Your Content is Not Your Curriculum

We need to provide content to help learners build new skills and impact performance. But when content becomes the focus of a curriculum, learners are not prepared to perform. Providing a curriculum based on content is like providing a dictionary and expecting learners to write a poem.

You may be especially challenged to move away from a content focus if you work in a culture where the mental model for a curriculum equals “cover the content.”

Owners of one curriculum I redesigned originally had the cover-the-content mindset. New hire call center employees were exposed serially to content on product, content on customer service, and content on systems. Integration and practice were not performance-specific and accounted for only about 10% of the total training time. Like any large project, this curriculum had many stakeholders who had a vested interest in their content, and frequent changes to products and systems meant that keeping these content areas separate made updates easier to manage.

Ease of management, while important, is not our main goal.

Here are a few of the rules that we adopted to successfully move the focus to performance. The rule set required a robust, data-focused performance analysis to help the team make good choices in each category.

  • Focus on the critical few. One of the best ways to use time across a curriculum is to eliminate content that not specifically linked to performance. (See The Curriculum What Questions.) If you begin to look at your content through a performance lens, you may find that some of the content supports performances that are used less often, that have fewer high-stakes consequences, that are used by only some members of the target audience, that promote alternative ways to accomplish the same work, that provide unnecessary context or detail, and/or that should only be addressed after certain other performances are mastered.
  • Differentiate curriculum assets. “One size fits all” is a sloppy fit for clothing, not advisable for courses, and a disaster for a curriculum. Determine which content and experiences are appropriate for each sub-audience based on the work that they do and only require those experiences.
  • Diagnose and prescribe individual learning pathways so that learners only experience what they need. Curricula usually have many learners, and they may enter with different skill sets or differing levels of underlying domain knowledge. If you are creating a curriculum, why would you only create one critical path for all learners? And as a corollary to this, provide opportunities for remediation or extra support for learners who need it—don’t put this additional experience on the critical pathway for everyone. One implication of this is that testing must occur throughout the curriculum in order to ensure mastery has occurred and also to find the best fit experience for each learner.
  • Differentiate practice and interaction. During the delivery of a curriculum, it’s important to keep learners focused and engaged, but it’s important that most of the interaction contributions to skill development proficiency. Engaging activities that help pass the time without adding value need to be eliminated. (See The Practice Dilemma.)
  • Integrate the expected final performance as part of the curriculum experience. Make sure learners have the opportunity to practice and get feedback using all of the pieces together. University curricula often use a practicum or an internship for this purpose. In organizations, there is often a period with coaching, mentoring, or some other transfer support to ensure appropriate application to the job with a bit of a safety net. In organizations where curricula have a variety of stakeholders who own pieces, it can be a challenge to negotiate this culminating experience.

What I’ve learned through experience is that there are many reasons curriculum owners focus on content, but a content focus always comes at the price of the desired performance.

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