Category Archives: curriculum

Logical absurdity of the concept of alignment of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment

Bertrand Russell famously wrote that

“The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd; indeed in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible” (Marriage and Morals, 1929).

His remark applies to so many situations and long standing practices, especially in the literature about education. A case in point is the oft repeated contention in Queensland (where I live these days) that “research shows” that there needs to be an alignment of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment in order for effective education to occur.  Queensland Education curriculum documents, school documents and even university course descriptions make this assertion and attribute it to Dr. Allan Luke, former Dean of Education at Queensland University, former Deputy Director General of Education for Queensland, and currently Emeritus Professor at Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane.

The assertion that there must be an alignment of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment is a classical case of Chinese Whispers.  It is a misquote and a distortion of what Allan Luke said in an opinion piece (some writers have claimed that it is a research report; it is not a research report!) that he wrote in 1999 (Allan Luke [1999], “Education 2010 and new times: Why equity and social justice still matter, but differently,” a paper presented to the Education Queensland Online Conference, 20 October 1999).

People notoriously misquote the character Rick in the movie Casablanca  (1942). They say that Rick said, “Play it again, Sam.” But Rick never uttered these words (watch the movie!). People misquote the character Harry Callahan in the movie Dirty Harry (1971). They say that Harry said, “Are you feeling lucky, Punk?” But Harry never uttered those words (watch the movie!). People commonly attribute the statement, “Let them eat cake,” to the unfortunate French queen, Marie Antoinette (guillotined in 1793 just short of her 38th birthday). Yet, there is no reliable historical record that verifies she ever uttered or wrote those words (read the historical record!).

As it is with Rick and Harry and Marie Antoinette, so it is with Professor Allan Luke.  People say that he wrote and uttered the words, “curriculum, pedagogy and assessment must be aligned for effective education,” but he never did (read his paper, Allan Luke, [1999], “Education 2010 and new times, Why equity and social justice still matter, but differently,” Education Queensland Online Conference, pp.1-14.

Here is one (there are many) example of a misquote and misinterpretation of Professor Allan Luke:

“Dr Allan Luke, Professor of Education at Queensland University of Technology, argues that the three key elements of education i.e. curriculum, pedagogy and assessment, must be aligned for effective education. Otherwise, there is dysfunction. Further, he argues that if there is dysfunction in one area it spreads to the others, and unless there is full alignment of these systems, reform efforts will be hard to sell to practitioners.” Quoted from John Craig (2007), “Curriculum Synchronicity: Alignment, Improvement and Accountablity,” Australian Council for Educational Leaders (ACEL), October 2007, available at http://www.acel.or.au/conf07/papers/CurriculumSynchronicity.

The author of the misquote is John Craig, one time principal of Blacktown Boys High School (NSW) and Kingsgrove North High School (NSW), a  member of the NSW Principals Council Strategic Futures Group, Executive Team Leader Quality Assurance NSW Department of Education and Training, and Director of Human Resources, Newington College. As a principal, Craig led Blacktown BHS to two Director General’s Awards for curriculum and pastoral care (Craig, 2007).

The truth of the matter is that Allan Luke did not write that “curriculum, pedagogy and assessment must be aligned for effective education.” Read his paper (Luke, 1999)!

Michele Bruniges did a better job of quoting and interpreting Luke’s remarks from his 1999 paper in her presentation to the Curriculum Corporation Conference in Brisbane in June 2005 (Michele Bruniges [June, 2005], “What’s driving curriculum reform in Australia?” a paper delivered to the Curriculum Corporation Conference, Brisbane, June 2005, available at http://www.curriculum.edu.au/verve/_resources/Bruniges_edited.pdf.

“Alan [sic] Luke argues that effective education reform requires alignment of the three key message systems that exist in education – curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. Unless these systems are fully aligned, reform efforts will be hard to sell to practitioners on the one hand, and will be dysfunctional on the other” (Bruniges, 2005).

The most important phrase in the Bruniges quote is “key message systems.”

What Luke wrote about the alignment of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment was

The three message systems – curriculum, pedagogy, assessment – need to be brought into proper alignment for us to get desired educational results and outcomes (Allan Luke, [1999], “Education 2010 and new times, Why equity and social justice still matter, but differently,” Education Queensland Online Conference, p. 4).

