Lattuca: Impertinent Questions: Structures for Learning or Learning to Structure

Lisa Lattucca

In an article in Studies in Higher Education, Ronald Barnett (2000) wondered if there might be an analytical framework on the horizon that was suitable for analyzing and understanding the curricula that arise in an era of “supercomplexity.” Barnett argued that the disciplines have been the dominant influence on curricula for the past century, and that only now, in a mass higher education system, is this academic hegemony giving way to other influences, such as diversity, the student market, and the interests of employers.

According to Barnett, higher education is not only faced with preparing students for work in a complex world, it is challenged to ready them for a “supercomplex” world in which “the very frameworks by which we orient ourselves to the world are themselves contested” (p. 257). Whereas a complex world presents more facts, data, and evidence than individuals can handle within existing frameworks, a supercomplex world presents a “triple set of challenges – of understanding, of self-identity and of action”— which arise from the conjunction of various social and cultural contexts.

Supercomplexity results in calls for curricular reform to meet a host of needs that emanate from multiple, overlapping, and often competing and contradictory contexts. This is an accurate description of the real world of higher education curricula and curricular change. However, while the term supercomplexity is new, the realities of competing contexts, multiple stakeholders, and contradictory demands are not necessarily so. From the perspective of an observer of the U.S. higher education enterprise, the curriculum has long been the rope in various tugs-of-war among economic, market, political, social, cultural, and disciplinary (and interdisciplinary) influences. Debates about the ascendancy, and later, the balance of, classical (now liberal) and professional (or vocational) education first emerged in the U.S. in the early 1800s, and they continue today as intellectuals ply alternative visions and philosophies of higher education. In his history of the American undergraduate curriculum, Rudolph (1977) discussed the vulnerability of the U.S. higher education system to societal demands, asking whether there was a moment in U.S. history when higher education was suddenly deemed a “commodity,” when the individual “overtook society” as they client, and when the higher education positioned itself to “fulfill a whole new set of demands that may have served individuals well but society poorly?” (pp.8-9). Rudolph suggested that in the U.S., the curriculum might have undergone this transformation between the Civil War among the U.S. states (circa 1860s) and World War I. But the press of social needs was felt long before.

My point, then, is that, at least in the United States, powerful external influences on the curriculum have long been in evidence. As a result, the U.S. experience may serve as a case study for thinking about the changing nature of higher education curricula today.

Barnett asked whether there might be an analytical framework that would help us to understand the buffeted curriculum of 21st century, and at what level that framework should be pitched to provide a useful vantage point. He concluded that the intellectually and practically sound answer to this question is that we focus not simply on curricula as social processes, but also include in our analytical model “the wider worlds in so far as it affects the curriculum.” We need to situate curricula amid the wider social and global forces that influenced curriculum, he argued, to reveal the dynamic relationships among the many external influences, knowledge communities, and higher education institutions.

I would suggest that we have such a model, or at least the beginnings of one, in our midst. In Shaping the College Curriculum, my co-author, Joan Stark, and I argued that whether curriculum is understood at the course-level, the program-level or the institutional-level, a variety of internal and external contexts and factors strongly influence the shape of “academic plans.” At the course-level, for example, understandings of curricular content (what is learned) are influenced by interactions (peer-to-peer, student-to-instructor, student-to-texts) within the classroom. (Research provides convincing evidence that motivation, affect, interest, and quality of interactions are critical to intellectual engagement and learning – and these are subject to experiences both within and outside the classroom.)

At the program-level, curricula are shaped by missions, program goals, and resources, which in turn are subject to internal and external influences. For example, shifts in the current states of knowledge shape inquiry, and thus curricula, in any given discipline or field. Moreover, because disciplines are understood and practiced by individual faculty who must make their own sense of shifts in thinking and practice, what is manifested in curricula at the program level varies as experts determine how best to translate new ideas for novice students. Program curricula are further influenced by market forces that impact enrollments, and, in the case of the U.S., by standards of professional accreditation agencies that have the power to sanction or bless degree programs.

At the institutional-level, economic, political and social influences influence higher education curricula. For example, demographic changes compel higher education institutions in the U.S. to consider whether or how to instill a common body of knowledge among students of different social classes, cultures, and national origins. In developing and developed countries, interest in liberal education has grown as decreases in birthrates and increases in numbers of immigrants introduce diversity into traditionally homogeneous communities (Nussbaum, 2004). Historically, we can identify the effects of social movements, such as the civil rights and women’s movements in the U.S. (circa 1960s and 1970s), which spawned new areas of study and new forms of inquiry that challenged received views of knowledge and elbowed their way into the university curriculum. As the education of women is addressed in South Asia, new kinds of curricula are considered as ways to empower people to think critically about the cultural assumptions that have defined their social roles (Nussbaum, 2004).

