Education Knowledge

Posted April 1997

A Participatory Approach to Curriculum Development

by L. Van Crowder
Agricultural Education Officer
Extension, Education and Communication Service (SDRE)
FAO Research, Extension and Training Division
See also "Participatory curriculum development in practice: An experience at the Eastern Caribbean Institute for Agriculture and Forestry in Trinidad and Tobago".


Participants at the 1991 FAO Expert Consultation on agricultural education observed that major new developments in world agriculture, advances in science and technology and changes in population and society require the "integration of academic learning and development tasks". It was recommended that institutional approaches to decision making incorporate "a more participatory approach to the planning process" and that "feedback from the curriculum review and revision offers an effective way of keeping research and teaching relevant and interesting".

It seems clear that agricultural education institutions need to foster their relationship to the development process through the integration of academic scholarship with development tasks, including national but especially local development tasks. The implication is that a wide range of stakeholders in local development should participate in the curriculum development process -- that curriculum development can be an important mechanism for integrating teaching and learning with local (and national) development needs and concerns.

Curriculum development: an overview

The term "curriculum" is generally understood as the courses or programmes of study offered by an educational institution. The concept of "curriculum" is best understood, however, from the Latin root of the word which is "currere", or "to run" as in to run a race course. To use an analogy, curriculum means the course (or path) that students have to run to finish the "race" -- or put another way, all the activities which students need do if they are to finish a programme of study and achieve the intended learning goals. Curriculum is more than just a body of knowledge, a list of subjects to be studied, or a syllabus -- it is all the planned experiences which learners may be exposed to in order to achieve the learning goals.

A major influence on a curriculum is the philosophical framework, or educational ideology, which is adopted during the curriculum development process itself. Two contrasting frameworks, or models, of curriculum development are the "classical" model and the "participatory" model. The classical model has also been referred to as the "rational" approach while the participatory model has been described as the "interactive" approach.

The classical/rational approach to curriculum development follows an "objectivist", product-oriented paradigm. The aims and objectives of the curriculum are set by professionals and experts who believe that they have sufficient technical knowledge to produce the desired product. It assumes that there is agreement by all interested groups (teachers, students, communities, employers) on common educational goals and, therefore, dialogue and consensus building among groups are not required.

The participatory/interactive approach follows a "subjectivist", process-oriented paradigm. It puts emphasis on participation and interaction among the various interested groups or educational stakeholders. This includes the learners themselves who are seen as having an important role to play in curriculum formulation. The goal is to stimulate different actors to participate in a dynamic, interactive process that allows their perceptions of the "ideal curriculum" to be made explicit and then made compatible and/or modified as necessary to produce the curriculum. Although there are distinct philosophical differences between the two curriculum models or approaches, they are not complete opposites and curriculum planning may include elements of both.

A complex combination of both internal, or institutional, demands and external, or societal, demands can influence the curriculum development process. Internal demands relate to the educational community itself -- management, teaching staff, students, governing boards or ministries. The claims they make have to do with teaching, learning, research and outreach tasks, and specifically with finances, materials, rewards, qualifications and professionalism. External demands relate to the manpower needs of the agricultural sector, for example, and the claims on education articulated by various interest groups such as employers, families and communities.

The mission, goals, objectives and curriculum of an agricultural education institution will be influenced by external and internal demands. These demands are ongoing, often in flux and may be in conflict with each other and with the educational mission or responsibility the institution perceives for itself.

Recently, two trends, which appear to be polar opposites, have had an influence on the curriculum development process -- globalization, or internationalization, of the curriculum and localization of the curriculum. The internationalization of education (and thus the curriculum) reflects the current processes of economic and political integration (the "global economy"). Increasingly, teachers, researchers and students work and communicate in an international context, a trend facilitated by various types of linkage arrangements among educational institutions and by telecommunication networks such as the Internet.

At the same time, there is a trend towards localization, or decentralization, of education and curricula. Institutions, staff and local communities, rather than national educational boards, are assuming more responsibility for developing curricula. This is the result of wider acceptance of the participatory/interactive approach to curriculum development, and of recognition that institutions, staff and communities which feel they have an active role in the curriculum development process are more committed to achieving its success.

