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Why do so many curriculum changes fail?

In the past couple of months I delivered training sessions about Curriculum Innovation to interdisciplinary groups of curricular change leaders and aspirant and junior programme coordinators and programme directors at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam (VU) and University of Amsterdam (UvA). Jaro Pichel of the LEARN!Academy, teacher developer in higher education and one of the leaders of the Senior Teaching Qualification Programme at VU-UvA, published the following concise summary:

Too often the high failure rate of curriculum change in higher education is overlooked, and often discussed after the failure - which is obviously too late. At the Senior Teaching Qualification Programme guest speaker Aldert Kamp (former Director of Education at TU Delft Faculty of Aerospace Engineering) shared with us his insights and a few reasons for the failure rate:

  1. Project goals are often too ambitious for the resources and time available

  2. There is no system approach, which ignores the complexity of curriculum change

  3. There is too little attention for the professionalization of teachers who need to implement these changes

  4. There is resistance of main stakeholders, e.g. “I don’t want to change”, “The curriculum is good as it is”, "What's in it for me?"

...In case you have been assigned to lead a curriculum change. What can you do to make this change process a success?

Aldert left us with three types of leadership that need to be considered and may have to be adapted throughout the process:

1) Educational leadership

Good educational design is founded in constructive alignment, which ensures a natural alignment between courses in terms of learning outcomes, teaching activities, and assessment. Your role is to facilitate the conversations between these three elements.

2) Managerial leadership

Curriculum change is a long-term change project. A strong vision that is carried by the curriculum change team is the driving force for any change. Being conscious about the different roles you play as a project leader (and should not play), and whom to involve in which stage, is your role as a manager.

3) Political leadership

Change is about people. The multiple stakeholders such as the faculty, industry, societal challenges (e.g. climate change), alumni, students, and teachers all need to have a place in this process. Your ability to give them a voice, inform and involve them where necessary, will make a huge difference to the success of your curriculum change.

Lastly, don’t forget that curriculum change takes time. Aldert shared that on average a major overhaul and redesign and implementation phase takes about 5 years. So don’t rush, take time, and start from a shared vision.


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