This is the third post in a series looking at the ideas and processes we take for granted in a mainstream physiotherapy curriculum. In the first post I looked at the background behind a decision to form a new kind of physiotherapy school, and then wrote a second post questioning the assumption that there is an inherent value in the things we ask students to do. In this post I wonder if modules are the best we can do when it comes to configuring the basic unit of a curriculum.
Q: You made a decision early on that there wouldn’t be any modules at altPhysio. Tell us a little more about the thinking behind that decision.
Modules exist in a curriculum so that we can divide complex ideas into something more manageable and because the curriculum needs discrete units around which learning activities can aggregate. For the most part, those units are the modules that we use to aggregate other things like lectures, textbooks, assignments and tests. We like to think that modules are neat collections of related concepts that are combined with each other, forming foundations upon which other modules can build. The reality is that modules are somewhat arbitrary divisions of complex concepts into increasingly smaller and simpler ideas.
Modules are the organising principle of a curriculum, used to link related concepts, around which teaching and learning activities are aggregated.
The problem with modules is that we spend 4 years teaching students which blocks the concepts fit into and assessing them within the constraints of those basic conceptual divisions. Tests and assignments are given within the context of a module and it’s actually quite difficult to give learning activities that cross modular boundaries. After students are comfortable with pigeon-holing ideas into neat boxes we ask them to integrate the concepts from different modules as part of clinical practice, another separate module. How does it make sense to break complex ideas into discrete units and then expect students to put it all back together again, often by themselves?
Q: OK, so no modules at altPhysio. What about a PBL approach?
In a PBL curriculum the clinical problem is the organising principle, rather than the module. The concern with the kinds of problems found in PBL curricula is that the problems are not complex enough to model real world clinical situations, and they don’t run over long enough periods for students to get sufficiently engaged. Another concern is that the problems are often decontextalised from the situations in which knowledge gained is to be applied.
We knew that knowledge must be constructed in the same contexts in which it is to be used, but our classroom activities were so contextually disconnected from how we expected students to practice that they were effectively useless. How often have you heard clinicians and teachers complain that students have trouble transferring knowledge learned in the classroom context to the clinical context?
If we want students to solve difficult problems in the real world, they must be trained by solving difficult problems in the real world. A module-based curriculum – and to a certain extent, a problem-based curriculum – doesn’t create enough space for sufficiently complex tasks to be designed.
Trying to design an authentic learning task that is sufficiently complex to model a real world phenomenon, within the constraints of a single module is difficult. It’s possible to do it within a PBL context but also unsatisfactory. We wanted to take a systems approach to designing the kinds of problems we wanted our students to solve, which we think more accurately describes real world clinical problems. When we started looking at relatively large-scale Projects as the organising principle in a curriculum, we found that it gave us the space we needed to build activities that would help students develop the characteristics we say are important.
Q: Tell us what a Project looks like. Where do they come from?
We work closely with clinicians from a variety of contexts who provide us with the basic framework for all of the Projects in our curriculum. They submit Contexts from their clinical experiences according to a framework that we provide for them. Any situations in their contexts that meet the boundary conditions that we set, can be included in the curriculum. A Project involves students working together in groups to achieve complex objectives, none of which are possible for students to complete on their own.
Our Projects usually run over 3-12 months and involve a variety of activities, which may include short lectures, research, practical sessions, field trips, virtual and augmented reality simulations, and interaction with qualified professionals in online and face-to-face environments.
Some Projects run over multiple year levels too, so students can begin a Project in their first year and only complete it in their second year. This is especially useful when Projects grow in complexity in real time – because the real world is dynamic – and are extended beyond their original lifespan.
Most of our Projects are also inter-disciplinary because any sufficiently complex real world problem cannot be addressed by any single discipline. We get special input from people in a variety of different domains, including engineers, artists, horticulturalists…you name it we get them to come and spend time with students on their Projects. We want our students working on real world problems from day one in the programme, with input from a diverse range of the kinds of people they’ll be expected to work with when they graduate.
Q: You mentioned the boundary conditions that Projects need to satisfy before you’ll take them on as part of the curriculum. What are those conditions?
We use Authentic learning – based on Situated cognition – as a framework to determine the basic structure of a Project. The framework is a way of thinking about task design so as to increase the probability of developing within students the competencies we want. Authentic tasks should meet the following criteria:
- Real-world relevance: Activities match as nearly as possible the real-world tasks of professionals in practice rather than decontextualized or classroom-based tasks.
- Ill-defined: Activities require students to define the tasks and sub-tasks needed to complete the activity.
- Complex, sustained tasks: Activities are completed in days, weeks, and months rather than minutes or hours. They require significant investment of time and intellectual resources.
- Multiple perspectives: Provides the opportunity for students to examine the task from different perspectives using a variety of resources, and separate relevant from irrelevant information.
- Collaborative: Collaboration is integral and required for task completion.
- Value laden: Provide the opportunity to reflect and involve students’ beliefs and values.
- Interdisciplinary: Activities encourage interdisciplinary perspectives and enable learners to play diverse roles and build expertise that is applicable beyond a single well-defined field or domain.
- Authentically assessed: Assessment is seamlessly integrated with learning in a manner that reflects how quality is judged in the real world.
- Authentic products: Authentic activities create polished products valuable in their own right rather than as preparation for something else.
- Multiple possible outcomes: Activities allow a range and diversity of outcomes open to multiple solutions of an original nature, rather than a single correct response obtained by the application of predefined rules and procedures.
If the Context submitted by clinicians meet the majority of these criteria, or if we see the potential to modify the Context enough that we can create a Project, we accept it into our workflow. Then we work with a variety of colleagues from different professions to refine the Projects over the course of 6-12 months. During this period we design the Project so that we can use it to accurately describe the kinds of competencies that we expect students will be able to develop while working in the Project. After that we incorporate the Project into the curriculum where they become another unit that students can sign up for.
Q: What do you mean when you say that students can sign up for Projects?
We don’t tell students what Projects to complete and allow them to choose from the full range of Projects available in that year level. Students know that they have a set number of competencies that need to be acquired in order to progress in the programme, and they know which competencies are integrated into which Projects. They make choices about the Projects they want to work on, based on which competencies they know they need to develop, as well as other factors that go into their decision making.
For example, consider a student who is going through some personal struggles; maybe a situation where someone close to them is ill. For that period they may choose a relatively low level Project that has a short duration. They know that the competencies developed in the Project will be fewer and maybe at a lower level than for other Projects, but this is OK because it buys them time to spend with their sick relative. In addition, since we don’t really have a timetable at altPhysio, students are able to organise their days and weeks in ways that give them space to focus on their personal lives, while at the same time continuing to work through the curriculum, albeit in a much less pressured environment.
The way that we’ve conceived of Projects gives us a level of flexibility and pedagogical range that we found impossible to achieve with modules or PBL. It means that we can have students working on complex, real world problems from day one. It means that at no point in the programme do we have to ask them to integrate concepts contained separately in different modules. Completing a Project at altPhysio requires that students think and behave like the professionals we say we want to develop.