Towards a new approach to curriculum development

Critical reflection on curriculum development draws attention to the nexus between curriculum and sustainable agricultural and rural development. The current curriculum at many agricultural education institutions is based on a high-input, fossil-fuel intensive agricultural production model. It is structured into discrete disciplines which tend to focus on large-scale, single-crop agricultural production systems designed to dominate the environment. Little attention is paid to an interdisciplinary, farming systems perspective or to resource-conserving technologies and practices; small farm, polyculture systems and their sustainable production needs are often ignored.

Education systems that can prepare students to understand the complexity of agro-ecological systems and to contribute to sustainable agricultural production will require a new approach to curriculum development -- one that incorporates farmers, agribusiness people, consumers, policy makers along with educational managers, teachers and students as part of a curriculum design team. It will require broadening the curriculum to include knowledge, skills and attitudes about the socio-economic and political factors of agricultural production as well as the biological and ecological factors. As observed at the 1991 FAO Expert Consultation: "A holistic approach needs to be applied when integrating the concept of sustainable development into the it has a multidimensional scope related not only to technological concerns, but also to economic, social, cultural, ecological, and public policy matters".

Based on the above considerations, it is possible to outline in general terms the characteristics of a new approach to curriculum development. The new approach recognizes that there are philosophical frameworks and internal and external demands that influence the curriculum development process. It attempts to define the prevailing framework and identify the demands in order to be cognizant of their impact on the process. Consistency is sought between internal and external demands in the final product.

Participatory approach

It emphasizes a participatory mode of action based on an inventory of stakeholder groups and the nature of their interests, and in an interactive manner elicits their input to the curriculum (e.g., through interviews, consultations, post-hoc evaluations). This process can be guided by outside curriculum development "experts" or staff internal to the educational institution. It recognizes the need for concrete participation by curriculum stakeholders and makes provisions for their ongoing involvement in curriculum innovation. It also recognizes the key role of teaching staff and the need to develop their skills to carry out curriculum development and to evaluate/monitor the outcomes.

Systematic approach

It follows a systematic planning approach and structure for decision making and action as well as a logical sequencing of curriculum development phases without being rigid. This includes the systematic sharing of knowledge and information among stakeholder groups. It also includes the preparation by the curriculum development team of an action plan for managing the curriculum process which identifies the human and financial resources available and needed to carry out the plan.

Relevant to local/regional development

Localization of the curriculum is a trend juxtaposed with the trend towards globalization. In terms of incorporating agroecology and sustainability into the curriculum, this means studying agricultural systems at different levels complexity -- on-farm biological interactions, farm families and communities, watersheds and ecosystems and broader socio-economic and environmental systems, including global ones. It also means "inserting" local and regional development problems into the curriculum in practical ways.

Curriculum-led change

Finally, a new approach to curriculum development is change-oriented in that it introduces changes that have implications for institutions, for teachers and learners and for a wide range of external "clients". The curriculum is not a fixed product but a dynamic process -- it is an ongoing process that responds to changes in society and to changes in the educational institution itself.

Problems can arise in implementing change -- for example, opposition from certain groups and the lack of skills, knowledge and resources needed for change to take place. Changing the curriculum inevitably brings changes to the institution, and these changes require careful management. Curriculum innovation requires a pro-active institution that adopts and supports a policy of continuous improvement.

The tasks and challenges for developing curricula that address the problems of sustainable agricultural and rural development are great. Moving forward will require a new shared vision by teachers, managers, decision makers, students and other stakeholders of how to design agricultural education for the 21st century. As a first step, we should recognize that we cannot afford to continue to educate students with the curricula and methods of the past.

To help agricultural education institutions in developing countries prepare curricula following a participatory methodology, the FAO Extension, Education and Communication Service, in collaboration with Education for Development, a non-governmental organization in the United Kingdom, is preparing a participatory curriculum development (PCD) manual. The manual demonstrates the PCD approach and provides a methodology and procedures for institutions to identify, beyond the teachers and learners, the stakeholders who are most interested in a particular learning programme.

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