Curriculum design and complexity: A seamful lens from professional education

Photo credit: Tamara Mulherin

In this extra post, Tim Fawns, Gill Aitken, Tamara Mulherin and Dai Hounsell make a connection between the Curriculum Transformation Project and their recent paper on seamful education…

Any complicated design involves multiple parts, assembled to make a more or less coherent whole. In fashion, technology, and education, people often want seamless design – for things to just work; to look, feel, and flow smoothly such that we don’t notice the working parts. The trouble is that we then can’t see how things work, we can’t access and modify the mechanics. If our iPhone breaks, we call the iStore. Increasingly, if our car breaks down, we can’t even take it to a garage – we need to call the manufacturer. Seamless design can lead to efficient and enjoyable experiences but it also reduces opportunities for learning about what is made and how it works, and about the process of design.

Such opportunities are vital within education, particularly if we value an appreciation of complexity and uncertainty. To be contentious for a moment, the rhetoric of constructive alignment can lead us to imagine education as seamless. By neatly lining up what students should do with what must be demonstrated in assessment in order to achieve learning outcomes, we lay out a series of steps aimed at moving students through a seamless transition from not knowing to knowing, students to graduates, novices to experts, apprentices to masters. As Biggs and Tang (2011) put it, learners are ‘entrapped’ in a ‘web of consistency, optimising the likelihood that they will engage the appropriate learning activities’ (p. 99). At this moment, as we begin a widespread curriculum transformation at The University of Edinburgh, we hope that this post provokes some consideration of how a more seamful view of design can help us to equip students and teachers to deal with the dynamic and complex challenges of the future.

Our research into professional education is relevant to wider conversations about education because it was aimed at understanding how students and graduates negotiate complexity. We analysed focus groups with students, practitioners and educators (mostly from more than one category) from different professional subjects, to identify subtle and unpredictable kinds of learning that are necessary in professional practice but not easily captured within formal university curricula. The concept of seamful design (Vertesi, 2014; Chalmers and Galani, 2004) helped us identify the following seams (messy, often hidden ways of patching together different settings and systems) between professional practice and academic curricula.

Seam 1: Between formal syllabus requirements and adaptive, everyday practices

The certification of competence could shape academic efforts towards learning what is required in practice. Professional bodies influenced curricula, accredited courses, set professional exams, and awarded memberships. While all of this could establish clear expectations, it didn’t necessarily clarify the place for everyday workplace practices within the curriculum, since assessment was heavily focused around academic knowledge. Teachers needed to work around constraints of formal assessment to help students learn more subtle aspects of situated practice.

Seam 2: Between containment and complexity

Skills and common procedures were important, but academic performances were of a different nature from performance in professional contexts. Much academic assessment removed situated aspects of performance in favour of standardised, abstract, or procedural requirements. For example, the speed and complexity of clinical practice was poorly represented in MCQ exams and Objective Structured Clinical Examinations (OSCEs), and there was a risk of developing a ‘classroom gaze’, where students paid attention to what was most prominent in academic rather than professional practice settings.

Seam 3: Between abstract and embodied knowledge

Engagement with physical environments, tools, software, or the body language of colleagues, clients or patients, are crucial aspects of professional learning, yet largely neglected within formal curricula. In our research, working with materials was embodied and social, requiring not only the performance of tasks but also the management of bodily functions, social dynamics, physical spaces, and technical systems. These were complex conditions that assessors and curriculum designers couldn’t ‘replicate on paper’. Yet, while academic assessment was criticised by some participants as inauthentic, we also note that authenticity is a function not just of assessment design but also of what students do and how they are able to make their work relevant to their practice. In other words, students can, at least within some more flexible designs, increase the authenticity of an assessment through careful choices.

Seam 4: Between technology use and professionalism

For our interviewees, use of technology, including improvisation (e.g. medics ‘consulting Professor Google’), was an integral part of learning and practising as a professional. Sometimes, however, there was a disconnect between academic and practice settings in the technology available. Negotiating the cultures and infrastructures between settings was yet another crucial aspect of professional learning that was managed through informal practices rather than within the formal curriculum.

For us, education (professional or otherwise) should be less like a production line that results in pre-packaged programmes and relatively homogenised graduates, and more like a workshop in which students work with teachers to forge their education. In aiming for seamless education, we can pay too little attention to supporting informal learning and teaching practices, opportunities for student co-design, and mutual exploration and critique of the educational process. We suggest that exposing seams between elements of education can help teachers and students to both shape and appreciate the benefits and limitations of their learning, and to gain a better sense of what must still be learned in the future, beyond the course.

Read more in our paper: Fawns, T., Mulherin, T., Hounsell, D., & Aitken, G. (2021). Seamful learning and professional education. Studies in Continuing Education.

Other references

  • Biggs, J., and C. Tang, Eds. 2011. Teaching for Quality Learning at University. Buckingham: Open University Press.
  • Chalmers, M., and A. Galani. 2004. “Seamful Interweaving: Heterogeneity in the Theory and Design of Interactive Systems.” In Proceedings of the 5th Conference on Designing Interactive Systems: Processes, Practices, Methods, and Techniques, New York, 243–252.
  • Vertesi, Janet. 2014. “Seamful Spaces: Heterogeneous Infrastructures in Interaction.” Science Technology and Human Values, 39 (2): 264–284.

Gill Aitken

Gill Aitken is the Programme Director of the MSc in Clinical Education, Edinburgh Medical School.

Tim Fawns

Dr Tim Fawns is Deputy Programme Director of the MSc in Clinical Education and part-time tutor on the MSc in Digital Education. He is also the director of the international Edinburgh Summer School in Clinical Education. His main academic interests are in education, technology and memory.

Dai Hounsell

Dai Hounsell is emeritus professor of higher education, and was one of Edinburgh’s vice principals from 2008 until he retired (sort of) in 2014.  He now lives in the Dorset seaside town of Swanage, where he continues to do a little postgraduate online teaching and reviewing, and to think and write about the interplay between learning, feedback and assessment in universities. He is also visiting professor at Bournemouth University, sits on the Board of the Coastal Learning Partnership (a 16-school multi-academy trust), and is a community volunteer with his local Rotary Club.  He and his wife Jenny are recovering walkers, having recently finished hiking all 630 miles and 115,000 uphill feet of the South West Coast Path.

Tamara Mulherin

Tamara Mulherin is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Politics and International Relations. She has over twenty year’s experience in the third sector, local, state and national government organisations in Australia, Scotland and internationally. Her research interests are centred around public management and administration, in particular, in applying praxeological approaches for extending understanding of relational practices in the context of infrastructures of care in the public and third sectors, and how care is reconfigured.

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