From K-12 programs to adult education environments, educators
engage in a continuous search for improved curriculum content
and delivery. Progress in communications technologies and educational
philosophies, together with explosively expanding knowledge bases,
requires that modern curricula be truly "complex adaptive
systems." Yet the complexity of any modern curriculum, coupled
with pressures for its timely adaptation to rapid changes in society
and in knowledge, makes curriculum transition a daunting task.
Historically, design of curricula in professional schools has
provided each student with exposure to units of circumscribed
knowledge, and experience with sets of specified procedures. Ordinarily,
"core knowledge" and "core procedures" in
each curriculum have been defined using mental models espoused
by professional leaders of the time. Professional curriculum transition
then generally has progressed by adding, modifying, and deleting
units of content and procedure until each iteration has created
its "new" professional curriculum.
As the twentieth century comes to an end, communications technologies
assure that learners no longer need to depend upon teachers for
access to information. Fresh educational philosophies suggest
that learners at every level may legitimately bring their own
contributions of information and experience to the educational
table. Traditionally passive learning roles become active; learners
seek validation of their individuality. Professional education,
still largely driven by an "expert" pedagogical model,
searches for curriculum transitions which can rationalize these
Options or Obligations
This paper ponders the idea of learner-focused - not expert-driven - curriculum transitions. It proposes that "next-generation" successes in professional curriculum change will arise more from student-teacher collaboration, and "scaffolding" that supports learning options. Today's "expert" restructuring and recycling of learning obligations will retreat to a minor role. To achieve a viable approach of this nature, however, those who teach must come to see creation of diverse "educational ecologies" as more productive and enduring than are traditional selection, delivery, and "coverage" of information.
If the idea of a fully nurturing educational ecology - a world
of interactive educational systems which assure prosperity of
learners as a "species" - is to be realized, we
must better understand evolution of learners whose "organismal"
prosperity we seek. Educational practices still "evolve"
largely through age-defined units - for professionals, this process
requires career-long continuing study. Today, initial stages of
this learning sequence increasingly provide ecologies of participation
and knowledge construction. Post-secondary, including professional,
stages remain largely expert-directed, gradient-dependent, passive/absorptive
This paper is concerned with the future of professional education,
and ways to guide choices which effectively adapt content and
process for future professional curricula. Every educational environment
encounters cycles of adaptation, as changing societal needs demand
new capabilities from those emerging from particular educational
experiences. However, professional preparation is perhaps unique
among educational targets of societal demands, since products
of professional education are so specifically defined by their
societal roles, and by expectations society has of them. At the
same time, there is deep specialization in professional education.
This often leads those guiding that education to see decisions
about curriculum more as derivatives of expertise, and less as
responses to societal expectations.
For example, a major tension in American medical education in
recent times has been the debate over generalist versus specialist
curricula. Social pressures have encouraged expansion of generalist
or family practice curricula, while medical educators, most often
specialists themselves, have rightly valued and regularly defended
specialty curricula. Two solutions have been found - the first
being governmental encouragement of family practice options, through
legislative and financial investments and incentives for medical
colleges and students. The second is the establishment, within
the medical profession, of family practice as a recognized medical
specialty. Those who employ a systems perspective will see - wrapped
in this medical education microcosm - themes of integration-vs-fragmentation,
synthesis-vs-reduction, and ultimately a partially equilibrated
Products of Professional Education
From a societal point of view, the identity of a professional person is tightly coupled to specific expectations of service. This means that professional education, to retain public support, must produce individuals who meet expectations. Yet society can only define the ends it expects. Educators in the professions reserve the expertise to define the means - content and process of a curriculum - by which service to those ends will be achieved. In part, transitions in professional curricula are seen as successful when they resolve tensions between external (societal) constituencies, and internal (expert) constituencies.
It is perhaps of interest to note that the constituency of professional students, those most immediately impacted by transition in their curricula, rarely participate in or influence curriculum debate in any significant way.
Professional education creates quality "products" by
implementing two critical agendas. One is selection; the other
is curriculum. The approach, simply, is first to identify "raw
material" which shows optimally suitable pre-professional
attributes. Secondly, curricular information and experiences are
applied to mold this material into the desired final professional
product. Structurally and operationally, both
of these processes have been and remain fundamentally linear.