A message system is a system of discourse. It is a way of writing (and talking) about a set of entities or a state of affairs. Luke was arguing for coherency and consistency in

  1. the DISCOURSE (“the message systems”) about curriculum,
  2. the DISCOURSE about pedagogy and
  3. the DISCOURSE about assessment.

This makes good sense. The written and spoken discourse about curriculum, pedagogy and assessment is frequently very messy, sloppy, ambiguous, conflated and nonsensical. For people engaged in the day to day task of guiding students in learning something worthwhile, badly written documents urging reform make little sense, offer unsound guidance and present useless distractions from the main game of teaching, studying and learning. It is common sense that documents that purport to be about curriculum, pedagogy and assessment should be using the same terms to talk about the same things in plain language. The language of the documents should be clear, simple and easy to read. The language should be noncontradictory. It should not conflate categories. It should make sense. This is the main message in Luke’s paper (Luke, 1999) with regard to curriculum, pedagogy and assessment. The discourse about them should be clear, consistent and sensible.

But Michele Bruniges moves from that message, i.e. discourse should be clear, unconflated and noncontradictory about curriculum, pedagogy and assessment, to the argument for “aligning assessment and curriculum.” She writes:

“Luke’s argument for alignment [of discourse] is a powerful one. If Australia is to achieve equitable, farreaching high-quality educational standards for all students, just as curriculum is reformed, so too must be the forms of assessment with which it is coupled. A key principle in aligning assessment and curriculum is that the assessment strategy selected must be appropriate to what it purports to measure or describe. The strategy needs to encompass a diagnostic capacity to inform further teacher and learning.”

This is a shift in argument from coherency in the discourse about curriculum, pedagogy and assessment to an argument for logical coherency among the components of a curriculum. And I wish to note that a plan for assessment is not outside of an adequately planned curriculum. On the contrary, it is a necessary component of curriculum. And of course the plan for assessment should be logically coherent with all the other components of the curriculum, e.g. there necessarily must be coherency among

  • the statement of intended learning outcomes,
  • the statement of teaching and study activities,
  • the description of teaching and studying resources,
  • the description of content to be taught and studied,
  • the description of evaluation procedures (including the assessment procedures) for judging the degree to which students achieve intended learning outcomes.

Again, this is common sense. Who would argue for an incomplete, incoherent, contradictory, nonsensical curriculum?

And yet, the call for “an alignment of curriculum, pedagogy and assessment” is incoherent, contradictory and nonsensical. A curriculum is a plan for the teaching and studying of some content with the intention that the students achieve some new degree of knowing, understanding, expertise, improvement of attitudes and embracing of sound values.

A curriculum is a plan that provides the basis for a syllabus (or a set of syllabi). A syllabus is a plan that provides the basis for an instructional unit plan (or a set of unit plans). And an instructional unit plan provides the basis for a set of daily lesson plans. In other words, lesson plans are subsets of a unit plan. Unit plans are subsets of a syllabus. Syllabi are subsets of a curriculum.

The term pedagogy malfunctions in the English language. It is sometimes used to name the process of teaching, and it is sometimes used to name knowledge (warranted assertions) about the process of teaching. Let’s focus on the first common usage meaning of the term pedagogy, viz. the process of teaching. Teaching includes all methods, approaches, strategies and social styles that a person might use in the process of guiding someone to learn something.

The term assessment of learning denotes the process of gathering evidence of a student’s learning. The evidence of learning is the evaluatum. An evaluatum is the thing that is being evaluated, i.e. the thing about which a value judgment is to be made. Assessment is the process of gathering or producing an evaluatum. The evaluatum may be (1) a performance by a student or (2) the product of a performance by a student. The assessment process provides the student the opportunity (1) to display a cognitive performance or (2) to present the product of a cognitive performance.

Assessment is a part of the evaluation process. The evaluation of a student’s learning is the process of making a value judgment about the degree to which someone (a student) has achieved some intended level of knowing, understanding or expertise. The evaluation process is a process of reasoning that includes these steps:

  1. Adoption of a standard or set of standards for evaluating (ranking or grading) the evaluatum.
  2. Operational clarification of the standards. This consists in a set of statements to the effect that if an object O has characteristics C, it fulfills a certain standard S to a certain degree D; that if O has characterisics C’, it fulfills S to a greater (lesser) degree D’; etc.
  3. Specification of the class of comparison.
  4. Determining the good-making and bad-making characteristics of the evaluatum. (In the case of value rankings this would ideally be done for every member of the class or comparison.)
  5. Deducing, from 2 and 4, the degree to which the evaluatum on the whole fulfills or fails to fulfill the standards. (In the case of value rankings this would ideally be done for every member of the class of comparison. The members would then be ranked in order according to the varying degrees to which they fulfilled or failed to fulfill the standards.) [Points 1-5 are quoted from Paul T. Taylor (1961): Normative Discourse. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, Publishers, pp. 9-10.]

