In many cases the formulation of content is seen as the starting point of curriculum development. Some analogies may help illustrate the limitations of this approach:

  • beginning to build a house by buying the building materials. Once you have the materials, you ask an architect to do a design that uses the materials and then buy the land.
  • planning a holiday by first packing your suitcase. Once you have packed, you then decide where to go, how to get there and what to do on your holiday based on what is in the suitcase.

Often the outcome of a 'content first' approach is a list of topics to be covered - content is equated with knowledge.

Content is more than just knowledge. Content selection needs to give appropriate balance to subject knowledge, process skills and the development of the student as learner as well as to detail and context.

It is more constructive to consider content in the context of assessment and learning outcomes.

The key questions then are:

what knowledge (concepts, ideas, interpretations, applications) must/should/could be included to enable students to achieve the intended learning outcomes?
what generic process knowledge and skills should the student have been taught by the end of the topic?
what context in the discipline do the students need to have by the end of the topic?
what is the appropriate balance of content: depth/breadth, knowledge/skills and processes/values?
what content could contribute to the development of Graduate Qualities?

Each area of content should also be considered in terms of a number of criteria:

significance
validity

how essential or basic is it to the discipline?
is the content accurate, current and relevant to the aims and intended learning outcomes?
relevance
utility
what is the discipline/workplace/societal value of this content?
how useful will the content be to students beyond the confines of the topic or course?
will it benefit them in 'real life' and/or professional practice? 
interest
learnability 
will this content interest the students?
will the students be able to learn the content (in the time available)? 

The last criteria points to a further issue: the curriculum in any topic is bounded and finite. Not everything can be included so choices and exclusions have to be made. Compressing content is generally not a successful strategy.

One perspective on curriculum development argues that the selection of content is complete NOT when as much as possible has been put in, but rather when as much as possible has been taken out without compromising the integrity of the topic as a learning experience.

Once content has been selected it needs to be organized in relation to two main principles: scope and sequence. Time is a major factor in determining the scope of content and the balance between breadth and depth.

Integration is also a factor in relation to scope: students generally learn more when they are able to connect new content to prior knowledge and to seek and find real world applications for what they are learning.

Examples of content statements:

Example: An industrial statistics topic

Definitions of and discussions on statistical thinking, processes, process improvement, problem solving and variation
Strategies for process improvement and problem solving
Tools for process improvement and problem solving including the 7 tools of TQC, tools for idea generation, statistical method for process control, design of experiments and process capability studies
The application of these tools for process study and effective decision making.

The statement starts from clarification of fundamental concepts, contextualises tools within a broad framework and broadens the focus to application and interpretation. Elements of prerequisite learning, spiral sequencing.


Example: A graduate level Project Topic

Action learning/action research: a framework for real world research
Systems thinking and systems theory
Choosing and planning a project
Problem solving tools
Putting the project into action and controlling the action
Review and evaluation: the project process; learning from the project.

The content sets a conceptual basis in a perspective on applied research, moves on to application through an actual project and then to reflection on theory as practice. Spiral sequencing, simple to complex.