Tips for Staying Unstuck with a Curricular Approach

I have learned a great deal about curricular approaches to learning beyond the classroom over the past 15 years.

I have co-presented the opening plenary at the Institute on the Curricular Approach (formerly the Residential Curriculum Institute) for the past 11 years. I co-authored The Curricular Approach to Student Affairs and this article, Shifting to a Curricular Approach. I have facilitated or co-facilitated 2-day in-person and virtual retreats for almost 100 different campuses on understanding, designing, implementing, and assessing their curricular approach. I work with about a dozen schools yearly in an ongoing consulting relationship.

This has all helped me learn about where folks get stuck and how they can get unstuck with their curricular approach. Based on my experience, here are some obstacles and keys to helping them move past them to sustainable success.

1. Get Buy-in, Support, and Ownership

Many folks don’t even launch their curricular approach because they cannot generate support from key campus partners or buy-in and ownership from their team. These folks are often champions for a curricular approach and see the potential but cannot get others to see the potential as well. Bringing a team to the institute and hosting a retreat on campus can be pivotal in getting buy-in, support, and ownership.

2. Don’t Get Stuck Refining Learning Aims Forever

The most common obstacle for folks who do launch is that they get stuck in the ideation, critique, and conceptual conversations about the learning aims (the educational priority, learning goals, and learning outcomes). These important components must be well thought out with good discussion and conversation. However, many folks can get stuck in this conceptual conversation for years and never move to design or implementation. Perhaps the conceptual conversation feels safer or more comfortable than the next stage. Do your best thinking. Get some consensus, but don’t expect that everyone will agree. Set your aims and begin designing your strategies and sequencing so you can implement them. Assess, learn, and improve.

3. Foster a Culture of Learning and Innovation

Organizations that launch a curricular approach that doesn’t last often do so because they don’t foster a culture of learning and innovation. They continue to operate in a mindset of trying to get it perfect rather than trying to do better. They do assessments to affirm their good thinking and hard work rather than to see what can be improved. They get stuck in perfection. They have a culture of fear and scarcity, which prevents creativity and innovation. Foster a culture of appreciative inquiry, a learning mindset, continuous improvement, and innovation. This cultural shift is not always easy, but it is critical.

4. This Is a New Lens, Not an Add On

Another reason those who launch a curricular approach that doesn’t last is because they didn’t see this as a new lens to their work but as an add-on. We are already too busy, overwhelmed, and struggling to find time; adding a learning approach on top of this won’t work. A curricular approach is a systemic way of thinking that helps prioritize, organize, and streamline our work with students and student learning at the center. When done well, a curricular approach helps you see what is important, what is less important, and what is not important. Higher education, especially student affairs professionals, are great at being entrepreneurial and developing new ideas. We are often terrible at being editorial and deciding what to let go of to serve students better. A curricular approach can help us collectively identify our priorities and give us something collectively agreed upon to guide tough decisions.

5. Letting Go of Ego and Getting REALLY Student-Centered

In student affairs, we often talk about being student-centered. In my experience, though, we often center ourselves individually and organizationally. We talk about being student-centered, but we are letting our ego get in the way and find ourselves centered on “my session,” “my initiative,” “my building,” or worst of all, “my students.” Other times, we focus on what our organization (unit, department, office, division, or institution) gets credit, affirmation, praise, and awards for the offering. We don’t align resources to fit the student experience best; we align resources to avoid criticism and ensure our organization gets the credit. To truly be student-centered is to be collectively clear about what we hope students will learn, align our strategies to foster that learning and organize all of that, not around my organization or me, but students’ experiences.

6. Go Slow and Imperfectly, and Learn

Sometimes, it is tempting to put a particular educational plan “on hold” until next year because it isn’t quite ready – or not ready at all. Maybe during a global pandemic, for instance. Don’t fall into this trap. It is much better to go slow and imperfectly because then you can see what works and what doesn’t and learn a great deal that can inform and fuel your next steps. When folks put things “on hold,” they usually end up 12 months later in the same spot. Go slow and imperfectly, learn, and move forward.

7. Don’t Let Your Curriculum Get in the Way of Your Curricular Approach

One of the obstacles for folks who are many years into their curricular approach is that they become enamored and attached to the educational plans (strategies, sequencing, facilitation guides) they have developed, which can be an obstacle to examining their work through a curricular approach. Continue to bring your curricular approach to improving and evolving your curriculum to serve all of your students best.

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