Their logistics rarely encourage recursive behavior of people
It is instructive to think about the nature of these events from
a systems perspective. Both selection processes and curriculum
designs are amalgams of fragmenting and integrating decisions.
Systems thinking may offer its primary merit by promoting a preponderance
of integrating over fragmenting decisions. If this is so, then
"futuring" about professional education through systems
thinking can help us approach these two critical professional
agendas in a more creative manner.
Knowledge - Declarative and Procedural
Professional education is facts and acts - the essentials
of theory and practice relevant to currently accepted standards
of competency in a given profession. More formally, professional
knowledge is both declarative - articulating a requisite
information content - and procedural - demonstrating appropriate
technical capabilities, at appropriate levels of performance.
Agendas for selection and curriculum are governed by these
contrasting and cooperating models of professional knowledge.
Consider a student's successful entry into a professional educational
process, and subsequent successful completion of it. These events
are profoundly dependent upon student performance that minimizes
dissonance between the student's mental models, and those of educators
who define declarative and procedural knowledge for the profession.
Currently, this can realistically be described as a process in
which students largely follow default paths toward security and
survival - a somewhat ecological construct.
It is appropriate to ask, from a systems thinking perspective:
How does this affect maturity and complexity of the student as
a "system-within-the-learning-system ?" How does this
shape the professional product which emerges from the learning
system ? It is likely that these questions will only be properly
addressed by a systems thinking perspective.
Fashionable "New" Science:
In the field of physical science, discoveries of the twentieth century have brought us theory of complex systems, ideas of deterministic chaos, and concepts of system self-organization. Among these ideas, there appears to be some agreement that complex systems in general will progress, prosper, and endure to the degree that they can sustain their energy in spite of adaptation toward increasing complexity. This means that certain systems will not tend toward equilibrium and entropy, but rather will dissipate a share of entropy to other systems, thus sustaining their energy, complexity, and "far-from-equilibrium" status.
If this is so, then we should wonder about the nurturing of suitable
professional "complexity" - that productive combination
of maturity and competence - if our educational environments actually
encourage students to adapt toward the secure and the simplified.
Could it be that these students are actually "systems"
into which a share of professional entropy is conveniently dissipated
? Can systems thinkers shed light on this question ?
Since the beginning of the twentieth century, educators such as John Dewey and others have argued for consideration of learning process and environment as a complete ecology. This metaphor draws together ideas of system interactions, system health and integrity, and distribution of energy. It is a ready linkage to see curriculum as a determinant of educational ecosystem interactions, integrity, and energy sharing. Further, as a curriculum moves into transition and change, it soon also becomes a result of these same system behaviors. Finally, modern day approaches to the understanding of ecosystems are profoundly supported by suitable modeling techniques. Systems thinkers will see the opportunity awaiting those who choose to examine educational ecosystems, including those professional in nature, in this light.
To Inform or to Appeal ?
Post-secondary education in general, and professional education
in particular, orchestrate expert-directed, linear learning systems.
Firmly established logistics, and the isolation of competition,
assure that students are largely processed by, rather than
fully participate in, their education. Shortly, generations
of new professional students will appear, whose early education
has been dominantly shaped by collaboration, self-driven information
access, and independent, recursive learning through technology.
Their arrival must be preceded by rational curriculum transitions
which prepare commensurate and responsive professional learning
ecologies for them.
This paper presumes no special wisdom that might inform about
these issues. Rather, as an appeal, it calls attention to a unique
opportunity, and truly the practical necessity, for applying systems
thinking to these professional educational concerns. Those currently
in charge of professional education, with all due respect, have
mastered and generally advocate linear learning models. More bluntly,
as written elsewhere, the "enemy is us." The new and
evolving ecology of early educational options allows freedom
for capabilities and expectations of learners to "self-organize."
If adaptation to a rigid ecology of professional educational obligations
then becomes necessary, it simply wastes energy which could contribute
to learning.. One must ask, then, from the student's point of
view, does the entropy of today's professional education come,
or does it go ? Perhaps some good systems models, assembled by
some good system thinkers, can help us understand.
An annotated bibliography for this paper (and its expanded counterpart
found in the virtual proceedings) may be obtained at SD97, or
by request to the email address above.
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