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Pedagogy of Adult Education 2: Curriculum Negotiation

August 19, 2013

The importance of making full use of students’ experience and ensuring effective expression of their aims, intentions and ambitions is recognised by many adult educators. This hasn’t led, in the main however, to a model of the ‘self directed learner’ facilitated by the tutor. Rather approaches have been developed that draw out and enable students to reflect upon their aims and pursue them within a framework of knowledge and skills provided by the tutor and/or the educational provider. When working well, this permits a creative tension between students and tutor in planning and providing the curriculum; a process often described as ‘curriculum negotiation’.

In practice the term curriculum negotiation may mean many things. It’s common, for example, for an adult tutor to start a course by setting out her or his planned learning outcomes and asking for any additions or amendments which can be incorporated. Here though I want to outline two particular approaches: ‘workplace reports’ or discovery learning in trade union education and student projects in second chance type courses. Educators in other curriculum settings will recognise the general approaches. The interest is that both provide a structured framework within which negotiation takes place.

Workplace reports

The TUC transformed its approach to shop steward education in the 1970s by moving to centrally produced course materials, a single course tutor (rather than a number of different specialist lecturers) and ‘student centred’ learning methods. The course work was based on problems and issues (workplace reports) brought by students into the class room rather than contrived cases studies and role plays designed by the tutor.

For example prior to a session on involving members in the union, students would be asked to conduct a survey of their members identifying concerns and interests. The class session would discuss the points raised by members and consider the best ways to involve them in tackling them. Following the session students could practise planned strategies (such as members’ meetings) in the workplace, applying skills developed on the course. Similarly with collective bargaining issues; the workplace was brought into the classroom via students’ reports; strategies were debated and then tried out in the workplace.

Collectively this had a significant impact on the curriculum enabling it to focus on emerging and changing workplace issues of relevance to the students. Trade union tutors who also worked as Industrial Relations researchers often commented that stewards’ reports cast a revealing and novel light on the subject. Stewards said they gained greatly by learning from each other, hearing a diverse range of experiences and issues, and gaining a much broader outlook in the process.

Assessment focused on getting stewards to tackle problems systematically, defining the problem fully and looking at different sources of information, and in a rounded way, taking into account equality issues and other wider concerns. From their perspective, stewards, and their union convenors, judged the effectiveness of their learning primarily by their impact in the workplace.

Student research projects

A frequently used method in Second Chance type courses is to ask students to plan, undertake and report upon a small-scale research project based on interviewing a key informant or conducting a survey. This gives an opportunity to investigate a matter of their choice, often of personal or local concern within the broad subject area. For instance on Second Chance courses students would often follow-up issues relating to their children’s education or health, local facilities or planning decisions, or changes in the work place or to local services. This enabled them to explore the connections between the immediate and wider social policy and structure. By starting from research questions identified by them they had a much greater ownership of the curriculum.

Teaching and assessment need a strong focus on developing study skills and critical thinking. A small-scale research project helps develop a wide range of writing and research skills. A key point in assessment is critical thinking; this can be demonstrated by contrasting findings with initial hypothesis (what did you expect? What did you find out?) and awareness of wider context (e.g. how does this contrast with current government policy of this subject? ) WEA tutors have shown, for example, how significant connections can be made in this way, for example between sugar craft and fair trade and globalisation.  From a social purpose perspective, these projects provide the link to social action such as joining a charity or pressure group, or contacting an MP or councillor.

A research project is a big step educationally and can put off some students, and indeed tutors. I believe though they can be of huge benefit to students but support is needed in identifying a manageable research question and making the necessary contacts e.g. for an interview. Guidelines about conducting research, set out step by step, are essential.


This shift in Teaching, Learning and Assessment methods challenged the role of the tutor and her or his relationship with students. I think though that the notion of ‘facilitator’ greatly understated the skills involved in working with students in these ways. Curriculum negotiation removes a lot of predictability and requires a flexibility and capacity to introduce concepts and skills in unexpected settings as well as encouraging students to learn in more challenging and adventurous ways. It can form the basis of the more democratic and reciprocal relationship between students and tutors to which many of us aspire.

As ever comments welcome from different perspectives and experiences.

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