Figure 1 presents the academic plan model that we forwarded in Shaping the College Curriculum. The diagram asserts that any academic plan (or curriculum) consists of seven elements – purposes, content, sequence, learners, instructional processes, instructional resources, and assessment/evaluation. In developing or revising a course or program, we make choices about these seven elements – sometimes intentionally, sometimes rationally, and sometimes unintentionally and irrationally.

The model also demonstrates the influences of internal and external factors that act on the plan. In effect, an academic plan is situated within a set of intersecting contexts that affect how it is developed, how it is enacted, and how it is experienced by instructors and students. The model thus serves as an analytical tool, directing us to examine various elements of a given curricula in a particular set of organizational, social, and cultural contexts to understand why is it configured in a specific way.

Figure 1: The Academic Plan

Source: Stark, J. and Lattuca, L. R. (1997). Shaping the College Curriculum: Academic Plans in Action. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

The academic plan model is a “small t” theory. It is not intended to predict or explain student learning; rather it serves as an analytical tool that directs attention to the many elements of a given curriculum, and the many influences on what students learn, how they learn it, and why they learn it. Once the complexity of the curriculum is depicted in this way, it becomes clear why Barnett, in imagining such an analytical framework, writes, “there can be no reason to believe that there will be any definite pattern of changes taking place in curricula” (p. 257).

For some time, I have been thinking about the sociocultural contexts in which schooling and learning take place and thinking about how to make these elements more prominent in my discussions of the academic plan (which is often reduced in people’s minds to the seven elements inside the circle). In this lecture I want to complicate this picture by focusing on a set of emerging theories of learning that I hope can be fruitfully grafted onto the academic plan to produce an analytic framework that takes seriously the influences of multiple contextual influences on curricula, and thus account more effectively for influences such as those proposed by Barnett.

The family of learning theories that I have in mind is often referred to as sociocultural theories. Although the individual theories in this family are distinguishable, they nonetheless bear strong resemblances. All define learning as a social interaction rather than simply as an act of individual cognition, and posit that learning is profoundly influenced by the sociohistorical times and places in which it occurs (thus connecting to the set of influences depicted on the left side of the academic plan model). Because sociocultural theories direct our attention toward the inevitable impacts of the many overlapping, and sometimes competing, contexts that shape the way we develop and deliver curricula in higher education, they have the potential to usefully expand the concept of the academic plan. The model already includes the idea that external (as well as internal) influences act on the plan.

But sociocultural theory also suggests that social, cultural, and historical influences act in the plan, as student and instructors bring their personal understandings to classrooms and programs. Grafting sociocultural theory onto the academic plan therefore generates an interesting question about where to put “learning” in the academic plan diagram. As currently constituted, the academic plan model portrays learners as an element within the educational environment (a course or program). Educational outcomes (learning) are a result of the plan. Does the model as currently configured mask this critical relationship between learners and learning outcomes?

Placing learners within the educational environment invites instructors and others involved in developing curricula to think in terms of specifics, for example, in terms of the role of individual characteristics, preferences, and cultural and social backgrounds in learning. Thinking about learners as individuals encourages us to consider how students may differently experience a curriculum that does or does not take account of who they are, why they are in higher education, and how their life experiences influence the sense they make of what they encounter in a curriculum.

Would we achieve the same effect if we move learning outcomes from outside the educational environment into the circle that depicts the setting in which learning takes place? To do so might make it clear that learning and learners are both subject to the influences of particular contexts and would graphically associate learning with learners. In keeping with sociocultural theory, the model would then conceptually acknowledge that contexts act in learning as well as on curricula.

And now we can see how we might engage Barnett’s question – what is the right analytical level for a model of curriculum and curriculum change? Should we move outcomes into the plan? What are the consequences for our understandings of curricula, learning, and curricular influences?

My goal for this lecture is think out loud about such questions with the participants of the CHEPS Summer School. This is more than an academic exercise; it is an opportunity to address questions about how curricula can fully engage individuals in acts of learning. This lecture represents a work-on-progress and I hope to benefit from the insights of those who are willing to think along with me, asking impertinent questions about our current understandings of curricula and learning, our current curricular arrangements, and about how we should analyze new configurations of influences and educational practices.


Barnett, R. (2000). Supercomplexity and the Curriculum. Studies in Higher Education, 25 (3): 255-265

Nussbaum, M. (2004). Liberal Education and the Global Community. Liberal Education, 90 (1): 42-47.

Stark. J.S. and Lattuca, L.R. (1997). Shaping the College Curriculum: Academic Plans in Action. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.