An adequate curriculum includes plans for evaluation of student achievement that are consistent with the other components of the curriculum. To assert that assessment must be aligned with curriculum, is to say something like the part of the curriculum that makes plans for assessment must be aligned (logically coherent) with plans for assessment. Plans for assessment must be aligned with plans for assessment? What kind of tautological nonsense is that?

To make this clear, let’s make some word substitution in the statement,

“Curriculum, pedagogy and assessment must be aligned for effective education.”

  1. Let the term curriculum mean the same as plans for teaching and studying some content with some intended learning outcomes in mind and plans for evaluating student achievement of intended learning outcomes.
  2. Let the term pedagogy mean plans for teaching.
  3. Let the term assessment mean plans for gathering evidence of student achievement of intended learning outcomes.
  4. Let the term aligned mean logically coherent
  5. Let the term effective education mean teaching and studying that leads to student achievement of intended learning outcomes.

Now, make the term substitutions in the original statement,

“Curriculum, pedagogy and assessment must be aligned for effective education.”

The first term substitution produces the statement,

“[Plans for teaching and studying some content with some intended learning outcomes in mind and plans for evaluating student achievement of intended learning outcomes], pedagogy and assessment must be aligned for effective education.”

The second term substitution produces the statement,

“[Plans for teaching and studying some content with some intended learning outcomes in mind and plans for evaluating student achievement of intended learning outcomes], [plans for teaching] and assessment must be aligned for effective education.”

The third term substitution produces the statement,

“[Plans for teaching and studying some content with some intended learning outcomes in mind and plans for evaluating student achievement of intended learning outcomes], [plans for teaching] and [plans for gathering evidence of student achievement of intended learning outcomes] must be aligned for effective education.”

The fourth term substitution produces the statement,

“[Plans for teaching and studying some content with some intended learning outcomes in mind and plans for evaluating student achievement of intended learning outcomes], [plans for teaching] and [plans for gathering evidence of student achievement of intended learning outcomes] must be [logically coherent] for effective education.”

The fifth term substitution produces the statement,

“[Plans for teaching and studying some content with some intended learning outcomes in mind and plans for evaluating student achievement of intended learning outcomes], [plans for teaching] and [plans for gathering evidence of student achievement of intended learning outcomes] must be [logically coherent] for [teaching and studying that leads to student achievement of intended learning outcomes].”

The point of these term substitutions is to demonstrate that the statement,

“Curriculum, pedagogy and assessment must be aligned for effective education,”

is tautological nonsense. It amounts to saying that a plan for C (which already necessarily includes A and B) should include A and B. This is not a useful admonition or guideline for anything, and it certainly is not based on any kind of research.

It would be far more fruitful to say simply that a coherent curriculum plan probably improves the chances for education to be effective. A coherent curriculum plan is certainly necessary for accountability and for rational allocation of resources and effort. If we don’t know what we want to achieve in an educational program, then we have no basis for allocating resources and effort to achieve it. And if we do know clearly what we want to achieve in an educational program, then we need some clear publicly verifiable evidence of our achievement. Otherwise we have no system of accountability and no clear way of knowing whether we are acting wisely and responsibly in allocation of resources and effort.

Back to the statement,

“Curriculum, pedagogy and assessment must be aligned for effective education.”

It just doesn’t make any sense, unless you conceive the term curriculum so narrowly that a curriculum plan excludes plans for teaching activities and plans for assessment and evaluation of students’ achievement of intended learning outcomes. But what sensible teacher or educologist of curriculum would conceive the term curriculum so narrowly?

Yet the statement,

“Curriculum, pedagogy and assessment must be aligned for effective education”

is seemingly etched in stone in Education Queensland curriculum documents, educological publications and university curriculum courses (in Queensland). It is solemnly repeated as received truth and wisdom, even though it is such a silly and patently foolish statement.

Thus, I end in the way I began, with the quote from Bertrand Russell.

“The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd; indeed in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible” (Marriage and Morals, 1929).