building a culture of assessment. In learning-focused organizations, assessment isn’t an afterthought, it’s part of the planning process. Developing and rewarding habits that bring assessment efforts into the regular routine of daily work can yield great dividends.
It is important to think of the curriculum development process not just as a series of tasks, but as an organizational change process. As such, there can be organizational “prep work” that you may need to contemplate before undergoing a curricular journey. Curriculum development is not an “off-the-shelf” process but instead one that is unique and ingrained into the distinct cultural contexts of the institution and staff teams doing the development.
Kerr, K. G., & Tweedy, J. (2006). Beyond seat time and student satisfaction: A curricular approach to residential education. About Campus, 11(5), 9-15. doi:10.1002/abc.181
Lichterman, H. L. (2016). Organizational Perspective On Implementing The Residential Curriculum Approach: An Ethnographic Case Study. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from http://scholarcommons.sc.edu/etd/3817
Senge, P. M. (2006). The fifth discipline: The art and practice of the learning organization (5th ed.). New York, NY: Doubleday/Currency.